- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Two years after President Bush announced plans to sell eight diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan, the island still has not appropriated funds for them and other items, raising questions about its willingness to defend itself in the face of China’s weapons buildup.

“The submarines themselves are not as worrying a trend as much as what it represents in how much the Taiwanese are willing to pay to ensure their own national security,” said Mike Glosny of Rand Corp.

Mr. Bush in April 2001 announced that the United States would sell the Republic of China (Taiwan) as many as eight diesel subs and four Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers to bolster its defenses. He also authorized Taiwan to buy new missiles, aircraft and helicopters.

“We are very clearly upset at how slow they have been to follow through at many of the buys we thought were no-brainers — the Kidd-class destroyers, for example,” Mr. Glosny said last week.

“And there are concerns that if that continues to happen, that the military balance will shift in favor of the People’s Republic of China.”

The Pentagon said in its annual report on Chinese military power last week that Beijing was sharply increasing the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan, and had developed capabilities for “decapitation” attacks against the island using missiles, aircraft or an amphibious assault.

The report also noted Taiwan’s defense budget was declining as a percentage of total government spending.

The high cost of financing the submarines in particular has become a contentious issue in Taiwan’s legislature, which is plagued by budget problems.

Rear Adm. John Butler, program executive officer for submarines at the Pentagon, recently said that Taiwan seems to have delayed obligating funds for the vessels until 2006.

“They are in a bind because of their budget crunch. They want a lot of things, but if you were to purchase eight new subs you would have a severe trade-off,” said Eric Heginbotham, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Defense officials say the subs are but one element of a long-term warfare capability that Taiwan should consider, and should not be seen as “got to have it now” equipment.

The U.S. administration has placed a higher priority on Taiwan’s acquisition of better missile-defense capability and improved command, control, computer, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

“There clearly is some shift in emphasis on what kind of systems we would like” to see in place in Taiwan, Mr. Heginbotham said.

Funding is not the only problem in completing the submarine purchase.

Analysts say the United States no longer builds diesel subs, having switched to an all-nuclear fleet, and that no country has agreed to build the vessels for fear of offending China.

“The other part is political,” said Mr. Heginbotham. “We are in no hurry to sell offensive systems right now while we are trying to work with China on North Korea. Maybe it’s not the best time to go and stick a finger in the eye of Beijing.”

While Mr. Heginbotham said he did not believe the Bush administration would abandon its commitment to Taiwan because of improved ties with China, U.S. relations with the two clearly have become more complicated.

“We’re walking a fine line of supporting Taiwan without alienating China,” said William Murray, a Naval War College research analyst.

Parris H. Chang, head of the foreign relations committee of Taiwan’s legislative Yuan, said the slow progress on the sub deal was one of several disquieting developments that had cast a shadow on traditionally strong U.S.-Taiwan ties.

He cited the growing closeness of Sino-U.S. relations, the North Korean crisis and the Bush administration’s desire to cultivate a rising generation of Chinese leaders under new President Hu Jintao as factors feeding the uncertainty.

“We certainly understand the United States is a great power with global interests and we are a small nation,” said Mr. Chang, who does not speak for the government. “But the subtle changes we see in the American line are causing great uneasiness.”

Administration officials say there will be no backing away from the promise to sell Taiwan the submarines. “That was a commitment made in earnest, and we intend to deliver on it,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis at the Pentagon.

U.S. companies are eager to bid on the submarine contract, but U.S. shipyards have not built a diesel sub for decades and would have to form a partnership with a foreign shipyard or designer.

Potential European partners like Germany and Spain are reluctant to antagonize China.

“There are a number of options we are considering,” said Cmdr. Davis. “New construction is one option,” he said, implying that the United States may consider the cheaper option of buying surplus submarines on the world market and refitting them to Taiwan’s needs.

Germany, for example, has built Type-209 submarines that have been sold around the world, and several countries may be interested in parting with them.

Another option would be for Taiwan to build the subs. It has a shipyard able to handle the job, but has never built a submarine.

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