Monday, January 28, 2013
Part II: Can Taiwan Finally Modernize its Submarine Fleet?
While Part I of the Taiwanese submarine program focused on the recent history of the attempted acquisition of modern submarines by the Taiwanese government, Part II will attempt to look into Sunday's Congressional delegation visit to Kaohsuing, and what it could signify for the prospects of such a sale finally taking place, in one form or another.
Last Summer at the Heritage Foundation, a research fellow told me that he told recent delegations from Taiwan's government to "stop wasting political capital on asking the United States for submarines", for the simple reason that it was simply not going to happen. Surely on the surface of the issue there is reason for this line of thinking. First, as previously stated, the United States Navy has a submarine fleet that is exclusively nuclear-powered, and does not have an existing manufacturing platform in use that makes diesel-class submarines.
Secondly, the fear remains with many within the American military and intelligence community that intelligence leaks from any diesel-class submarine design could also potentially expose American nuclear-class submarine technology, and it is not a secret that the primary suspect behind such intelligence gathering would be from Beijing, a country that has prior success in obtaining military secrets from not only Taiwan, but from the United States as well.
Finally, there is the question of the level of monetary commitment that Taipei is willing to place in such a project. A former (and possibly soon to be again) high level State Department official stated to me his skepticism about Taiwan's long term commitment to funding such an expensive project, and he is not alone. Many members of Congress who have been supportive of Taiwan related legislation in the past have questioned the recent defense budgets of Taiwan under President Ma, which only reached the promised levels of 3.0% GDP once (during Taiwan's last Presidential cycle in which Ma was running for re-election).
Yet there is room for optimism for those in Taiwan (and in Washington) who wish to see this transaction finally take place.
Unlike the other major weapons platform purchase attempt by Taipei, the F-16 C/D block sale, the Ma Administration and many members of his Kuomintang party have been unified in their support for such a purchase. According to the 2012 CRS report, President Ma restated Taiwan's need to buy subs to AIT Chairman Ray Burghardt. Additionally, Shuai Hua-ming, a key legislator in the Legislative Yuan's Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, spoke in Washington in 2011 and restated Taiwan's needs to procure a new submarine fleet. President Ma again on Sunday stated that, "...how badly we need to renew our submarine fleet." This public stance runs counter to the tactic that the administration has dealt with the
F-16 C/D fighter issue, where it appears that it does not want to run the risk of being humiliated again by submitting an official letter of request (LOR) for the F-16 purchase, and to have Washington either refuse to accept the request, or to eventually have the request denied by President Obama. President Ma appears to be waiting for signals from Washington that there is a significant likelihood such a request would be approved. In the case of the submarine request, there appears that something is happening behind the scenes for President Ma to have made such a public request for a platform that was considered dead and buried for years only weeks ago.
One can also read the political tea leaves and attempt to decipher who was on this Congressional visit to Taiwan, and why they visited the Naval harbor in Kaohsuing. The head of the delegation,and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Ed Royce, has long been a staunch supporter of Taiwan by supporting a number of bills in Congress related to Taiwan, as well as co-writing a bipartisan letter with Congressman Gerry Connolly last year to President Obama, asking that framework talks resume between the United States and Taiwan on a framework economic agreement between the two countries. Congressman Royce has also been supportive of bolstering the military capabilities of American allies in the East Asian region. Last year, Rep. Royce was vocal in his support of sending decommissioned naval vessels to the Philippines, stating on his blog that "...with China pushing limits in Southeast Asia, countries in the region are begging for the U.S. to be more present in their neighborhood." Secondly, it can be assumed that a short visit by a Congressional delegation to an ally would have some form of symbolism in both the statements that would be released, as well as the locations chosen for such a visit. While this author does not have information as to which side requested the Kaohsuing itinerary, it is highly unlikely that the location was not picked without some symbolic significance. It can therefore be surmised that the Kaohsuing stop was chosen with something other than random chance.
In conclusion, the idea that Taiwan would have a realistic opportunity at acquiring modern submarines in the near future was something that most observers of the region would have likely scoffed at merely a week ago. Yet perhaps the stars are aligning for Taiwan to take advantage of a perfect scenario in which this could in fact become a reality. From the American side, there is a newly inaugurated 2nd term President that can become bolder in his foreign policy decision making without fear of another election cycle, as well as cementing his "Asian Pivot" policy by bolstering the military defensive capabilities of a long time regional ally. The President could also have came to the conclusion that refusing high grade defensive weapons to Taiwan in the hopes of currying favor with Beijing does not reap the rewards that are promised. China offers little support in supporting stronger sanctions against Iranian nuclear development, has only offered words towards North Korea in opposition to their nuclear and missile development, and has become increasingly bellicose in their behavior in the South China Sea territorial disputes with their neighbors, jeopardizing regional stability that American policy has worked so hard to foster and grow with other regional actors. The Taiwan relationship with the United States has been unique in that it has traditionally been an issue that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress can find a common ground in which they can work together and support.
As for Taiwan, a President that has increasingly been viewed with suspicion among many Taiwanese as moving "too close too fast" with China could increase his standing with some of these citizens of Taiwan by pulling off a major military platform purchase, showing that he still has Taiwan's security interests in mind. There is no question that from a security standpoint, Taiwan desperately needs to upgrade its submarine capabilities, as anti-submarine warfare has long been viewed as a chink in the People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN) armor. Either by 3rd party sale, technology transfer/aiding and development, or actual production, the Obama Administration and Congress can make this a reality. If Beijing elects to react by deeming such a transaction "provocative" and "crossing a red line", so be it, and in the interests of the United States, Taiwan, and east Asian stability, have both countries cross that line together, and let the chips in this grand game of diplomacy fall where they may.