Taiwan’s latest submarine plans: Dutch design?

Ever since George W. Bush in 2001 proposed to assist Taiwan in getting diesel electric submarines, the question of ‘how and with whom’ has puzzled analysts. As the US itself does not possess the relevant technology anymore (all their subs are nuclear powered) any assistance should come from abroad. In his book ‘Joep!’ Philip de Witt Wijnen describes how Dutch businessman Joep van den Nieuwenhuyzen was eager to fulfill that role.

He would either modernise ex-Dutch submarines docked in Malaysia or build new Moray class submarines abroad – a type his RDM shipyard had never been able to sell. Though Van den Nieuwenhuyzen claims he did not need any Dutch governmental approval, he is wrong. Under threat of legal action he backs off in late 2002.

Selling weapons systems to Taiwan today is too sensitive for probably any European country to even consider it. After the Netherlands sold Taiwan two submarines in the 1980s, it soon regretted and promised China to adapt to a ‘One China’ policy and not to supply new weapon systems to Taiwan anymore. (Still 15-20 million euro worth of submarine spare parts are exported from the Netherlands to Taiwan every year!)

Other European countries follow the same policy, since arms trade with Taiwan is not worth losing China as a major business partner. Taiwan therefore almost completely relies on Washington for its arms – worth billions of dollars to US companies.

Every now and then Taiwan’s wish and the American promise to help supplying submarines pops up and every time nothing really seems to happen. By now it looks like Taiwan has given up on American help and has started making its own plans.

Last week Taiwan’s ministry of defence confirmed that it supports the development of diesel-electric submarines, but only if “relevant expertise can be secured and restrictive factors are addressed”, reports this week’s Jane’s Defence Weekly. The reaction came after a report in the Taipei-based United Daily News, on new options that had emerged lately, as three unnamed countries have offered either to help Taiwan build submarines or to sell German-built submarines. With German permission a necessity for any sale of German-built subs, that latter possibility seems unlikely though.

In December the Taipei Times already reported that according to military sources the navy was trying to obtain production know-how from abroad. It also suggested that Dutch technology could be of great use: “The Naval Shipbuilding Development Center under Navy Command has been very busy studying the blueprints of the navy’s two Hai Lung-class submarines – Taiwan’s only combat-ready subs – which were acquired from the Netherlands in the 1980s”.
While there has been speculation about this option for many years, such clear reference to the use of Dutch technology had not been made to date. It is unclear to what extent Taiwan has access to designs and blueprints of the submarines. The Dutch state at least says it holds the intellectual property.

Given how little progress Taiwan has made over the past ten years in acquiring submarines and/or technology, it remains to be seen what real opportunities the Taiwanese have though.
No European country will likely take the risk of angering China. Russia is not a likely candidate either, being China’s sub supplier. Even if Taiwan would master the art of reverse-engineering – their mainland brothers are renowned for it – it may take many more years to build a sea-worthy copy of the Dutch-designed Hai Lung submarine. According to a consultant in Jane’s Defence Weekly: “it would be a steep learning curve”.

In another submarine-related development it has been reported that from 2013 Taiwan’s Dutch-built submarines will be armed with Harpoon missiles – the first time ever they will be equipped with anti-ship missiles. According to the United Daily News the navy recently test-fired the weapons in the United States, after having ordered them in 2008. The Harpoons have a range of 115 kilometers.

Taiwan, which already has Harpoons installed on frigates and F-16 fighter jets, ordered the submarine-launched missiles in 2008 as part of a $6.4 billion arms sale. The deal also included advanced interceptor Patriot missiles and Apache attack helicopters. Last year Washington agreed to retrofit Taiwan’s F-16 fighter aircraft, an order worth another $5.85 billion.

Back in 2005 Jane’s Defence Weekly noted that Harpoons would give Taiwan the “capability of attacking coastal, in-harbour and land targets. […] This will place China’s key naval bases of Shantou, Xiamen, Sandu, Xiazhen, Shanghai and Zhoushan in Taiwan’s crosshairs”.

Despite improved relations between mainland China and Taiwan, arms sales to the island always spark strong protests from Beijing and cause tensions in US-China relations. With the Cold War long gone, Washington still considers Taiwan an essential part of its foreign policy to control crucial parts of Asia.

The then Dutch government may have underestimated that decades later their approval of the sub sale would still be of enormous military and political relevance, still enabling Taiwan to increase its military capabilities towards China and thus contributing to further tension between the two countries. More pre-occupied with saving its drowning naval industry it probably also did not take into account chances that Taiwan one day could plan to build its own submarines based on Dutch design.

[FS, 29 Feb 2012]