The Buzz

The Master Plan to Upgrade Taiwan's Military: New Submarines

The South China Sea remains the most contested region in the world. If recent signals from the Obama administration are credible, it’s about to become more contested as the U.S. challenges China’s island-building campaign in the international waters of the South China Sea. 

Many nations dispute claims over groups of islands, reefs, atolls, seabed mineral rights, and large swaths of the South China Sea that are important for economic, navigational, and security reasons. The disputes continue to increase tension in the region. Vietnam has purchased Kilo submarines; Malaysia is upgrading its coastal navy; the Philippines are weaponizing their AW109helicopters; and Japan continues its naval buildup. 

In the meantime, China continues to grow its stockpile of missiles across the Taiwan Strait and refuses to disavow force as a means of settling its dispute with Taiwan. Faced with the possibility of a future blockade or amphibious attack, and unaided by its friends in a decades-long effort to build a defensive submarine force Taiwan has chosen to upgrade its naval capabilities by building its own submarines. 

Despite the shadowy security environment where U.S. support for Taiwan flickers according to American administrations’ judgment of the PRC, a robust Taiwanese defense is a strong interest of the U.S.  Taiwan is located at the center of the first island chain that brackets the Asian mainland. Its population is almost entirely dependent on imported food and energy. A recent Taiwanese Ministry of Defense (MND) Report states the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will exploit this vulnerability in a conflict, likely using a combination of blockades and threats against supporting nations to choke Taiwan’s economy before launching an attack against military and political centers. 

According to the Pentagon’s 2014 report on China, if war were to break out Taiwan would face upwards of 34 Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarines. A dozen subs connected with advanced sensors and weapons could contest the PLA for control of the waters surrounding Taiwan. No other Taiwan platform could oppose a maritime blockade as effectively. The ability of submarines to act autonomously and stealthily would give Taiwan an effective defense against a real threat. The inability of hostile forces to detect submarines also helps assure the uninterrupted flow of sea-borne commerce.  Taiwan is the U.S.’s 10th largest trading partner.  A modern, deployable fleet of submarines is critical to the sustained defense of Taiwan. 

International pressure has limited Taiwan to two WWII-era Guppy submarines received in 1972 from the United States and two new Zwaardvis-class submarines from Holland.  These fall far short of Taiwan’s 12 boat minimum requirement. Most submarine-producing countries have continued to operate within the constraints of the Shanghai Communique of 1972 in which the U.S. acknowledged the “One-China” policy. This means that they will not assist Taiwan by selling boats, designs, or equipment needed to build subs.   

The United States has historically been the source of many of Taiwan’s self-defensive capabilities. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 considers any non-peaceful means to influence Taiwan a threat to the security of the Western Pacific and a U.S. concern.  Section 3(a) of the Act states that the U.S. will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and services necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability at the president and Congress’s discretion. 

This de facto policy has remained in practice with significant U.S. arms deals to Taiwan despite a lack of official diplomatic relations. However the U.S. has hedged on the sale of submarines as an arguably offensive weapon, barred within the restrictions of the Taiwan Relations Act.  The U.S. Navy’s submariners are famously skeptical about designing, building, or operating non-nuclear-powered subs. Assisting Taiwan with its effort to build conventional-powered subs would cross this line. The closest Taiwan has come to success thus far was during the presidency of George W. Bush who initially agreed, but then backed away from an arms deal that included eight diesel submarines. 

Submarines have become the weak spot of the robust and very capable Taiwan navy. In the face of a long-standing inability to meet a critical need, Taiwan announced a plan to develop its own submarines. ROCN chief Admiral Chen Yeong-kang released the indigenous plan Forces Structure and Planning Concepts for the Future ROCN in January of 2014.  The plan called for refurbishing the obsolete Guppy-class submarine with new steel plates and pressure hulls and extending their life as training vessels.  The ROCN would invest $450 million dollars in the China Shipbuilding Corp (CSBC) and the Ship and Ocean Industry R&D Center (SOIC). In August this year the Ministry then submitted an $89 million proposal for an indigenous submarine design. The program includes a separate plan to extend the life of the two Zwaardvis-class submarines with estimated budget of $90 million.​