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(CNN) -- Taiwan unveiled its first domestically built submarine on Thursday, an achievement the leader of the island democracy hailed as a major milestone as Taipei works to boost its military deterrence in the face of a growing threat from Beijing.

President Tsai Ing-wen presided over a ceremony at the submarine's shipyard in the southern city of Kaohsiung, where the diesel-electric hybrid vessel was officially named "Narwhal" in English and "Hai Kun" in Mandarin, which can be loosely translated as "sea monster."

"The submarine is an important realization of our concrete commitment to defend our country," Tsai said. "It is also an important piece of equipment for our naval forces in developing asymmetric warfare strategies."

"In the past, many people thought that building an indigenous submarine would be an impossible task. But we did it," he added.

The ceremony was a significant personal moment for Tsai, who launched a flagship defense policy to build the first national submarine shortly after taking office in 2016.


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Taiwan's president delivers a speech at the launch ceremony of the first Taiwan-built submarine, in Kaohsiung on September 28. (Credit: Eric Cheung/CNN)

Taiwanese defense chiefs hope the submarines will help make a potential invasion by China, which claims the island as its territory and has stepped up its saber-rattling in recent years, much more difficult.

Journalists took a tour of the interior of the submarine's shipyard but were not allowed to take close-up photographs for safety reasons.

Details about the size or capacity of the ship were also not revealed during the ceremony, which was also attended by Sandra Oudkirk, Washington's de facto ambassador to Taiwan, as well as representatives of the Japanese and South Korean missions in Taipei.

Tsai said the indigenous submarine project was "a top priority" of her administration.

With the addition of the "Narwhal", Taiwan will have a total of three submarines by 2025; It already has two Dutch-made submarines that were first put into service in the 1980s.

Taiwan has previously said it plans to build a total of eight indigenous submarines.

Asked about the new submarine at a monthly press briefing Thursday, China's Defense Ministry compared the vessel to "a mantis trying to stop a car," invoking a common Chinese idiom.

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Defending the first island chain

At an internal briefing attended by CNN last week, Adm. Huang Shu-kuang, an adviser to Taiwan's National Security Council and leader of the indigenous submarine project, said the new fleet will play a key role in preventing Beijing from carrying out a naval blockade of the island.

While the Taiwan Strait may be too shallow for submarines to operate, the vessels could be most useful when deployed to attack Chinese warships in the Bashi Channel, which separates Taiwan from the Philippines, and the waters between Taiwan and Japan's westernmost islands, he said.

Because China's access to the Pacific Ocean is limited by the first island chain – which includes Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines – its naval forces would need to pass through these two strategic points to gain access to the wider ocean.

Dozens of naval officers at the submarine's shipyard welcome President Tsai Ing-wen to the launch ceremony in Kaohsiung on September 28, 2023. (Credit: Eric Cheung/CNN)

Therefore, Huang said, Taiwan can help limit China's military power projection by deploying its submarines there.

In the event of a military conflict, the Chinese Navy "will definitely want to enter the area east of Taiwan to surround us and limit the U.S. intervention capability," Huang said at the briefing.

"Because submarines can operate in deep water and are difficult to detect, they have a better chance of approaching (Chinese) aircraft carriers" and launching attacks.

That assessment was shared by Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, who said the new submarine fleet would help Taiwan build a "more credible second-strike capability."

"China is very focused on countering what it sees as possible U.S. military intervention, and has planned a major naval engagement with the United States outside the first island chain, around the Philippine Sea," he said.

"If the Taiwanese want to contribute to that, then one way to do that is to suppress the PLA Navy within the first island chain, not allow it to leave and help make the U.S. military intervention successful," he added.

Admiral Huang also said the submarines are designed with the ability to carry US-made MK-48 torpedoes, which can be used to target surface ships.

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A challenging journey

Taiwan has increasingly emphasized a policy of defense self-sufficiency, which has seen the island step up its domestic weapons development to modernize its armed forces and rely less on overseas procurement.

Tsai took office at a time when Taiwan had been struggling to persuade the United States and European nations to sell the island expensive military hardware items.

That has become less of an issue in recent years as Beijing ratchets up diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Taipei and the United States in particular has approved a series of large military sales under President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump.

But Taiwan's local military procurement program remains a linchpin of its defense strategy, particularly when it comes to systems like anti-ship missiles that could defend against a potential invasion.

A video showing the construction and testing of the submarine is shown during the launch ceremony in Kaohsiung on September 28. (Credit: Eric Cheung/CNN)

In March, CNN visited a Taiwanese state facility developing military weapons, for the introduction of five new types of indigenous military drones that are capable of monitoring and launching airstrikes.

Taiwan's success in building its first submarine could help ease some concerns about its military readiness as Beijing increasingly asserts its territorial claims on the island democracy of 23.5 million people.

China's ruling Communist Party regards Taiwan as part of its territory, despite never having controlled it. Beijing has long vowed that the island must be "unified" with the Chinese mainland, by force if necessary, while Taiwanese authorities strongly reject China's territorial claims over it.

Beijing has increased pressure on Taiwan under Xi Jinping, China's most assertive leader in a generation.

In recent years, Chinese fighter jets, bombers and surveillance aircraft have conducted an increasing number of sorties around the island, while Chinese warships have crossed the unofficial Midline traversing the Taiwan Strait with increasing frequency.

Last summer, the Chinese military launched massive exercises to protest then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.

Taiwan unveiled its first domestically built submarine, the 'Narwhal', at a shipyard in Kaohsiung. (Credit: Eric Cheung/CNN)

At the internal briefing, Admiral Huang said Taiwan first tried to build a new submarine fleet when former President Lee Teng-hui founded a task force in 1995, but faced difficulties as the United States was reluctant to sell its submarines to the island.

The project formally began in 2016, after Tsai took office.

He said the process of building Taiwan's first submarine had been very challenging due to budget constraints, delays resulting from global chip shortages and concerns about possible Chinese espionage.

The project involved a total of 1,003 Taiwanese, most of whom participated in designing the submarine's blueprint, Huang said. All personnel were subject to the surveillance of a military security division to ensure that no secrets were leaked.

Huang said he was given a budget of $1.540 billion (NT$49.360 billion) to build the first ship. About 60% of the budget was spent on acquiring military materials and equipment overseas, but he believed that percentage would decline in the future as Taiwan's domestic submarine shipbuilding industry matured.

He declined to disclose which countries approved export permits for Taiwan, but said he had communicated with senior military leaders of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Japan, South Korea and India.

After the submarine was unveiled, it will enter sea trials next month before entering service next year.