Taiwan's once-mighty military now overshadowed by China's

The Hai Pao, a World War II-era vessel that represents a quarter of Taiwan's submarine fleet, at Zuoying Naval Base. Like its sister submarine, the Hai Shih, it cannot fire torpedoes although it can still lay mines.
The Hai Pao, a World War II-era vessel that represents a quarter of Taiwan's submarine fleet, at Zuoying Naval Base. Like its sister submarine, the Hai Shih, it cannot fire torpedoes although it can still lay mines.PHOTO: NYTIMES

ZUOYING NAVAL BASE (Taiwan) • The Hai Pao, one of Taiwan's four navy submarines, began its service as the Tusk, a US vessel launched in August 1945 at the end of World War II.

Its sister submarine, the Hai Shih, is a year older. Neither can fire torpedoes today, though they can still lay mines. The submarines, said Taiwanese Defence Minister Feng Shih-kuan, "belong in a museum".

The Hai Pao - with its paint-encrusted pipes, antiquated engines and a brass dial with a needle to measure speed in knots - will instead remain in service past its 80th birthday, a relic of a military that was once one of Asia's most formidable.

Taiwan's ageing submarine fleet is but one measure of how far the military balance across the Taiwan Strait has tilted in favour of the island's rival, mainland China.

A military modernisation overseen by Chinese President Xi Jinping has proceeded in leaps and bounds, lifted by hefty budget increases that have made China the world's No. 2 military spender after the United States. Taiwan's armed forces, by contrast, have fallen way behind, struggling to recruit enough soldiers and sailors - and to equip those they have.

A major obstacle is that countries that might sell it the most sophisticated weaponry are increasingly reluctant to do so for fear of provoking China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory. The unwillingness to anger China extends even to the United States, on which Taiwan has long depended for its defence.

Taiwan's experience could be a cautionary tale to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and others in the region, who are also warily watching China's rising military capabilities.

A major obstacle is that countries that might sell Taiwan the most sophisticated weaponry are increasingly reluctant to do so for fear of provoking China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory.

"A small snake does not make nearby frogs, chickens and ducks feel threatened," Mr Feng said in an interview, "but when it grows to be a python, even nearby pigs, oxen, horses and goats feel a threat to their survival."

Adding to the unease has been uncertainty over US policy under President Donald Trump. When he was president-elect, Mr Trump signalled a more fulsome embrace of Taiwan by accepting a congratulatory phone call from its President, Ms Tsai Ing-wen.

Since taking office, he has shown more deference to China, in hopes of winning its support in the nuclear stand-off with North Korea.

When the Trump administration approved a new package of arms sales to Taiwan this summer, it was worth a relatively modest US$1.4 billion (S$1.9 billion), less than the US$1.8 billion package approved by then President Barack Obama two years ago. The sales included missiles, radar equipment and other military gear, but stopped short of the major systems that could give Taiwan a real edge.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2017, with the headline 'Taiwan's once-mighty military now overshadowed by China's'. Print Edition | Subscribe