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Business News/ Politics / Taiwan Unveils Homemade Submarine as It Seeks to Counter China Threat
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Taiwan Unveils Homemade Submarine as It Seeks to Counter China Threat


The vessel gives island democracy an asset important in curbing the Chinese military’s ability to project power in the Pacific Ocean.

The new submarine gives Taiwan an asset that will be important in reducing the Chinese military’s ability to project power in the Pacific Ocean. Premium
The new submarine gives Taiwan an asset that will be important in reducing the Chinese military’s ability to project power in the Pacific Ocean.

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan—Taiwan’s navy realized a dream it has harbored for four decades in this port city facing the South China Sea. It is 230 feet long, weighs nearly 3,000 tons and is capable of laying mines and attacking warships.

Meet the Narwhal, Taiwan’s first domestically-produced submarine—a sleek new weapon that could alter China’s thinking about an invasion if Taipei can afford to produce enough of them.

On Thursday, after seven years in the vessel’s making, President Tsai Ing-wen smashed a bottle of Champagne on the submarine, draped with the red, white and blue of Taiwan’s flag to cover its torpedo launcher and other parts.

“Building indigenous submarines, starting from scratch, is a long and complicated journey," Tsai told an audience that included senior Taiwanese officials and the director of the U.S.’s de facto embassy in Taipei.

For decades, Taiwan has run aground in its quest to build a fleet of submarines to help deter the growing military might of China. Beijing claims the island as part of its territory and has vowed to take control of it, by force if necessary.

During the 1980s, Taiwan bought two submarines from the Netherlands that remain in service today. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration rejected Taiwan’s request to sell it eight submarines on the grounds that the sale could inflame tensions with China. In the early 2000s, opposition lawmakers rejected a budget request to buy eight subs from the U.S.

After Tsai took office in 2016, Taiwan committed billions of dollars to design and build its own submarines. Now, senior Tsai administration officials say the submarines show the island’s willingness to invest in its own defenses when some of its U.S. backers have expressed concerns about its resolve to fight.

At the same time, it has revived a debate in Washington, whose help Taiwan would need in the event of a conflict, about whether the island is spending money on the kind of asymmetric weaponry that many military advisers say Taiwan would need to defend the island against the much larger and well-resourced Chinese.

In recent years, a rising chorus of military experts have questioned Taiwan’s spending on expensive prestige hardware such as jet fighters and tanks that could be quickly wiped out in a Chinese assault.

“It’s important that these investments—large investments in an indigenous submarine program by Taipei, can’t come at the expense of other very urgent asymmetric investments to counter a potential invasion," said Brent Sadler, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a retired Navy captain. “Think like mines and air defenses."

Taiwanese officials, in a closed-door briefing ahead of Thursday’s launch, defended Taiwan’s submarine program as vital for the island’s defenses.

The new submarine gives Taiwan an asset that will be important in preventing the Chinese military from projecting power in the Pacific Ocean, beyond the chain of islands formed by Taiwan’s main island and a string of Japan’s southernmost islands, said Ret. Navy Adm. Huang Shu-kuang, director of Taiwan’s submarine program and a former chief of staff of the Taiwanese military.

“This is a defensive submarine that safeguards our crucial sea space and protects our shipping lanes in the ocean," Huang said.

China’s military, known as the People’s Liberation Army, has conducted large-scale joint drills around Taiwan this month, sending a record number of jet fighters, drones and warships on incursions in an apparent effort to sharpen its ability to encircle the domestically self-ruled island.

Taiwan’s defense ministry also reported for the first time some Chinese troop activities in Fujian, the Chinese province directly facing Taiwan.

China’s recent military drills are aimed at crushing the “arrogance of Taiwan independence separatists," Zhu Fenglian, a spokeswoman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said on Wednesday, a day before Taiwan’s submarine launch.

The Chinese military has made a priority of preventing the U.S. from being able to intervene in any military conflict around Taiwan, given the island’s geographical advantages, including the 100-mile-wide strait that separates Taiwan from China and the steep spine of mountains running down the center of the island, forming a natural barrier to enemy troops from the west.

For Taiwan, the new Narwhal submarine could serve as an effective deterrent, equipped with U.S.-made Mark 48 heavyweight torpedoes, making any plans for an attack on Taiwan more uncertain.

“It complicates all your calculations, it complicates your planning, and you might have to devote resources just simply to hunt for the undersea threat that you face," said Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “That alone can be quite a tedious and sometimes unrewarding task."

For Huang, a national security adviser and former head of Taiwan’s navy, building an undersea vessel from scratch required several trips to Washington to persuade senior Pentagon officials to support its efforts.

“The security of Taiwan is directly related to the interests of the United States. If Taiwan were to fall, it would also impact U.S. interests," Huang recalls telling his Pentagon counterparts, warning the U.S. about China’s Communist Party. “The CCP is already knocking on your front door. Do you think you should help?"

Huang said he drew upon personal connections to seek help, writing letters to executives of military suppliers around the world. In 2018, Taiwan was able to win approval from the U.S. for exports of submarine parts and important technology that it wasn’t able to produce domestically.

Among other challenges, concerns about espionage kept the former admiral awake for many nights, referring to one Taiwanese supplier that he said leaked submarine plans to Chinese officials after failing to win a Taiwanese procurement bid. Huang didn’t elaborate.

Taiwan’s new submarine, known in Chinese as “Haikun"—a reference to a sea monster from Chinese lore—will first undergo testing before entering service for Taiwan’s navy. Huang said the goal is for Taiwan to have at least four submarines active in service by 2027, after adding one more to the existing fleet.

Submarines are what military analysts describe as a sea denial weapon because of their ability to play a role in deterring ships from coming close to the island. They are mobile and don’t need to spend much time in port to operate.

“These submarines are survival platforms," said Thomas Shugart, a former submarine officer and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “You can just send them to sea and say, ‘Hey, sink whatever stuff’s coming across the strait.’"

Even so, questions remain over whether Taiwan will be able to finance the production of more homemade submarines. A general election in January will see Taiwanese voters pick a new president and legislative body, with power over the military budget.

Former navy captain Jiang Hsin-biao, an assistant research fellow at the Taiwanese military-backed Institute for National Defense and Security Research said he would like to see the Taiwanese navy operate at least 16 homemade submarines, which could work in tandem with Taiwanese surface ships and air power to deter the PLA’s rising naval capabilities.

“What surface ships fear most is attacks from beneath the water," Jiang said.

Write to Joyu Wang at

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