By: Jens Kastner

The April 7 approval by the US Department of a marketing license that allows US manufacturers to sell submarine technology to Taiwan is the latest and most significant notice that John Bolton is back.

Bolton, a super-hawk described as “Dick Cheney times two” in a Brookings Institution analysis, was picked on March 22 to replace HR LeMaster as National Security Adviser by US President Donald Trump. Bolton has long argued that the US could enhance its East Asia military posture by increasing military sales to Taiwan and even stationing US military on the island.  Although he wasn’t formally appointed until April 9, the announcement that he would take over is regarded as playing a role in the situation.

Taiwan’s long-delayed plans to build eight diesel-electric submarines domestically had been stymied until the approval. The plans have now passed their first critical hurdle, although numerous obstacles remain. The Taiwanese navy currently only has two older boats that could be used for combat and has for two decades sought US help in obtaining new ones, either by buying or building domestically with foreign help.

It is no secret that modern submarines, next to nuclear weapons, are what China wants to see the least under Taiwanese command, given that they could greatly complicate any Chinese plans for an amphibious invasion across the 180-km strait or a naval blockade against the island.

“The approval of the marketing license is significant as it will enable Taiwan to move forward with the submarine program knowing that it will in fact be able to have the necessary technology and weapon systems to make it work,” said Steve Tsang, Director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute, in an interview with the Asia Sentinel.

“This has more to do with the changed atmosphere in the USA over relations with the PRC than with Bolton’s new appointment, though the appointment of Bolton must have helped and itself reflects the toughening up of the attitude towards Beijing in Washington,” Tsang added.

US President George W Bush promised Taiwan arms sales in 2001 that included Kidd class destroyers, anti-submarine warfare weapons and submarines. They were delayed due to the legislature in Taiwan interfering along with a dispute with the US over the down payment. The US has insisted on defining all arms sales to Taiwan as defensive, so as to continue a high degree of “strategic ambiguity,” with both China and the US wary of provoking the other.

In 2005, the Taiwan government under the anti-China Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) proposed a special budget for the purchase of new boats, but also this got bogged down in political disputes.

During the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (2008-16), who headed the China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), the idea was put on the back burner over the notion that Taiwan did not need to spend more on defense as relations with China were good.

But China-Taiwan relations took a nosedive when Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP became president in 2016, as reflected by China unilaterally cutting official ties with the island, and the Chinese military frequently staging military maneuvers near Taiwan.

This return to an Ice Age between China and Taiwan has gone into the freezer with Trump embarking on an increasingly aggressive crusade against China over its allegedly unfair trade practices and Beijing’s construction of military bases in international waters in the South China Sea, among other bones of contention.

“Guaranteeing freedom of the seas, deterring military adventurism and preventing unilateral territorial annexations are core US interests in East and Southeast Asia,” Trump’s new security adviser Bolton wrote last year. “Today, as opposed to 1972 [when the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei’s Republic of China to Beijing’s People’s Republic], a closer military relationship with Taiwan would be a significant step toward achieving these objectives.”

The devil’s in the nitty-gritty

In August 2016 the Taiwanese defense ministry announced new navy programs, including 12 new shipbuilding and force modernisation initiatives covering 23 years at a cost of US$14.7 billion.  That was followed in March 2017 with a Memorandum of Understanding signed with a local shipbuilder, CSBS Corporation, and the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology to design the vessels in 2017–20.

US manufacturers would still need to obtain export permits for parts and components before assembly, with the completion date of the new program far from certain. That seems baked into the situation. The complexity of development and construction, for instance, has meant that submarine the programs of India, South Korea and Australia were all delayed beyond the initial timelines.

It won’t help that China will exert maximum political pressure on the few foreign countries that could or would be willing to assist Taiwan, including France, Germany and Japan.

The US defense industry will not be of much support beyond supplying parts and components, given that it has for decades been building nuclear-powered boats only, thus lacking diesel-electric expertise.

And, John F Copper, a US political scientist and Taiwan expert, pointed out that Taiwan building its own subs means they could be prohibitively expensive since the government probably won’t be able build in larger numbers to sell them.

“Taiwan has budget problem, and businesses are complaining of taxes, government regulations and so forth,” Copper said. “Health care is getting more expensive due to aging in Taiwan, and also the Taiwanese military currently going to an all-volunteer service is expensive and has problems.”

Trump, Copper said in an interview, seems to want to pick a fight with China, as certainly suggested by the US’s new punitive tariffs on Chinese products.  The decision to give the initial nod to Taiwan’s submarine program also seems related to Trump’s school of thought that the most productive way in negotiations is to start a fight or crisis and then negotiate with China.

“I would also link it to the fact the US is already in an election phase and Trump does not want to allow the Democrats the bash-China issue,” Copper said.

“During every election campaign recently politicians have bashed China, and Trump does not want the Demos to make a lot of this issue as it could help them in the election,” he added.