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Asia's Game of Thrones
Taiwan Launches Submarine Program

Taiwan is taking steps to boost its own naval capabilities, announcing the launch of a new submarine-building program. Reuters:

Taiwan will build its own submarines, President Tsai Ing-wen pledged on Tuesday, as the self-ruled island looks to fresh arms sales by the United States, accompanied by key submarine technology, to counter a growing military threat from China. […]

“Strengthening underwater combat capabilities is most needed in Taiwan’s defense,” Tsai said during a tour of a submarine at the southern naval port of Zuoying, about 350 kilometers (218 miles) from the capital, Taipei.

“This is a problem everyone recognizes,” 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.”

Adding new homemade submarines to Taiwan’s outdated fleet will hardly transform the Asian security balance, but the investment does make sense for President Tsai Ing-wen. From a security standpoint, Taiwanese submarines could marginally improve Taipei’s ability to patrol its waters at a time when China has been stepping up its provocative maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. And from a political standpoint, championing a domestic defense industry could give Tsai a boost as she tries to kickstart a lackluster economy and her own bleak approval numbers.

The move also comes at a crucial moment when the Trump administration is reportedly considering a major new arms deal for Taiwan. While Taipei has reason to hope for such an outcome, there is also lingering uncertainty about Trump’s intentions. Despite the early diplomatic coup of the Taiwan call, Trump’s subsequent rhetoric suggested that he would treat Taiwan as a bargaining chip with China, a fear reiterated this week by Taiwan’s minister for China affairs. And though there are certainly Taiwan advocates in Trump’s circle—including Peter Navarro, who has argued that the U.S. should provide the Taiwanese with advanced submarine technology—it is unclear whether such viewpoints will prevail over Trump’s more instrumental approach.

In the weeks ahead of the Xi-Trump summit, then, Trump’s stance toward Taiwan is something to watch. For a president notoriously skeptical about providing for others’ defense, the fact that Taiwan is taking major steps to boost its own defense commitments could count as a point in its favor.

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