Twice in the past week, Chinese President Xi Jinping has gone out of his way to assert that peaceful reunification with Taiwan is Beijing’s foremost foreign policy goal. Whether or not this is wishful thinking, it reflects the reality that retaking Taiwan by force would be extraordinarily difficult, especially if Taipei has outside help. This underscores a second reality: To pave the way for reunification, whether peaceful or otherwise, Beijing thinks it must first isolate Taiwan and sap its will to fight.

Both have been illustrated in Taiwan’s quixotic quest to modernize its submarine fleet. Until the past few months, at least, Beijing had succeeded in sinking Taiwan’s submarine force without firing a shot, using its diplomatic and economic leverage to prevent foreign submarine exporters from selling to the island nation. But in April, the U.S. State Department approved licenses for U.S. defense contractors to export U.S.-made submarine technology to Taiwan. In May, Taiwan reached an agreement with a Dutch firm to upgrade its only two subs currently in service. And last week, Taiwanese media reported that firms from Japan, India and Europe had submitted design proposals for subs expected to be built in Taiwan in partnership with the island nation’s main shipbuilder. Washington reportedly encouraged the Japanese bid, and possibly the others. In the battle over China’s attempts to leave Taiwan alone and adrift, the tide may be turning ever so slightly in Taipei’s favor.

A Languishing Fleet

The woeful state of Taiwan’s undersea capabilities is one of the peculiarities of the intensifying maritime competition in the Western Pacific. Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, sits less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from a massive adversary for whom reunification is not a matter of if, but when. Retaking Taiwan, whether by force or by peaceful means, is a strategic imperative for China – given how the island could be used to sever Chinese trade routes – and a scar on Communist Party narratives about the communist victory in the Chinese civil war. As a result, Beijing has been shoveling vast resources into developing capabilities that would be needed to bring Taipei to heel, with a naval and amphibious fleet that is growing at a breathtaking pace.

Yet, at present, Taiwan has just four submarines. Two were commissioned before the end of World War II and are used solely for training. The other two were bought from the Dutch in the mid-1980s. Taiwan has allowed its fleet to atrophy, in part, because it has been able to rely on its closest ally, the U.S., which has the most sophisticated submarine fleet in the world – not to mention the most sophisticated anti-submarine warfare capabilities, air force and so forth. Even though the U.S. recognized Beijing as the legitimate government of China in 1979, thus abrogating its mutual defense treaty with Taipei, Congress quickly passed the vaguely worded Taiwan Relations Act, requiring the U.S. to look out for Taiwan’s security to some degree. China has routinely sought to cast doubt in Taipei about the U.S. willingness to come to its defense – and Taiwan has good reason to be concerned about current U.S. ambivalence toward its allies in the Western Pacific – but Beijing can never be sure that the U.S. won’t come to save the day.

Another reason Taiwan could get by with a subpar sub fleet is that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be exceedingly difficult, even without a Taiwanese undersea deterrent. It doesn’t matter how many troops, arms and supplies the People’s Liberation Army can amass on the shores of Fujian province across the Taiwan Strait. To invade Taiwan, China would need the bulk of its forces to get into boats and make an eight-hour voyage into the teeth of Taiwanese firepower coming from well-entrenched, well-supplied onshore positions. Taiwan has about 130,000 well-armed troops (plus 1.5 million in reserve) and thousands of armored fighting vehicles and camouflaged, self-propelled artillery pieces. Only 10 percent of Taiwan’s coastline is suitable for an amphibious landing, and even taken by surprise, Taiwan could amass its forces at the landing zones, even under a missile barrage from Fujian, and exact high rates of attrition on the Chinese. Moreover, the PLA has zero experience with amphibious operations in a modern combat environment. Amphibious war requires extraordinarily complex coordination between air, land and sea forces, especially with logistics. An enormous number of things would have to go right for China to succeed, and the political risks of failure would be sky high.

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Taipei Starts to Come in From the Cold

Still, Taiwan has felt increasingly exposed without its own submarine deterrent, and it’s never been comfortable relying on U.S. intervention. China’s maritime capabilities have grown by leaps and bounds, and it’s starting to focus some attention on the amphibious realm. (In response, Japan has begun addressing its own curious lack of amphibious capabilities.)

