Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 1

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

President George W. Bush’s decision to seek a European conventional submarine design to sell to Taiwan, and the brusque refusal of two European countries to do so, highlights Europe’s increasing conflicts about arms sales to China and Taiwan. As a result, it is time for Washington to insist that its European allies exhibit the same moral clarity toward war on the Taiwan Strait as the Unites States has done for decades.

Bush’s decision to sell Taiwan eight to ten conventional submarines was a victory for both Taiwan and the small group of Pentagon officials who had pushed for the sale. It is also is a victory for the traditional U.S. policy goal of deterring a Communist Chinese attack on democratic Taiwan. For twenty years the State Department had blocked such a sale because it defined submarines as “offensive” weapons that could be used to attack the mainland. But at the same time, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has purchased new Russian Kilo submarines and Russian Sovremenniy destroyers with their supersonic Sunburn missiles to enhance its ability to impose a blockade on Taiwan. Selling Taiwan new submarines will help defend against these new sub-surface and surface warfare threats.

But this policy victory has led to a new battle to secure a foreign submarine design that a U.S. shipyard can then build to meet Taiwan’s requirements. In Europe today, possible submarine designs are available from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy or Britain. Almost immediately following Bush’s announcement, the Netherlands and Germany forbade the sale of their sub designs to the United States for later sale to Taiwan. Britain and Italy have conventional submarine designs they possibly could sell. Neither, however, is likely to do so.

Complicating the U.S. and Taiwan quest for a new conventional sub design has been many years of patient campaigning by Beijing to block European arms sales to Taiwan. Beijing has dealt harshly with those who have sold arms to Taiwan, such as locking the Netherlands out of mainland markets for several years after it sold Taipei two submarines. A desire to sustain their sizable export to China is likely the main motivator for the almost immediate German and Dutch refusal to offer to sell their very good conventional submarine designs.

However, Europe is increasingly willing to sell military technology to China despite a 1989 decision by the European Union that forbade weapon sales to China following the Tiananmen Massacre. Britain, Germany and Italy have sold China satellite technologies that are informing Chinese military satellite programs. Britain’s Racal Corporation has sold airborne early warning (AEW) radar to the PLAN and Britain’s Rolls Royce is trying to sell gas turbine engines for PLAN warships. The latest version of the PLAN’s new Type 039 Song-class conventional submarine bears an uncanny resemblance to the French Agosta-class conventional submarine. And the Song reportedly is powered by German MTU diesel engines.

Should the Bush administration continue to focus on Europe as the source for Taiwan’s new submarine design, it will have to start insisting on strategic and moral clarity from our allies. First, it must clearly tell Europeans that it is China who is, today and in the future, the aggressor on the Taiwan Strait. If Taiwan were to fall to Chinese military pressure, Asia’s strategic equilibrium would be threatened. It would be Communist China who would then control the sea lanes vital to Japan. Absent a strong U.S. response, a regional arms race would likely ensue, only adding to the potential for further more disastrous conflicts in the future. None of this would be in Europe’s economic or political interest.

Additionally, Europe should be alarmed by the prospect of Chinese aggression against Taiwan because of the likelihood that would quickly lead to a U.S.-China war. As Americans invested heavily in the prevention of a Soviet attack on Europe, and continues to provide significant forces and leadership in preventing greater war in the Balkans, it should be reasonable for Americans to expect European consideration regarding U.S. security interests in Asia. More to the point, given the enormous sacrifices Americans have made for European security in the last century, it is reasonable for Washington to expect Europeans to acknowledge and condemn communist Chinese aggression against democratic Taiwan.

It is also reasonable for America to demand similar moral clarity concerning arms sales. Washington should be telling its European partners that selling weapons that defend Taiwan is correct, while selling military technologies to China is wrong. Preventing as war on the Taiwan Strait by ensuring that Taiwan remains strong deters a war that would threaten the safety of Americans, as well as threaten the Asian stability that is in Europe’s direct economic interest.

However, if Europe is not capable of moral clarity on the Taiwan Strait, America has an alternative. The last U.S. conventional submarine, built in the late 1950s, called the Barbel-class, was in its time an advanced design that was used by some European countries to modernize their submarine production capabilities. While it waits for the Europeans to make up their minds, Washington should now examine the possibility of updating the Barbel design, with U.S. or European technology. Foreign and U.S. orders could account for up to fourteen submarines, enough for U.S. shipyards to enter this market and compete with Europe and Russia for the first time in forty years. If anything, this prospect should help some Europeans to clarify their policy on selling their submarine designs for Taiwan.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is the managing editor of China Brief and a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation.