Taiwan’s major shipbuilder has broken ground on a factory aimed at producing submarines to blunt threats from China while easing dependence on politically sensitive arms sales from the West.
Shipbuilder CSBC Corp. Taiwan will work with the Taiwanese navy to initially develop a $3.3-billion submarine at the factory in the southern port city Kaohsiung, scheduled to be completed next year after last week’s groundbreaking. A prototype of the diesel-electric submarine, a first for Taiwan, is due as early as 2024.
Taiwan’s aging fleet of four submarines, two from the United States and two from the Netherlands, cannot keep up with the military modernization of China, only 100 miles away across a narrow strait.
Although China’s armed forces are ranked third-strongest in the world after the United States and Russia by the military tracking website GlobalFirepower.com, analysts say Taiwan could fend off some attacks through asymmetric warfare. The term normally refers to the use of unconventional strategies or arms against an enemy with more overall firepower. The website ranks Taiwan’s armed forces at No. 22, and its submarines are 30 to 70 years old.
Taiwan and China have been separately ruled since civil war in the 1940s, when the losing Nationalists fled the mainland for the island. China has continued to claim sovereignty over Taiwan and has threatened to use force if needed to reach its goal of unification. More than 80% of Taiwanese citizens oppose unifying with China, the government said in January.
“The submarines will not only enhance the navy’s asymmetric fighting ability, but to deploy them in waters to our island’s southwest and northeast can make us more effective in deterring enemy ships from surrounding Taiwan,” President Tsai Ing-wen said Thursday at the groundbreaking ceremony.
“To produce our own is the only route to take,” she said.
Taiwan needs new diesel-electric submarines “in the event of a sea blockade — to break through the blockade,” said David An, senior research fellow with the policy incubator Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C.
The submarine may take more than a decade to develop and cost $10 billion for up to 10 vessels, An said.
The United States, Taiwan’s chief arms supplier with three deals approved under President Trump, no longer makes diesel-electric subs. The Netherlands won’t sell more because of pressure from China, Tsai said in her speech.
“The U.S. only produces nuclear-powered subs, so the United States will not be able to sell submarines to Taiwan and no other country will be willing to sell a submarine, so we have to do it ourselves,” said Alex Chiang, an international relations professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
Arms sales to Taiwan are touchy because they displease China. Past U.S. presidents — attempting to get along with Beijing — approved sales less often than Trump.
Taiwan has permits, however, to import technologies for its own subs, Tsai said. Last year, the U.S. government agreed to give American defense contractors marketing licenses to initiate sharing the submarine technology sought by Taiwan’s Defense Ministry.
Long dependent on heavy industry, Taiwan has developed its own military hardware since the 1980s and Tsai has made such work a higher priority since taking office in 2016. Taiwan has also come up with aircraft, as well as antiship, surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles in the past. And a domestic defense contractor is scheduled to release an air force trainer jet prototype later this year.
Jennings is a special correspondent.