By the end of the next decade, China is expected to have a force of some 100,000 marines, plus a fleet of sophisticated new amphibious landing ships and amphibious assault ships roughly as large as the U.S. fleet. Its own sub fleet will soon include 10 nuclear-powered boats, plus another 48 diesel-electric subs. According to the Taiwanese Defense Ministry, some 1,500 Chinese missiles are fixed on Taiwan’s onshore defensive positions, airfields and so forth at all times. In an invasion, to supplement its still-insufficient fleet of landing craft, China would deputize commercial roll-on/roll-off ships to ferry waves of troops and arms across the strait once a beachhead had been established. China’s biggest strength – its vast arsenal of anti-ship missiles and other area denial assets – is intended to prevent the Americans from joining the fray.

This buildup both improves China’s odds in an invasion scenario (albeit probably not enough to make Beijing willing to try anytime soon) and gives the U.S. greater pause about wading into what would be an extraordinarily costly fight. Moreover, China has ways to use its own subs to tighten the noose on Taiwan short of an invasion. For example, it could try to impose a blockade against Taiwan if, say, Taipei declared independence. The bulk of Taiwan’s defenses against invasion would be of little use here; Taipei wants to be able to fight fire with fire (and not have to ask the Americans to provide the fuel).

Thus, for decades now, Taiwan has been attempting to modernize its submarine fleet but to no avail. The main reason is that China has succeeded in using its economic and diplomatic power to prevent Taiwan from getting much outside help. In the past decade alone, Vietnam has bought six Kilo-class subs from Russia. Singapore is stocking its fleet with German and Swedish boats. In 2016, France beat out Japan for the right to build 12 new subs for Australia. South Korea entered the market in 2016 with its delivery of the first of three new submarines to Indonesia. Owing primarily to pressure from Beijing, all these suppliers have completely frozen out Taiwan from the underwater arms race.

The country that would be most willing to sell subs to Taiwan – the United States – is actually ill-equipped to do so. The entire U.S. fleet consists of nuclear-powered submarines. Taiwan doesn’t need nuclear-powered subs, which are ideal for long-range operations but expensive. Rather, like most countries in East Asia with limited budgets and relatively small areas to patrol, Taiwan wants diesel-electric subs equipped with modern technology like air-independent propulsion systems. These are cheaper but still stealthy and ideal for anti-area/access denial strategies in littoral waters. U.S. defense contractors don’t build these for the U.S. Navy nor for export. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration approved a plan to help Taiwan acquire diesel-electric submarines, but the deal stalled for several reasons, reportedly including opposition from, of all places, the U.S. Navy. (The Navy fears that if U.S. defense contractors started building cheaper diesel-electric subs for export, Congress would force it to buy them.)

In March 2017, Taiwan finally announced that it would build its own boats. Nonetheless, with scant experience in submarine construction, Taiwan still needs foreign technology and weapons systems to build up a modern fleet anytime soon, and foreign suppliers haven’t appeared any more inclined to go down this path. Taiwanese defense officials told the Asia Times two weeks ago that Taipei was struggling to procure critical components for its sub program. But it appears now as though outside players may have merely been waiting for the U.S. to take the lead.

It’s not yet clear how much stomach Tokyo, New Delhi or European governments really have to risk economic retaliation from Beijing for Taipei’s benefit, nor how much they’d be willing to transfer sensitive technologies given the risk that they’d end up in the hands of the Chinese. Their reasons for hesitating on the matter haven’t gone away overnight. Nor is it clear how successfully Taiwan will be able to incorporate a mix of foreign technologies into an indigenous design. Doing so is quite a bit more difficult than buying subs off the shelf.

Still, Japan and India both make some sense as partners with Taiwan in this arena, given their own growing wariness of China’s maritime expansion. For Japan, preserving Taiwan’s independence is an utmost strategic priority. The participation of either would be further evidence that a loose coalition of regional powers keen to check Chinese assertiveness is starting to take shape. And it says something that countries may be willing to shrug off concerns about Chinese retaliation if and when the U.S. does so first.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.