TAIPEI -- Taiwan is taking steps to develop homegrown submarines under pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen in a bid to bolster its defense capabilities amid growing uncertainty over the role of the U.S. in regional security in East Asia.
The island is planning to spend 470 billion New Taiwan dollars ($14.8 billion) from 2018 through 2040 for construction of its own battleships and submarines.
In mid-September, Taiwan's shipbuilding industry held its first-ever maritime and defense expo in the southern city of Kaohsiung. Over 150 government institutions, private companies and other groups took part in the event, filling up the exhibition space with models of submarine control rooms and anti-ship missiles. "The attitude has shifted under the new government," an executive from a shipbuilding company said, expressing hopes for growing demand.
Standing alone is not a valid defense strategy for Taiwan, which Beijing considers a part of its core national interest and hopes to eventually fully integrate with the mainland. Though the island possesses advanced weapons, such as high-precision, supersonic anti-ship missiles, its defense spending of about $10 billion a year is dwarfed by Beijing's $140 billion 2016 defense budget. Cooperation with Japan and the U.S., which are both wary of China, is key.
Taiwan is gaining geopolitical importance given its strategic location close to China's maritime interests. But many in the U.S. believe that Washington bears too much of the burden of maintaining global peace. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly said the U.S. cannot protect the entire world and calls for a cut to military spending. The Tsai administration, with its strong ties to the U.S., has caught wind of this shift and is responding by boosting Taiwan's own defense capabilities.
The push for homegrown submarines is a symbolic move. Subs can help boost Taiwan's ability to deter Chinese activities in the South China Sea and raise Taiwan's strategic value. The island has needed to update its aging four-ship submarine fleet for some time.
Many countries are reluctant to sell submarines and other powerful military assets to Taiwan over concerns of provoking China. This also goes for Japan and the U.S., even though their interests align closely with Taiwan's. Tokyo backs efforts to export Japanese submarines in general, but no deals involving Taiwan have come to light. Washington agreed in 2001 under then-President George W. Bush to sell submarines to Taiwan, but nothing has come of that.
Taipei will allocate NT$3 billion over the four years starting in 2017 to design its own subs. "Taiwan is more than capable of building the vessels itself," said Ikuo Kayahara, professor emeritus at Japan's Takushoku University. But many experts believe the island will still need outside help, due to its lack of experience developing a submarine from top to bottom, including weaponry and information systems.
Funding could also become an issue. Taiwanese Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan requested at least NT$400 billion for defense spending under the budget for 2017, but was granted only NT$320 billion. This accounts for 16% of the total budget, about the same percentage as under former President Ma Ying-jeou. It is unclear whether Taiwan will be able to come up with the necessary funds when the submarine building begins in earnest while grappling with fiscally challenging issues, such as growing welfare spending and structural reform of its industries.
Beijing demands that Tsai accept the "One China" principle -- that Taiwan is part of China -- before any negotiations take place, but the Taiwanese leader has refused. The island must overcome both pressure from the mainland and its own technological and financial constraints to achieve the difficult task of raising its profile within the Asian security landscape.