US-Taiwan relations: Biden administration gives green light to exports of key submarine technology

Lawrence Chung
·4-min read

Taiwan’s programme to build its own submarine fleet has received a boost after the US approved the sale of three key pieces of equipment.

Taiwanese Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng confirmed on Tuesday that Washington had approved export permits – including the first arms sales to the island under the Biden administration.

“On the delivery period, we need to follow the procedures in due course and I can’t say when exactly they will arrive. After all, there are operational procedures,” Chiu said ahead of a legislative session, adding that the authorities would ensure the work was completed on schedule.

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Chiu did not identify the items to be fitted, but ministry officials had said there were three major types of equipment – digital sonar systems, integrated combat systems and auxiliary equipment system (periscopes) – that the island could not produce and must rely on US technology.

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The indigenous submarine project was initiated by the government in 2016 to bolster the island’s ageing fleet of four submarines with eight new diesel-electric models. The first prototype is budgeted to cost NT$49.4 billion (US$1.7 billion) and scheduled to be launched in July 2024 before entering service the following year.

Work on a prototype vessel started at the CSBC Corporation’s shipyard in Kaohsiung, in November.

The approval came just ahead of a meeting this week by senior officials from Washington and Beijing.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to meet mainland officials including China’s foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi on Thursday during a stop in Alaska, according to the State Department. It will be the first high-level in-person contact between the US and mainland China under the Biden administration.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan will join the meeting in Anchorage as will Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The meeting will follow Blinken’s first overseas trip to Japan and South Korea, key US allies.

A military source said the Trump administration had approved export permits for the digital sonar and integrated combat systems in December and January, while the Biden administration approved the export of the periscope system last month.

A model of the protype submarine that Taiwan is building. Photo: EPA-EFE
A model of the protype submarine that Taiwan is building. Photo: EPA-EFE

Chiu declined to comment on whether the exports were a sign of closer relations between the US and Taiwan and whether Joe Biden shared Donald Trump’s commitment to defending the island.

Taiwan’s relations with the US – which switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979 – improved sharply under Trump, who adopted a confrontational policy towards the Chinese mainland.

Washington used to be cautious about supplying sophisticated military technology to Taiwan for fear it would be acquired by Beijing. But before Trump stepped down in January, he approved more than US$18 billion worth of arms sales for Taiwan, including some sophisticated items.

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Chieh Chung, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taipei, said the submarine project had the support of the US.

“The Trump [administration] had already approved the export permits for two types of key equipment before he stepped down and as the two sides have a consensus on the sub construction it is left to the Biden [administration] to complete the remaining procedure to give the green light for the last item,” Chieh said.

He said that regardless of whether Trump or Biden was in charge, the US saw the mainland as a key competitor and had asked its allies, especially those near China, to strengthen their defensive capabilities to reduce the burden on the US in the Asia-Pacific region.

“This is why the US is willing to supply those key technologies to support Taiwan’s sub project,” Chieh said, adding Washington also stood to profit from arms sales to the island.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan part of its territory that must be returned to its control – by force – if necessary, has repeatedly warned the US not to cross the red line on Taiwan, including supplying weapons and having official contacts.

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