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Russians talk subs with Taipei

21 June 2001

By: Wendell Minnick, JDW correspondent in Taipei

Robert Karniol, JDW Asia-Pacific Editor Bangkok

Private individuals from Russia are pursuing exploratory discussions with Taiwan on the latter's capability to build the Russian-designed Kilo-class diesel-electric patrol submarine, according to locally-based defence sources.

The talks are reportedly "unsanctioned by either government". This may well be the case with respect to the Russians involved, as Moscow has strong political and economic ties with Beijing. However, on the Taiwanese side, such a programme would almost certainly be led by the Ministry of Defence's Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology, with construction by state-owned China Shipbuilding.

Taiwan has long been eager to acquire new submarines to supplement or replace its current fleet, with some sources suggesting a requirement for six to 12 platforms. The navy now operates two Hai Lung-class boats obtained from the Netherlands and commissioned in 1987/88 and two US-built Guppy II-class boats dating from the mid-1940s. China blocked all previous efforts to obtain additional platforms.

However, the Bush administration reversed earlier US policy in April with its stated support for Taiwan's acquisition of eight diesel-electric submarines (Jane's Defence Weekly 2 May). Initial reports suggested that these boats could be built in the USA from a Dutch or German design but Amsterdam and Berlin were quick to reject this option. It remains unclear how this project will be pursued.

Taiwanese officials are known to have informally explored the acquisition of Russian submarines around a decade ago, but these enquiries were firmly rejected. A subsequent initiative saw Taipei seek to hire Russian designers and technicians on private contract, a move that Beijing would find difficult to block, but this first initiative aimed at local construction ultimately produced no result.

The current talks appear to replicate these earlier discussions, centring on the hiring of specialised personnel under private contract. Moscow would find it difficult to restrict the movement of private citizens in such circumstances, regardless of China's displeasure.

Locally-based defence industry sources, together with US government sources, are nevertheless sceptical such a plan could succeed because of political and technical reasons. Among other constraints, they argue that Taiwan lacks the capability to build such a complex platform, even with outside help.