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Commentary: No game changer, but Taiwan’s first homegrown submarine sends an important message

SINGAPORE: “Game changer” is a label often used – and abused – in international politics. Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Submarine programme had been called a game changer, when announced in 2016, for deterrence against the mainland Chinese threat.

On Sep 28 seven years later, Taiwan launched the first of eight domestically built submarines – christened Hai Kun after a mythical sea creature. It is a significant success for the island, but a game changer for cross-strait military balance this is not.

The new submarines will not herald any serious change to the military balance that has since the 2010s started to tilt in favour of Beijing.

China has maintained a submarine industry churning out up-to-date conventional and nuclear-powered boats. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy now operates 59 submarines, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The Republic of China Navy (the official name of the Taiwan navy) operates just a pair of submarines on active duty, Chien Lung-class boats based on the 1980s Netherlands’ Swordfish design which despite getting on in age may be retained for a while to form a working fleet of 10 submarines.

Nobody should try to count the World War II-era pair of former American Guppy-class submarines in the order of battle.


Though still outnumbered and outgunned by China, Taiwan joins the small, exclusive club of those that have developed their own submarines.

Taiwan has already demonstrated its ability to produce a diverse range of armaments – from supersonic anti-ship missile systems and armoured vehicles to killer drone swarms and even a budding cruise- and ballistic- missile programme. It has also developed, with foreign assistance, lightweight jets – the Ching Kuo fighter now on frontline service – and lead-in advanced trainer jets, such as the latest AT-5 Yung Ying.

Of course, its advanced defence industry is born out of necessity more than choice, given political difficulties in acquiring weapons other than from Washington.

The Hai Kun is the crown jewel in Taiwan’s relentless quest for defence self-reliance and a signal to three distinct audiences.

The first is of course China, which the island views as an increasing threat. The second is the international audience, not least the United States, by stressing its resolve for self-help instead of expecting immediate foreign assistance in the event of hostilities.

The third is nonetheless the domestic constituents, with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party seeking legitimacy by proving its mettle in strengthening the island’s defence against the mainland threat.


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But are submarines a superfluous capability to have in the first place? Follow the Ukrainian approach, some critics argue, build more missiles and drones instead.

Even with its navy neutralised, Kyiv had racked up some resounding successes against the Russians with land-based missiles, such as the sinking of Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva barely two months after hostilities began. Ukrainian sea drones broke through Russian defences and struck ships in and around Sevastopol in Russia-occupied Crimea, and even further afield in the vital naval logistics port of Novorossiysk.

But the reality is that Taiwan is an island: Survival and prosperity hinge very much on securing vital sea lines of communications.

Land-based missiles may deny adversaries safe sanctuary and freedom of manoeuvre but do not alone enable Taiwan to use those sea routes. Without overland export routes, Taiwan could still be starved into submission by a blockade.

It’s telling that despite its successes, Kyiv had never foresworn the importance of having a navy with mobile assets, including its desire to acquire submarines to more credibly threaten Moscow’s Black Sea dominance.

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