It’s unlikely that China will use its powerful armed forces to attack Taiwan anytime soon but safer not even to guess the odds. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan. It has never dropped the threat of force against the island 160 km (99 miles) away if it moves toward legalizing de facto self-rule of 70 years. Taiwan also needs a defense that’s strong enough to be taken seriously by China at any talks.
Since few countries will sell Taiwan weaponry at the risk of offending China, also an economic superpower, the government in Taipei is extending its ever-strong domestic tech industry to design some of its own hardware. That campaign that went public at a show in Taipei six years ago just took a smart new stride. On March 21, the navy signed a memorandum of understanding with two Taiwanese companies, in shipbuilding and ship design, to develop the island’s own submarines over the next four years, Taiwan’s defense ministry spokesman Chen Chung-chi said. As if to prepare, Taiwan’s premier shipbuilding firm CSBC Corp. had already set up a submarine development center in the southern city Kaohsiung in 2014.
The project that could cost up to $86 million would augment Taiwan’s four aging subs in use now, including two that date back to the 1940s. This angle on indigenous defense makes particular sense because submarines can be used in asymmetric warfare, meaning a smaller force uses intel, position or some other advantage to resist a larger one. China’s coastline defenses are bigger than Taiwan’s. They’re also improving along with its deep sea capabilities.
The Taiwanese military overall ranks world No. 19 on the GlobalFirePower.com database, well under China at No. 3. China passed its sole aircraft carrier around the island in December and January to flex muscle and it’s building another, setting off alarm among some Taiwanese.
Submarines can carry ballistic missiles and surprise larger naval networks with torpedo attacks, according to this analysis of North Korea’s possible use of subs for asymmetric warfare against the stronger forces of South Korea and its U.S.-backed allies. Sometimes they’re just plain invisible until a surface ship gets hit by one.
Taiwan’s defense ministry won’t say how many subs it plans to make or where they would be deployed. They could ward off China’s subs and surface fleet, Chen said. But, he added, “we don’t rule out any kind of possibility.”
The two governments aren’t talking now because they disagree on how Taiwan should be recognized in any dialogue – as part of China per Beijing’s wishes or something more autonomous. When their leaders agreed to drop political differences from 2008 to 2016 negotiations grew increasingly frequent.
Taiwan must use asymmetric warfare to hold off China, panelists organized by the Washington-based Hudson Institute agreed in October. The People’s Liberation Army dominates the ocean strait between them with anti-ship missiles, fast attack craft, attack submarines and surface-to-air missile systems, one panelist said. China has 68 submarines, the database GlobalFirePower.com says.
“In general, I think (asymmetric warfare) just means that they have no intention of competing head-to-head with the Chinese surface fleet; they just want a counter to it if needed,” said Johsua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review in Washington.
And even if they never fight, Taiwan’s economy gets a lift. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has pledged to make the local defense industry a pillar for elevating the $519 billion economy. The government could ultimately spend $53 million to promote its indigenous defense sector, including subs as well as aircraft and information security systems, the American Chamber of Commerce magazine in Taipei says.