TAIPEI, Taiwan -- President Ma Ying-jeou is trying to resurrect Project Diving Dragon to create more job opportunities in the shipbuilding industry.
Under the project, which was aborted five years ago, Taiwan would build eight conventional diesel-powered submarines, which President George W. Bush authorized as part of the U.S. arms sales in 2001.
At least five top-level defense meetings have been held to evaluate the possibility that the eight underwater warships can be locally assembled, sources close to the National Security Council said yesterday.
No unanimous agreement was reached, sources said.
Final reports on the meetings, which offered a number of options but recommended construction of the submarines in Taiwan, are being prepared for President Ma's approval.
Ma is likely to give the green light for the local construction to stimulate the economy and help reduce unemployment, sources revealed.
It's not an easy job to resurrect Project Diving Dragon.
First of all, Washington's nod is required. America's full support is needed to arm the submarines and make them operable, too.
The previous Democratic Progressive Party administration took no action on the purchase of the eight submarines for years until 2004.
When it finally proposed a special budget for the purchase, the Legislative Yuan under control of the then-opposition Kuomintang refused to act on it because an exorbitant NT$412.1 billion price tag was attached to the eight conventional submarines.
James Soong, chairman of the People First Party, called the deal “a fool's arms purchase.” His party, together with the Kuomintang, formed a paper-thin majority in the Legislative Yuan.
The United States has already phased out construction of conventional submarines and the Pentagon wanted Taiwan to buy them from a third country. Taiwan proposed Project Diving Dragon.
Washington modified the sales in 2007, after Taiwan's submarine building project was turned down. The Ministry of National Defense has continued to phase in the purchase in small installments, which has yet to be concluded.
The fact is that the deal is being stalled.
Opinion is divided over whether the eight submarines should be built in Taiwan.
Just like at the time the project was aborted, many brass hats doubt Taiwan's shipbuilding capability. General Tang Yao-ming, the then-minister of national defense, testified at a Legislative Yuan committee meeting in 2004 nobody could guarantee the seaworthiness of locally built submarines.
“If sailors are killed in a test run, who is going to take responsibility?” questioned Tang, an air force general. Similar questions are being asked now.
But shipbuilders are confident they are up to the job.
“A research plan is under way to build submarine hulls up to the international standard,” said Wang Keh-hsuan, vice general manager of the CSBC Corp., Taiwan.
Wang said his state-owned company formerly known as China Shipbuilding Corporation is fully equipped to build submarines with 2,000 to 3,000 deadweight tons.
“Of course, all weapons and communications systems will have to be purchased from abroad,” Wang added. “We are all set to undertake the construction, if it is offered,” he stressed.
Fears over the safety of locally-built submarines is legitimate, but that's the challenge Taiwan has to take if it wants to have submarines of its own.
Opponents should be reminded that Japan sacrificed hundreds of officers and men to finally succeed in building its own submarines and the Zero fighter, both the best in the world at the time of their debut prior to Pearl Harbor in 1941.
A number of newly built submarines submerged but never came up in their test runs. Many test pilots were killed when their new Zero fighters crash-landed.
Even if a locally-built submarine is more costly than one purchased from abroad, Taiwan has to build its own underwater fighting craft, because naval powers around the world refuse to sell them to Taiwan for fear they might offend the People's Republic.