U.S. Weighs Thorny Sub Exports to Taiwan

April 23, 2001 -- Attention has mostly focused on whether the White House will allow the export of advanced Aegis radars to Taiwan. But the Bush administration could soon approve for Taiwan an equally controversial technology likely to enrage Beijing: diesel-powered submarines.

Taiwan for years has requested diesel subs from the United States to counter China's increasingly advanced naval capabilities. And each year Washington, facing Beijing's fierce opposition as well as reluctance from the Navy on exporting diesel subs in general, has turned it down. Foreign governments similarly have been pressured by Beijing not to allow the exports, under threat of punitive trade sanctions.

But government and independent experts say the Navy has recently changed its policy on sub exports, and there are signs the Bush administration may be ready to let Taiwan obtain eight to 10 foreign-designed subs that would be co-produced in the United States. U.S. and Taiwanese military officials meet April 24 in suburban Washington, D.C. to discuss Taiwan's requests. President Bush could make a decision this week, officials say.

Analysts say pressure on the Bush administration to approve advanced arms for Taiwan increased with the recent EP-3E U.S. surveillance plane incident. But they note Bush may not be inclined to approve the most advanced Aegis, leaving the subs as a distinct possibility.

"It looks as if the administration is going to defer a decision on the Aegis destroyers and probably on the PAC-3 [anti-missile] system, but the diesel subs, that's probably the one item that's up in the air at the moment," says defense analyst Ted Galen Carpenter, of the CATO Institute.

Taiwan's Defense Needs Recognized

The Navy gave an indication it favors exporting the subs earlier this month when a confidential review by officers of the U.S. Pacific Fleet concluding Taiwan needs diesel submarines, as well as the Aegis and other equipment, was reported by the New York Times.

The study echoed a Pentagon report to Congress last June on China's military capabilities, which characterized Taiwan's submarine shortcomings as a threat to the island's defense.

"China's numerical superiority in submarines constitutes a threat to the Taiwan Navy," that report said. China could use its sub and ship advantages to blockade the island, unless an outside party intervened on Taiwan's behalf, it said.

While China is believed to have more than 60 submarines of varying sizes and capabilities, including two modern Russian Kilo-class subs and two more on the way, Taiwan has only four. Two are U.S.-built World War II-era Guppy-class diesel subs, obtained in the 1970s and used for training. The others are Dutch subs purchased in early 1980s over Beijing's objections.

Offensive or Defensive?

But while the Pentagon may have concluded Taiwan needs the submarines, opposition from Beijing may prevent Taiwan from ever getting them.

"There is a worldwide Chinese economic embargo on selling submarines to Taiwan," says Charles Meconis, an East Asian security analyst with the Institute for Global Security Studies in Seattle. "The whole reason for the U.S. connection here would be that only the United States has enough clout to get away with it."

After the Dutch sale in the early 1980s, China recalled its ambassador and downgraded its relations in protest, he notes. Diplomatic ties were later restored with an agreement barring further arms exports to Taiwan.

The Dutch government in 1992 turned down an application for two additional boats after Beijing protested. The German government reportedly blocked a similar deal in 1993, bowing to pressure from Beijing.

The Chinese leadership, which considers Taiwan a renegade province, has singled out the submarines, the Aegis and the land-based PAC-3 anti-missile system as particularly objectionable. The submarines, Beijing has argued, are offensive weapons, and so shouldn't be sold since only defensive weapons are allowed by several U.S.-Chinese agreements. Offensive arms exports also are barred by the U.S. 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

Taiwan argues the subs are needed for defense against the Chinese submarines and a bill in the House of Representatives last year specifically advocated exporting diesel subs and a host of other equipment for Taiwan's defense. But in testament to the power of Beijing's opposition, the controversial language was removed. The final version, approved overwhelmingly, only recommended the administration "take into account the special status of Taiwan, including the defense needs of Taiwan in response to the military modernization and weapons procurement efforts by the People's Republic of China."

The bill was never voted on in the Senate.

Traditional U.S. Opposition

Another possible obstacle to exporting diesel submarines to Taiwan has been the U.S. Navy itself. For at least two decades, the U.S. Navy, which operates nuclear-powered subs, has opposed diesel submarine exports from U.S. shores for a number of reasons, experts say.

"The main concern," says a U.S. government analyst who has tracked the issue closely, "is that technologies for U.S. submarines might be transmitted, if only inadvertently, from the U.S. submarine program into a non-nuclear powered submarine construction program intended for another country."

Navy officials also have worried they may be forced to buy the generally cheaper diesel subs themselves once a production line is under way, says Douglas Paal, who heads the Asia-Pacific Policy Center in Washington, D.C. And they don't "want to have to have to hunt for any more subs out there than there already are," he says.

In the past two decades, the Navy successfully blocked potential U.S. sub export deals with South Korea and Israel, says independent submarine expert Norman Polmar. A mid-1990s deal to co-produce two foreign-designed submarines for Egypt also foundered.

"The Navy's long-term policy has been that the Navy has precluded American shipbuilders from building non-nuclear submarines," says Cynthia Brown, president of the American Shipbuilding Association. "There's not a law that's been precluding us, it's a policy."

Signs of Approval

But, in a move experts say is a major shift in policy, the Navy is confirming it does not now object to exporting diesel submarines.

"While the U.S. Navy has no requirement for diesel submarines in its force structure, it does not object to U.S. industry participation in the diesel submarine market, as long as sensitive U.S. submarine technology is not compromised," said the Navy in a statement released to ABCNEWS.com.

The Navy's position had a real effect last year, when the State Department joined the Pentagon in approving a deal for the Mississippi company Ingalls Shipbuilding to co-produce two Dutch-designed subs for Egypt. The decision cleared the way for the first diesel sub production in the United States since the early 1970s, though a contract has not yet been signed.

The Navy's resistance has softened in recent years, possibly because of arrangements worked out with Ingalls to prevent the leakage of sensitive "quieting" technologies and other secrets, says the U.S. government analyst. Such an arrangement might include using foreign sub designs, and workers who have never worked in the U.S. sub industry.

Chinese Hardball

But the very fact the U.S.-exported subs would need to be built on a foreign design and include foreign content, to address Navy concerns, could make it difficult for Taiwan to ever get them, experts say.

"It's all probably moot anyway," says Paal, "because the only way you can build them is with a Dutch or a German license and the Chinese are very unlikely to let the Germans or Dutch off lightly if they provide those licenses to the U.S. to build."

He says there's been a debate in Washington over whether an approval would amount to a false promise.

"There is a strong desire to do it. And there's a distinct recognition that it's very hard to follow through if you decide to do it. Some people say 'promise this, because you don't have to deliver.' And other people say don't promise what you can't deliver."

An alternative would be for Taiwan to continue to invest in other modern anti-submarine capabilities, and Taiwan, in fact, is also asking for P-3 anti-sub planes and U.S. Kidd-class destroyers.

"Providing them with the four Kidd-class destroyers is a good move," says Meconis. "Its primary capability is anti-submarine warfare and they are far better [for it] than anything the Taiwanese Navy possesses at this time."