The Buzz

China's Worst Fear: Can America Turn Taiwan into a Submarine Power?

Even as they tussle over trade, China and the United States are entering into a more under-the-radar dispute over Taiwan.

Last week, the State Department approved a marketing license that allows U.S. defense companies to explore selling Taiwan technology it needs to build submarines. The approval was reported by Taiwanese media outlets who cited Maj. Gen. Chen Chung-chi, a Ministry of National Defense spokesman. Sidney Lin, a spokesperson for Taiwan’s president, also confirmed the news. The United States itself refused to confirm the reports, according to Reuters. Even if the United States took this step—which seems extremely likely—it is merely a first step in a long process. To actually transfer technology to Taiwan, each U.S. defense firm would still need to obtain export permits.

Beijing’s condemnation was swift, with a Chinese National Defense Ministry spokesperson calling for a “halt [to] all forms of military links between the United States and Taiwan, as well as all forms of weapon sales to Taiwan.” The spokesperson, Wu Qian, added: “China’s military has the ability and determination to defeat all attempts to separate our country, and it will adopt all necessary measures to resolutely defend national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.”

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Taiwan desperately needs more advanced submarines to protect itself from an growing pressure campaign from Beijing. Last year, President Tsai Ing-wen declared, “Strengthening underwater combat capabilities is most needed in Taiwan’s defense. . . . This is a problem everyone recognizes. We have been unable to solve this in the past. As commander of the armed forces, I am determined to solve this problem.”

Currently Taiwan’s underwater fleet consists of a measly four dated subs. Its newest vessels are two Dutch-built 2,600-ton Hai-lang–class diesel-electric submarines that were purchased and delivered in the 1980s. The other two are the Hai Shih and Hai Pao, which were built for the U.S. Navy in World War II and given to Taiwan in the 1970s. Suffice to say, these latter two are the oldest submarines in service anywhere in the world.

As President Tsai alluded to, Taiwan has long been hunting for newer submarines. Shortly after taking office in 2001, U.S. president George W. Bush approved a plan to help Taiwan acquire eight diesel-powered submarines. Immediately, however, questions began swirling over how the United States planned on fulfilling this pledge. After all, the United States stopped building conventionally powered submarines in the 1950s.

The two main producers of those types of submarines at the time were Germany and the Netherlands. These countries did not want to sell submarines to Taiwan, out of fear of offending China. Furthermore, according to contemporary news accounts, the Bush administration had failed to consult with either country before approving the sale. “We read about it in the newspapers,” Henrik Schuwer, the deputy chief of mission at the Dutch embassy in Washington, told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. A German embassy spokesman also confirmed to the LA Times that “there were no talks whatsoever.” Although the United States is believed to have pressured both countries to agree to export submarines to Taiwan, neither one relented. Some outside observers have suggested that Japan could be a candidate to sell Taiwan diesel-electric submarines, since Tokyo is a pioneer in the field and and has a strong interest in Taiwan’s independence. So far, this has not occured.