An underwater race: Mainland China, Taiwan building up sub fleets


Mainland China and Taiwan are taking their military rivalry to new depths — underwater.

The two sides have spent billions of dollars on the latest weapons. Taiwan has maintained an edge in the air with hundreds of U.S.-made fighter planes. But the mainland is eroding that edge, buying new fighter planes and destroyers — and, last month, reportedly test-firing an air-to-air Russian missile.

Now mainland China is building up its ability to menace trade-dependent Taiwan at sea, acquiring eight new missile-armed Russian submarines in a deal that military analysts say strengthens the Chinese as a serious maritime force.

“The enhanced sub operation will definitely provide China the advantage to conduct a blockade in the Taiwan Strait. It will shift the balance of power,” said Andrew Yang, secretary general at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a Taipei think tank with close ties with Taiwan’s Defense Ministry.

The latest Chinese deal — eight Kilo-class submarines for US$1.5 billion, due to be delivered over the next five years — was reported last month by the Interfax-Military News Agency.

The Russian and mainland Chinese governments have refused to comment. Taiwan is trying to strengthen its own underwater ability, lobbying Washington for help in acquiring eight submarines that could help the island fight any potential naval blockade by Beijing.

Last week, Taiwan made a rare comment about the issue, saying the potential US$6 billion deal — which leaders in Taiwan have pursued since 1982 — was “going very smoothly.”

The new focus on submarine rivalry highlights the lopsided strategic balance between the two sides.

They separated amid civil war in 1949. Beijing claims Taiwan as its territory and has threatened to invade, but most Taiwan people reject uniting with the mainland while it remains under communist rule. Please see SUB on page

For decades, the mainland has had a vastly larger military than Taiwan, which has countered by spending heavily on keeping ahead technologically.

Taiwan lies just 150 kilometers (100 miles) off the mainland’s coast. But until recently, the mainland had only a tiny navy unable either to invade or to threaten the ocean-borne economic lifeline of the island, one of the world’s biggest trading powers.

Since the early 1990s, however, mainland China’s growing wealth has let it modernize militarily, building or buying new weapons — often with Russian help.

Russia’s arms exports to the mainland are believed to total about US$1 billion a year. According to Interfax, Russia is building two new destroyers for mainland China armed with the latest radar, missiles and anti-submarine weapons. The Chinese military already has acquired Russian supersonic Su-27 fighters and the technology to build its own.

Washington, Taiwan’s biggest arms supplier, is struggling to fill its submarine order because U.S. shipyards make only nuclear subs. The blueprints and expertise for making diesel-electric boats would have to come from another country, most likely European.

President Chen Shui-bian said in June that while Taiwan is not in an arms race with the mainland, “we should do all we can to gain a substantial advantage.”

Washington broke relations with Taiwan in 1979 to form ties with Beijing. But the U.S. government has also implicitly promised to help the island defend itself. Its policy has been to supply Taiwan with the weapons necessary to match any threat from Beijing.

Chen Kuo-ming, editor of the magazine Defense International, which covers the Taiwan military, said Russia, eager for sales, is likely to fill mainland China’s order sooner than promised.

“By 2005, China will be able to pose a serious air and naval threat,” Chen said.

According to military analysts, Taiwan probably won’t get its boats until 2010, leaving it more open to an attack or blockade.

Chen said he doubted that with the mainland’s growing economic might, Taiwan will be able to keep pace as its arms spending grows.

“Only big countries can afford an arms race,” he said. “In the long run, we definitely won’t be able to keep up with China.”