Sat, Sep 10, 2016 - Page 8 News List

US vote offers Taiwan new chance

By Parris Chang 張旭成

According to the latest information from Washington, the administration of US President Barack Obama has rejected Taiwan’s long-standing request to purchase submarines from the US.

In April 2001, then-US president George W. Bush’s administration promised to assist Taiwan in obtaining eight advanced diesel submarines. However, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and People First Party legislators repeatedly blocked the defense procurement budgets of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) government using their majority in the legislature. Furthermore, given that Taiwan-US relations were drifting apart at the time, the US decided to take no action.

Washington’s latest decision has dealt a heavy blow to the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) push to forge ahead with a domestic submarine program. The Obama administration has decided to go back on the promise made by the Bush administration by not only refusing to sell a platform to Taiwan, but also by declining to provide technical drawings or assistance. Instead, as a sop to pro-Taiwan members of the US Congress and the Tsai administration, Obama has promised to assist Taiwan in upgrading the weapons and sonar systems on two of its Chien Lung-class conventional diesel-powered submarines, purchased from the Netherlands in the 1980s.

Aside from the navy’s two Dutch-manufactured submarines — the SS-793 Sea Dragon and SS-794 Sea Tiger — Taiwan also possesses two additional submarines: US-made Guppy-class, World War II-era vessels — the SS-791 Sea Lion and SS-792 Sea Leopard. The Guppy-class submarines are only used as training platforms for officers and cannot be used in a military conflict.

Washington’s promise is unrealistic, since it would take three to four years to upgrade each of the Chien Lung-class submarines, during which time Taiwan’s submarine capability would be cut in half.

At the end of last year, defense specialists from Washington-based think tanks held a conference to discuss the merits of Taiwan pursuing a domestic submarine program. There was general approval of the government’s policy of building an autonomous defense capability, while two important questions were raised.

First, producing submarines independently will require a vast amount of resources which would place a squeeze on other defense programs, as well as on the economy and domestic spending.

Second, it would take at least 10 years to take the submarines from the design phase to production, testing and commissioning, before they are ready for military deployment. With China’s army threatening Taiwan with an attack, the government does not have the luxury of having time on its side.

Although Israel is in possession of advanced defense technology, it has given up on domestic production, instead preferring to purchase decommissioned submarines from abroad to upgrade and improve their capabilities. To conserve military expenditure and deploy new submarines in a timely manner, Taiwan could draw lessons from Israel’s experience and try to obtain decommissioned submarines from either Japan or Italy. Since Taiwan-Japan relations are on a high, the government should do everything in its power to seize this golden opportunity.

It is by no means certain that the incoming US president would continue with the Obama administration’s Taiwan policy. There will therefore be a window of opportunity for the Tsai administration and Taiwan’s civic groups to capitalize on this change of administration and request that the US reviews its Taiwan policy.

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