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U.S. Promised Subs to Taiwan It Doesn't Have

Foreign policy: Military balance with China teeters as the White House tries to fulfill its pledge to help the island nation defend itself.


WASHINGTON — Barely three months after taking office, President Bush reversed three decades of American foreign policy in Asia by opening the way for Taiwan to buy eight diesel submarines.

It was an impressive action, the centerpiece of a huge package of new arms supplies that appeared to make good on Bush's campaign promise to help Taiwan defend itself.

There was one catch: There are no submarines to sell Taiwan.

When the White House made the announcement, the Bush administration had little or no idea how it could carry through on its promise. Some of the information on which the administration relied turns out to have been wrong.

And ever since then, U.S. officials have been struggling to figure out where Taiwan's submarines will come from.

"I don't get any sense at all that in making this decision the administration gamed it out in advance," said Jonathan Pollack, chairman of strategic research at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

Los Angeles Times Saturday August 4, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Dutch firm--The Times reported July 15 that the Dutch shipbuilder RDM Holding Inc. is 50% owned by the Dutch government. Although RDM was state-owned in the past, it is now 100% privately owned. Dutch officials say the government has a continuing ownership interest in the designs for some of RDM's submarines.

At stake are not only billions of dollars in defense contracts but also the military balance between China and Taiwan. If Taiwan doesn't get new submarines, the United States may have to come up with some other way of helping the island nation to offset China's growing naval power--or else face the prospect that China might be able to impose a blockade on Taiwan's ports.

"The Department of Defense is looking at several different options" for helping Taiwan obtain its submarines, Mary Ellen Countryman, the White House spokeswoman for national security affairs, said Friday.

The story behind the nonexistent submarines shows what can happen when major foreign policy decisions are made in a crisis atmosphere and without careful planning.

The problem, in a nutshell, is this: The United States hasn't manufactured diesel submarines for decades--not since the 1950s, when the Navy, under the prodding of Adm. Hyman Rickover, decided to rely exclusively on nuclear submarines.

The United States produces nuclear subs but doesn't export them; the Navy doesn't want U.S. technology spread around the world.

But the two countries that are the world's principal exporters of diesel submarines, Germany and the Netherlands, refuse to build submarines or even sell sub designs that will go to Taiwan. They are unwilling to offend China, which considers Taiwan part of its own territory.

The Bush administration did not check with either the Germans or the Dutch before its decision.

"We read about it in the newspapers," said Henrik Schuwer, deputy chief of mission at the Dutch Embassy in Washington. "We went in [to the administration] and said, 'What is this?' "

Hans Dieter Lucas, a spokesman for the German Embassy in Washington, confirms that his government was left in the dark too. "There were no talks whatsoever."

In the weeks since Bush's decision, his administration has been exploring several scenarios to get Taiwan submarines, all of them problematic:

* Persuade the Europeans. In theory, at least, the German or Dutch government might reverse course and allow Taiwan to obtain their submarines, perhaps under pressure from the Bush administration. Yet that would require a major diplomatic campaign by the United States, one with a high risk of failure.

* All-American Sub. The United States might design and build a new diesel sub for Taiwan. But an American-designed sub would be considerably more expensive and take longer to build than obtaining the off-the-shelf European versions. Taiwan may balk at this more costly option.

* No Questions Asked. The U.S. government might simply contract with an American defense company to build the submarines and leave it up to the private company to obtain German or Dutch designs under the table. But doing that could be illegal if the European governments don't want the designs to go to Taiwan.

"My sense is that they [the Bush administration] thought that there was a chance the Dutch or the Germans might go along," said former U.S. Ambassador to China James Lilley, who served in the first Bush administration. "Or that maybe we could do it on our own. Or if that didn't work, maybe the problem would disappear."

"I have my doubts those submarines will ever be delivered," said Damon Bristow, an Asian defense specialist at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

The following account is based in part upon interviews with seven U.S. government officials who participated in the Bush administration's meetings regarding the submarines. The officials spoke to a reporter on condition they would not be identified by name.

Clandestine Submarines

In January, Bush and his new foreign policy team took office knowing that they confronted a major decision within months about arms sales to Taiwan.

Once a year, Taiwan military officials come to Washington with a shopping list of defense items, and each April, the U.S. government decides which weapons Taiwan will be allowed to buy. The United States is Taiwan's leading supporter and its most dependable arms supplier.

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