Taiwan Launches Homegrown Submarine Program to Counter China

  • CSBC Corp. expects to deliver fully equipped vessel by 2024
  • ‘You need to help yourself before getting help,’ Tsai says

President Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan had no choice but to build its own submarine fleet as she promoted a deal to deploy the first vessel in less than a decade.

Tsai touted the contract with CSBC Corp., Taiwan, on Tuesday during a visit to a naval base in the southern city of Kaohsiung as a necessary step to improve the island’s defenses. The company plans to deliver the first diesel-electric model in 2024, with deployment expected a year or two later.

Tsai Ing-wen waves from a submarine in Kaohsiung, March 21.

Photographer: Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

“Underwater combat readiness is the part of Taiwan’s defense that needs the most support,” Tsai said. “I understand it is challenging to build submarines locally. The rule in the international political reality is that you need to help yourself before getting help from others.”

Taiwan decided to go the indigenous route after more than a decade of talks to buy eight U.S. submarines proved fruitless, and European suppliers steered clear any deal that could anger China. Tensions between Beijing and Taipei have been simmering since voters swept Tsai’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party into power last year, raising local concerns about China’s military-modernization drive.

The Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense last week cited China’s capacity to blockade or invade its outer islands to justify plans to boost military spending by half to 3 percent of gross domestic product. Taiwan expects to spend NT$356 billion on defense this year -- a tiny fraction compared with China, which views the island as a province to be retaken by force if necessary.

China has at least 53 diesel-powered attack submarines, many based at Hainan Island, southwest of Taiwan. That force would likely grow to between 69 and 78 boats by 2020, according to the Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military.

Taiwan needs more advanced submarines to improve its ability to keep attacking Chinese forces at bay long enough for the U.S. to intervene, Dean Cheng, of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, wrote in 2015. The island now has four submarines: two surplus Dutch boats built in the 1980s and two U.S. vessels built during World War II.

Cheng said building submarines posed a major challenge for Taiwanese shipbuilders, who have no experience with such vessels. The work entails specialized steel and integrating a variety of sensors and weapons in ways different from surface combatants, he said.

While the total deal size hasn’t yet been determined, initial design charges were estimated at NT$2.59 billion ($85 million).

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