U.S. Pushes Ahead With Plans To Sell Subs To Taiwan

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The United States is pushing ahead with plans to sell Taiwan military submarines as promised earlier this year, after years of turning down such requests on the grounds that the hardware is considered offensive and would destabilize the region.

Seven American and other firms have submitted proposals to the Pentagon to manufacture eight diesel submarines for Taiwan, the U.S. Navy has confirmed.

Although the companies were not named, a Taiwanese paper reported this week that Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Dynamics Corp. were among those who have put forward proposals.

The report in the Taipei-based China Times drew an angry response from Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhang Qiyue who told a press conference that China was firmly opposed to U.S. weapon sales to Taiwan, especially submarine sales, and had held talks with Washington on the issue.

"We have urged the American side to recognize the serious consequences of selling arms to Taiwan," she added.

The Bush administration last April announced it would sell Taipei an arms package including eight diesel submarines. But U.S. shipbuilders only build nuclear submarines, having not made diesel-powered ones since the 1950s.

This prompted speculation that two European countries, which do make them, would be approached. Both Germany and the Netherlands made it clear, however, that they would not get involved, in line with European Union policy recognizing "one China" and export rules prohibiting arms sales to "zones of tension."

News that U.S. firms are among those in the bidding indicates they are prepared to revert to building diesel subs.

Northrop spokesman Randy Belote confirmed by phone Wednesday that the corporation has submitted a "concept definition paper" to the Pentagon, and had "both the capability and the capacity" to build the subs. He said he could not give further details.

Northrop last April acquired Litton Industries, whose Pascagoula, Mississippi-based shipbuilder, Ingalls, was the last producer of diesel electric submarines in the U.S., more than four decades ago.

Although there is no indication of a timeframe for supplying the vessels, Taiwanese lawmakers said last month delivery of the submarines would begin in 2010.

Communist China regards democratic Taiwan as a renegade province, and has threatened to use military force should the island resist reunification with the mainland.

Clinton administration turned down requests

A China expert noted Wednesday that Washington has long refused requests from Taiwan to supply submarines.

"Taiwan has been asking for submarines for many years," said Dr. Jian Yang of the political studies department of the University of Auckland. "The White House had consistently declined Taiwan's request as it considered submarines offensive weapons."

Yang noted that in 1994, Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asia in the Clinton administration, told U.S. senators \plain\f3\fs23 that providing Taiwan with submarines would add a new and destabilizing element in the Taiwan Strait.

"Lord said Washington would not sell and equip submarines for Taiwan because the administration viewed submarines as an inherently offensive weapon system," Yang recalled.

It was because submarines were considered offensive that Beijing was particularly unhappy about Taiwan getting them.

Taipei wants the submarines, Yang said, in case it has to fight a defensive war against the mainland.

Essential for this eventuality would be destroyers equipped with the Aegis battle management radar system, he added, "but Taiwan is unlikely to get them in the near future."

Taiwan, in fact, asked to buy four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with Aegis, but the U.S. left them out of the package offered last April.

The Aegis system is capable of tracking dozens of missiles simultaneously, according to experts, and could therefore be invaluable in the event of a Chinese missile strike against the island nation.

Yang said he did not expect the news about the submarine tenders to upset what appears to be an improving relationship between Washington and Beijing since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, as the proposed sale was announced some time back.

At the same time, the U.S. could not be seen to back out of its commitment, simply in order to keep the Chinese happy.

"To break the promise would be great for Beijing but the White House cannot afford it because Taiwan has many friends on Capitol Hill," he said.

"[Were the administration to do so] it would appear as if the White House had decided to sacrifice Taiwan's interests for Beijing's cooperation in the U.S. war against terrorism. [Secretary of State] Colin Powell has made it clear that the United States would not do so."

The package announced by Washington last April was the biggest in a decade. Apart from the submarines, it also included a dozen P-3 Orion submarine-hunting planes, Kidd-class destroyers, submarine- and surface-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles, MK-48 torpedoes and minesweeping helicopters.

The Pentagon several weeks ago announced the planned sale to Taiwan of more equipment, including Javelin anti-tank missile systems and spare parts for military aircraft.

The U.S. is Taiwan's key arms supplier. European nations aroused Beijing's wrath for selling weapons to Taipei in the 1980s and 1990s, and have stopped doing so.

During a visit to Beijing earlier this month, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder again promised not to sell submarines to Taiwan.

"Our government adheres to a very strict one-China policy, and this stance means we won't sell weapons to Taiwan," he told students at Peking University in response to a question.

Germany is China's biggest European trading partner.

According to the U.S. Navy Institute's military database, the Taiwanese Navy currently has just four, elderly submarines - two Hai Lung class (formerly Dutch Swordfish class) and two Hai Shih class (formerly U.S. Guppy 2 class) boats.

China, meanwhile, has over the past 10 years bought Kilo-class submarines from the Russians and is building its own diesel and nuclear-powered submarines. It reportedly now boasts five nuclear attack submarines, one ballistic missile sub, and four Kilo-class vessels.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow