MELBOURNE, Australia — Taiwan is short five critical pieces of submarine technology that it needs to achieve its aim of building a new class of indigenous submarines, according to a Taiwanese defense analyst.

Speaking to Defense News, Liao Yen-fan, a Taipei-based analyst for the cybersecurity research firm Team T5 that also focuses on air power and the Taiwanese military, said the local defense industry still needs to import the technology for these five items, which include modern torpedo tubes and periscopes.

Liao was citing representatives from Taiwan's Ching Fu Shipbuilding, the company in charge of designing the combat system and the largest subcontractor for Taiwan's domestic submarine program. The program currently is in the design phase and is led by the state-run National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, or NCSIST. CSBC Corporation is the main contractor. 

It's unclear what other critical submarine technology Taiwan requires, although it likely includes air-independent propulsion technology or an equivalent to allow the submarine to be practically silent when operating in a submerged environment.  

Liao told Defense News that Taiwanese delegations have recently been dispatched around the world to try and secure the needed technology transfer, including to the United States and Japan. However, it is understood that Japan has refused Taiwan's request for assistance, almost certainly out of fear of antagonizing China, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province and has not ruled out the use of force to reunify the island with the mainland.

A budget equivalent to $94.81 million has been allocated from December 2016 to December 2020 for the design of the new boats, according to an earlier report presented by Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense. Construction of the boats will follow the design phase, with CSBC expecting the first submarine to be built in eight years and entering service with Taiwan's Navy 10 years after completion of the design.

The Navy is in the process of upgrading its two Zwaardvis-class diesel-electric submarines purchased from the Netherlands in the 1980s, with local media reporting that NCSIST will enlist the help of foreign companies for the upgrade. The institute also completed an evaluation of periscope upgrades and is in the process of reviewing a design to upgrade their weapons systems.

Submarines will be an important asymmetric capability and will complicate any attempt by China to take Taiwan by force, even though the former has undertaken a massive effort to modernize its armed forces and now outguns Taiwan by a significant margin.

In contrast, Taiwan has been compelled to increasingly rely on local industry to meet its defense needs, with China having successfully used its substantial economic and political clout to restrict the sale of advanced weapons to Taiwan. 

This reluctance could prove to be a serious stumbling block to Taiwan's submarine ambitions. Several Western European countries, most notably Sweden, France and Germany, have established submarine programs and will possess the technology that Taiwan needs. However, like Japan, they would likely loathe to anger China with the sale of such significant weapons technology to Taiwan. Even the United States, which is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act to assist Taiwan, has severely limited its arms sales to what it deems as "self-defense" weapons.

Taiwan is hoping that this will change under the Trump administration — hopes which have been given fresh impetus with reports in March that the administration is planning a new arms package for the east Asian island.

However, Reuters has also reported that the approval of any arms package is certain to be complicated by China's sensitivities, warning that the "completion of a package also could be held up by the slow pace at which the Trump administration is filling national security jobs."

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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