TAIPEI - Taiwan expects a slow absorption of U.S. military submarine technology due to technical barriers and opposition from its chief rival China, despite Washington’s agreement this month to let American contractors pass on the sensitive information.
In early April, the U.S. Department of State agreed to grant marketing licenses to American defense contractors that offer Taiwan the technology, military officials in Taipei say. Taiwan plans to develop its own conventional submarine.
Washington had prohibited those transfers before because of the information’s sensitivity, military scholars in Taiwan say.
“This is the very first step. Contractors can openly discuss these issues with their contractors in Taiwan,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taiwan. “However, we still don't know how much can be approached.”
Obstacles in China
China protested to the United States April 11 over its agreeing to licensing of submarine technology, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying any U.S. effort to “play the Taiwan card” would fail.
American contractors keen to sell technology to Taiwan would risk getting cut off by China if they do business there, too, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
“There is a long way to go before that any shape of submarine can be contemplated,” Huang said.
Taiwan and China have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when the Nationalists lost and fled to the island. Beijing insists that the two eventually unify, though opinion polls in Taiwan indicate most Taiwanese oppose unification.
China has a more powerful military than Taiwan's and has not renounced threats to use force if Taiwan declares formal independence. Beijing resents the United States, which has the world’s most powerful armed forces, for helping in Taiwan’s defense.
Last week’s announcement in Beijing of live-fire naval drills in the strait west of Taiwan on April 18 was meant to warn Washington and Taipei, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in the United States.
China would particularly oppose a senior official’s visit to the island under the Taiwan Travel Act approved in March, Sun said.
U.S. officials could tone down their support for Taiwan’s submarines or ramp it up after those drills, said Huang Kwei-bo, international affairs college vice dean at National Chengchi University in Taipei. Washington values its economic ties with China but backs Taipei as part of a loose alliance of Asian Pacific democracies.
“The drills in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, what’s the impact?” the vice dean asked. “Whether it will make the U.S. think twice or accelerate its help for Taiwan, I don't know, but it will definitely have an impact, whether positive or negative.”
If anyone involved in the submarine technology copies it to China as a spy, he added, Washington might reconsider its level of military aid to Taiwan.
Legal and technical barriers
In early 2016, the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense found local manufacturers to develop a $3.3 billion submarine within eight years. That hardware would join Taiwan’s slow-growing effort to build its own military technology rather than relying on sales from abroad. Today the military operates two aging submarines bought from the Netherlands in the 1980s.
Taiwan is starting from scratch to build its submarine, pointing to a long discussion process with any willing American contractors, Yang said. To get a deal from an American contractor may take more U.S. government support, he said.
The U.S. government periodically sells Taiwan billion-dollar-plus arms packages that include military expertise. It never before included anything as far-reaching or sensitive as submarine technology, they say.
The defense ministry must develop a budget for any technology if negotiations reach that point, ministry spokesman Chen Chung-chi said. He said it had set no timeline for getting the U.S. submarine technology.
It would take time to negotiate with contractors, arrange a budget and wait for possible legislative discussions, he said.
Because the U.S. navy no longer uses the type of diesel-electric submarines that Taiwan hopes to build, a willing American contractor may also need to “find spare parts” for Taiwan, Alexander Huang said. “We still are in the beginning of it, at square one,” he said.
But the ministry spokesman called the U.S. nod to submarine licenses a “breakthrough” with “major significance” that he hopes will inspire more military technology transfers.