It has been more than a decade since U.S. President George W. Bush announced that Washington was willing to help Taiwan acquire eight diesel-electric submarines at a cost of about US$12 billion. As the U.S. stopped making submarines of that type a many years ago, the program has stalled; igniting speculation that Taiwan could instead attempt to build them on its own. And if recent reports are true, there could be a role for Japan.
The official position of the island’s Ministry of National Defense is that it remains committed to procuring submarines from the U.S. However, it is now almost certain that if Taiwan is ever to succeed in modernizing its submarine fleet — which at present consists of two World War II-era Guppy-class boats used for training and two combat-capable Hai Lung-class boats obtained from the Netherlands in the 1980s — it will have to find alternatives to a direct sale from the U.S.
Despite the contradiction with the official line, Taiwanese navy officials have privately told this writer more than once that teams from the defense ministry have visited European countries to evaluate the possibility of foreign acquisitions or cooperation on a domestic program. In late 2011, a U.S. defense expert with a long history of involvement with the submarine program said that Taiwan had “given up” on obtaining U.S. submarines and was now committed to a domestic program.
Sources within the military said at the time that the plan was to develop submarines “in the hundreds” of deadweight tonnage.
Little has happened since, despite repeated (and often half-hearted) calls by Taipei for the U.S. to move on the submarines, leading some to conclude that new submarines will never materialize. However, a report in the United Evening News on April 14 alleges that Taiwanese officials have discussed the possibility of a technological transfer from Japan during recent “private meetings.”
Although the defense ministry immediately denied that Taiwan had explored the possibility of acquiring submarine technology from Japan, the claims were confirmed by a Japanese defense official who spoke to The Diplomat on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the exchanges. Such talks, unofficial in nature, have indeed taken place, though the Taiwanese officials involved were well aware of the little likelihood that such exchanges could occur under the current circumstances.
According to the source, with the possible exception of Germany, Japan has the world’s most advanced diesel submarine building capability, with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Kawasaki Shipbuilding Corp as the prime contractors (Japan doesn’t build nuclear submarines).
Given fears of Beijing’s reactions, a technology swap with Taiwan could be problematic. That is also one of the principal reasons why Taipei has not sought to procure old Japanese submarines, which are normally decommissioned after 16 years of service. Japanese assistance in a domestic program — principally with pressure-resistant hulls, propulsion, and sonar systems — would presumably be less controversial, but would nevertheless risk complicating an already tense relationship between Tokyo and Beijing.
As such, a better option, the source said, would be for Tokyo to “share” its know-how with the U.S., which in turn could make that information available to Taiwan’s Naval Shipbuilding Development Center.
Whether any progress can be made on this front is replete with uncertainties and is contingent on a number of factors, not the least of which is the commitment of the Taiwanese military to build submarines and Taipei’s willingness to finance what would amount to a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar program. It would also necessitate U.S. willingness to green light such a program and to allow its defense contractors to assist Taiwan with the development of radar and weapons systems. And proponents of such a program in the U.S. would have to counter opposition in Washington to any program that results in additional submarines in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific region.
Moreover, any Japanese involvement in such a program would be predicated on Tokyo’s willingness to risk damaging its relations with Beijing. Such a scenario would not be unimaginable if tensions between the two Asian giants continue to mount over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. Already, with the signing of a fisheries agreement with Taipei last week, Tokyo has demonstrated its willingness to increase cooperation with Taiwan and to sign deals that underscore the island’s sovereign status, even when doing so risks alienating Beijing. In the context of heightened Sino-Japanese tensions, Tokyo could certainly be tempted to engage in policies that further widen the rift between Taipei and Beijing. Helping Taiwanese build submarines would certainly fall in that category.