US Won’t Help Taiwan Build Subs, But Will Japan?

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This month, there was a “flurry”of activity [1] in Washington as Taiwan sought help in building submarines. Yet because American policymakers are more concerned about the reaction of the expansionists in Beijing than the needs of beleaguered defense planners in Taipei, Washington remained unmoved by the island’s efforts.

Taiwan, which Beijing views as its 34th province, is putting on a full-court press on subs so that it can remain a free society. In recent days, the American chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, said he talked to colleagues in Taipei about submarines; a delegation from Taiwan was lobbying Congress for help; and Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said [2] the US supported the island building its own subs.

The world would be a safer place if Chairman Royce were right. “A much larger Taiwanese submarine force will deter war on the Taiwan Strait,” notes military analyst Rick Fisher. Finding and destroying modern conventionally powered submarines is one of the most difficult tasks a navy can undertake, he says, and a large fleet of hard-to-detect Taiwanese subs could prevent Beijing annexing the island by force, at least with just conventional arms.

Unfortunately, there is nothing but a “zero indication” that the White House will help Taiwan’s sub program, as Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, states. Washington insists that Beijing and Taipei settle matters peacefully, but China is configuring [3] its military to launch an invasion of the island republic.

At the same time, the US is increasingly unwilling to help Taiwan protect itself, despite the Taiwan Relations Act [4], which imposes an obligation to sell the island “defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” It is incongruous that American diplomats talk about peace while pursing policies that, by keeping Taiwan weak, pave the way for war.

President George W. Bush, in April 2001, offered Taiwan a package that included eight diesel subs, but since US shipyards no longer built them, the pledge amounted to a promise to help the island find a Western manufacturer. German and Dutch yards refused to sell such submarines to Taipei for fear of angering Beijing, and Washington essentially dropped the matter.

Today, the US policy establishment is still trying to placate Beijing. Unfortunately, the Chinese cannot be “engaged,” to use the current term for appeasement, but there is something else wrong with Washington’s strategy. As the US becomes less and less reliable as a security guarantor, Taiwan has more and more incentive to turn elsewhere.

Washington may not see a need to defend the little democracy, but Japan certainly does. Its southernmost island is about 65 miles from Taiwan, which means that Beijing can put the Japanese at risk by absorbing the Taiwanese homeland. Tokyo, having ended [5] its self-imposed ban on weapons exports in April, is in the midst of concluding a deal [6] to sell to Australia as many as 10 ultra-quiet Soryu-class subs, the world’s largest diesel-electric boats. The arrangement, worth perhaps as much as $18.7 billion, appears to be upsetting Beijing, but nations around the region are taking Chinese opinions less into account these days.

Take the Japanese, who need to protect their southern flank. Last week, Fisher relayed to me and others his conversation with a senior figure in the Diet, the national legislature, who suggested Tokyo might assist Taiwan acquire less advanced subs. The Japanese would surely not let Taiwan have the Soryu—whose name means “blue dragon”—for fear of Chinese spies on the island getting their hands on Japan’s latest designs, but Tokyo is now eager to work with others in the region.

In recent decades, Beijing had successfully outmaneuvered Taiwan, but as Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania points out, Chinese leaders overreached. “China is opening up a bypass to her hitherto successful isolation of Taiwan by frightening other countries into becoming self-sufficient and ceasing to rely on us,” he noted to me and others last week. And referring to other nations helping the Taiwans “China will not be able to control this,” he wrote.

As Fisher notes, Taiwan’s need for subs is “glaringly obvious.” If the Obama administration does not want to assist Taipei, others will. Maybe Japan will become the new arsenal of democracy.

 

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