Missing the Point on Taiwan's Pursuit of Submarines

Yesterday Lauren Dickey of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote a piece that advocated against Taiwan acquiring submarines, as well as the United States assisting in supplying them. While Dickey touches on a number of interesting aspects involving the longstanding-saga behind Taiwan's quest to obtain a modern sub fleet, there were a number of widely accepted notions that have often been passed along as facts regarding this issue.

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Dickey says that "the interest of the Ma Ying-jeou government in developing indigenous submarine capabilities has resurfaced", when in fact Taiwan's interest has remained constant for decades. A number of House and Senate staff members have told this author that officials from Taiwan have consistently approached them (albeit discreetly) with various proposals outlining scenarios in which the United States could assist Taiwan in its quest to acquire modern submarines--either with American industrial/logistical support or through America's diplomatic maneuvering with a third country that would be willing to partake in such an endeavor. These meetings between Taiwanese officials and Congressional Members and their staff are not a new development. While Dickey does correctly state that the Bush Administration's Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program was evaluated to have a high cost (over ten billion) leading to political posturing between then President Chen's Administration and the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), it doesn't necessarily mean that Taiwan's government could not compromise in reaching adequate funding for such a program. In fact, submarine acquisition is one of the few national security areas that both sides of the political spectrum in Taiwan agree is a necessity.

Dickey goes on to state "...one can only begin to wonder why the Taiwanese defense establishment isn't looking elsewhere to fulfill its wish list."--Only to answer her own question in the following paragraph, stating that the only option for Taiwan in recent years has been to acquire weapons from the only country that is willing to disregard China's threats (up to a certain point) which has been the United States.

As I stated earlier, Taiwan is actively looking for a third country to assist in the providing either plans for a submarine design or, less likely, the actual sale of subs to Taiwan directly. Due to constant Chinese pressure, Taiwan realizes that it cannot simply send a delegation to Germany, Sweden, or Japan requesting a bilateral sale of modern submarines, or it would have undoubtedly done so years ago.

It is seeking to keep its options open, requiring innovative thinking, and is not a recent "ask" by the Taiwanese government. Due to the fact that the U.S. has not produced diesel submarines in well over a half century means that a 3rd country will have to be involved if any deal is reached. It has been a long-standing request approved by the Bush administration over 10 years ago. Yet with so many instances involving U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the submarine question is one remaining in limbo.

Taiwan SubsFrom a strategic standpoint, Dickey argues that "any submarines acquired by Taiwan may actually do more harm than good, due to their vulnerabilities to existing Chinese weapons.", citing Professor William Murray's well circulated "Porcupine Theory" in which he states Taiwan would be best served in developing its defense capabilities at the expense of maintaining high ticket items, such as fighter jets and submarines.

While I believe that many of Murray's ideas that Dickey advocates make a great deal of sense strategically for Taiwan from a defensive point of view, the notion that Taiwan should abandon a lethal asymmetrical platform like modern submarines--a platform that is widely believed to be an PLAN Achilles Heel when it comes countering such platforms---and instead investing the overwhelming bulk of its military assets in preparation for being perpetually pummeled by a Chinese military that would have a seemingly infinite supply of offensive weapons at its disposal--sounds more akin to an Alamo strategy rather than a sound defensive strategy.

I do however, agree with Dickey in that Taiwan should continue to invest in its ASW capabilities in order to monitor PLAN submarine activity. Yet there is a dilemma if Taiwan were to follow Dickey's (and by extension Murray's) ideas at face value: If Murray is in fact correct in his belief that the majority of Taiwan naval surface fleet would be destroyed at the outset of a China-Taiwan conflict, and that Taiwan's air force would be rendered impotent due to the PLA 2nd Artillery Corps missile salvos that would destroy most, if not all of Taiwan's air strips, there are two questions that need to be answered. First, how would Taiwan utilize their newly acquired antisubmarine aircraft, and second, even if said aircraft were able to be deployed under combat conditions, of what use would this data be if Taiwan has no platforms in which to counter the Chinese underwater threat? Surveillance cameras would not hold much value in the deterring potential criminals if they knew that a society had no means of force to counter such actions.

Finally, for Dickey to state that Washington doesn't have the "time nor money" requisite to help Taiwan develop its submarine program, while it has ample time and resources to strengthen relationships with other long-standing allies (Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines), and cultivating new ones (Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia) is a massive oversimplification of the current situation regarding Taiwan's long standing request of a modern submarine fleet, and the topic deserves a much deeper examination than given by Dickey.

Brian Benedictus is an East Asian Desk Research Analyst for Wikistrat. He has been published in The Diplomat,The University of Nottingham’s China Policy InstituteThe Taipei Times, and Ketagalan Media. He has a MA in Diplomacy-International Conflict Management from Norwich University, with an area of concentration on East Asian political analysis. He also holds a BA in Political Science from Ohio State University, where he focused on East Asian Studies. Mr. Benedictus lived and studied in Taiwan for three years, and has conducted research in Japan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, and Cuba. Previously he was a Research Fellow with the Formosa Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates the strengthening of ties between the United States and Taiwan.

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