By Namrata Hasija
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen launched the island's first ever homegrown submarine project on March 21, 2017. On the same day, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND) signed an agreement with the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST) and naval shipbuilder CSBC Corporation, Taiwan, for the design and construction of an indigenous submarine fleet.
The ROC Navy currently possesses four submarines, Hai Lung ("Sea Dragon") and Hai Hu ("Sea Tiger") ordered from the Netherlands in 1980 and delivered by 1988 and Hai Shih (ex-USS Cutlass) and Hai Pao (ex-USS Tusk), which were built for the US Navy during World War II. However the ones supplied by the US are outdated and cannot meet the requirements of modern warfare.
Taiwan has wanted to build its own submarine fleet for almost six decades, with enthusiasm especially evident during the era of President Chiang Ching-kuo (1978-1988). However, it was able to purchase only two from the Netherlands other than the two US submarines acquired in the post-war era.
Another opportunity for Taiwan to acquire new submarines emerged when US President George W. Bush gave the go-ahead in 2001 for the sale of eight diesel-electric submarines. The deal was, however, called off due to reasons undisclosed though speculations have been made in this regard. Due to the acquisition of submarines from abroad and dependence on the US, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and the Navy (ROCN) did not get involved in an indigenous submarine programme.
However, the catalyst for the launch of the indigenous submarine programme now has been PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) aggressive postures after the election of a pro-independence President in Taiwan and US President Donald Trump’s statement on reconsidering ‘One China policy’.
PRC has been trying to put pressure on the Tsai government by targeting its allies. In December 2016, São Tomé and Príncipe switched their diplomatic allegiance to Beijing. South Africa, Nigeria and Cambodia have also been pressurized by PRC recently against any official or non-official exchanges with Taiwan.
The Chinese media criticised the visit of a three-member Taiwanese parliamentary delegation that visited India and accused India of playing the ‘Taiwan card’. Taiwan felt the real heat when a group of Chinese warships, led by the country's sole aircraft carrier, passed south of Taiwan and entered the top half of South China Sea in what China termed ‘a routine exercise’ in December, 2016.
Taiwan's new programme of building indigenous submarines came after it was unable to procure any submarines from the US and Europe. However, even this programme would largely depend on outside help which Taiwan is expecting from the US. Many European companies have also shown interest in helping Taiwan build its own submarines.
The question that largely looms is that if this move is to counter growing threat from China and even if Taiwan is successful in building its own submarines, it would be some years from now and its naval power would still be minuscule in comparison to that of PRC.
(The author is Research Associate at South Asia Monitor and President, Taiwan Alumni Association in India. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org)