KAOHSIUNG • Taiwan will build its own submarines, President Tsai Ing-wen pledged yesterday, as it looks to fresh arms sales by the US, accompanied by key submarine technology, to counter a growing military threat from China.
Beijing has never renounced the use of force to take back what it deems a wayward province.
Taiwan's Defence Ministry says China has more than 1,000 missiles directed at the island.
"Strengthening underwater combat capabilities is most needed in Taiwan's defence," Ms Tsai said on a tour of a submarine at the southern naval port of Zuoying, about 350km from the capital Taipei.
She watched the simulated firing of a torpedo while on board.
The rare appearance of two of Taiwan's four submarines at the event also shone a spotlight on the island's slow, sometimes stalled efforts, to upgrade key defence equipment. The black-hulled vessel half-submerged in the water that Ms Tsai visited has been in service for nearly half a century.
"This is a problem everyone recognises," she added. "We have been unable to solve this in the past. As commander of the armed forces, I am determined to solve this problem."
She was presiding over a formal signing ceremony to initiate the project between the navy, Taiwanese shipbuilder CSBS and the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, which develops combat system integration.
But the rare appearance of two of Taiwan's four submarines at the event also shone a spotlight on the island's slow, sometimes stalled efforts, to upgrade key defence equipment. The black-hulled vessel half-submerged in the water that Ms Tsai visited has been in service for nearly half a century.
"Making a submarine isn't the problem," Mr Gao Chung-hsing, vice-president of the National Chung-shan Institute of Science and Technology, said. "It is making what kind... that is the problem."
To build an advanced submarine, for instance, Taiwan, which has never before built such a craft, will have to rely on foreign technology to resolve issues such as integrating the hardware with various electronic systems, defence experts say.
Such foreign support is critical to Taiwan's effort, which was allocated a four-year budget of NT$3 billion (S$137 million) for its design contract phase from 2016, defence officials and experts say.
Two submarines in the fleet were bought from the US and date from the World War II era. They are used mainly for training. The other two, bought from the Netherlands in the 1980s, first saw service in the 1970s.
Although the United States agreed to sell Taiwan eight diesel electric submarines in 2001, the purchase never went through, beset by hurdles ranging from budget issues and lack of consensus in Taiwan to changes in Washington's policy priorities.
But the US has begun considering a big, new arms package for Taiwan, a move sure to anger China.
This week, officials in Taiwan fretted that a planned summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping could lead to the island's interests being sacrificed.
Ms Tsai, who leads the independence-leaning ruling Democratic Progressive Party, has never conceded to Beijing's view that Taiwan is a part of China, although she has soft-pedalled the issue since taking office in May last year.
Taiwan last month announced its bid to create a new generation of locally built jet trainers by 2026.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE