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Yes, Taiwan Needs Nuclear Weapons to Deter China

Taiwan Nuclear Weapons
Image: Creative Commons.

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, I argued over at the Washington Examiner that Taiwan needs nuclear weapons to deter China. James Holmes, the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a fellow 1945 contributing editor, disagreed on these pages.

Below I re-engage both because Dr. Holmes makes smart points and because this is a debate worth having.

Holmes outlined the core of his argument here: “Does a deterrent strategy demand atomic deterrence? Not necessarily. It’s far from clear that nuclear weapons deter much apart from nuclear bombardment—the type of aggression least likely to befall Taiwan.”

I am unsure, however, if Holmes’ assumptions support his conclusions.

Consider, in order:

-Holmes states: “CCP [Chinese Communist Party] overseers are vastly more likely to resort to military measures short of nuclear arms.” However, it is because Taiwan could never match China conventionally that Taiwan might need nuclear arms. Otherwise, Taipei will simply be the next ‘slice of salami’ after the South China Sea and Hong Kong.

-Holmes also argues, “History has shown that nuclear weapons stand little chance of deterring nonnuclear aggression.” Here, I disagree. The lesson of history is opposite: There is no greater deterrence to conventional aggression than nuclear weapons. This was certainly the case during the Cold War and also governed the thinking behind Israel’s nuclear capability. The major U.S. concern regarding Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons is that Iranian leaders might believe a nuclear deterrence makes them immune to conventional accountability and so believe they can lash out or engage in terror without consequence. Discussing a potential White House change in U.S. nuclear policy, Georgetown University Professor Caitlin Talmadge tweeted, “Allies’ basic concern is that the U.S. nuclear umbrella defends them not only from nuclear attack but also conventional attack. A pledge to never use nuclear weapons first sounds good unless you need those weapons to deter a conventionally superior adversary.”

-Holmes continues to explain, “A threat to visit a Hiroshima or Nagasaki on, say, Shanghai in retaliation for low-level aggression would be implausible.” This is true but what Taiwan faces is not a “low-level aggression” but an existential threat to its existence as a free country.

-After a discourse about former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Holmes writes, “Taiwan could field a nuclear arsenal… But would Chinese Communist magnates find the island’s atomic arsenal and displays of willpower convincing?” Here, I would commend the work of my American Enterprise Institute colleague and brilliant demographer Nicholas Eberstadt. Eberstadt has argued that because of a combination of decades of Chinese one-child policy as well as a gender balance that skews male, Beijing’s rulers face a problem: Their military rests on young men who are the sole guarantors for the financial well-being of an aging society. China has not fought a major war since this demographic imbalance became so stark. To order a conflict that would result in the deaths of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of young men would have a profound ripple effect on China’s social fabric and perhaps its stability. This simple fact suggests that China’s communist aristocracy would find Taiwanese atomic willpower convincing.

-Holmes makes a more sobering observation when he notes, “Founding CCP chairman Mao Zedong once derided nukes as a ‘paper tiger.’ A quarter-century ago a PLA general (apparently) joked that Washington would never trade Los Angeles for Taipei.” This really is the crux of the matter. The question then becomes whether any alliance is worth Los Angeles. What is certain is that a U.S. refusal to defend its allies will ultimately invite aggression that down the line would just as easily threaten Los Angeles. Fortunately, for all of Beijing’s bluster, it is unlikely to precipitate nuclear war over Taiwan; rather, it is more likely to push its claims to Taiwan back to the realm of theoretical rather than actionable.

Holmes and I could probably agree that wiser leadership and a more coherent strategy under presidents of both parties might likely have enabled us to head off such a discussion or policy prescriptions. There is a conceit in Washington that there is always a good option to rectify a mistake, but when driving a car off a precipice, it is too late to urge the driver to turn left or right.

Perhaps rather than lionize him, strategists should condemn Kissinger for his repeated prioritization of short-term gain over long-term success. Had Kissinger not approached Chinese communists with such naiveté, both during the Nixon and Ford administrations and after, the United States and Asia would not face such a potent enemy. That can be a debate for another day (up for it, Professor Holmes? It could be fun).

That said, after the George W. Bush and Obama administrations failed to counter China’s aggression in the South China Sea and after Trump’s team proved hollow as China broke its treaty commitments and smothered Hong Kong’s freedom, it is crucial to recognize that strategies that would maintain Taiwan’s freedom are few and falling.

Simply put, Taiwan needs nuclear weapons now.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Jim Damien

    November 5, 2021 at 5:59 pm

    Absolutely true. Taiwan is one shining example of democratic community as a nation. And China is unlike any type of neighboring country that flies fighter planes daily threatening existence of Taiwan. So the sole guarantor of (Taiwan) its existence is to possess the devise which is so devastating that the other side has to think twice thrice before ever sending their firepower. North Korea proved it. Pakistan and India proved it.

  2. David Chang

    November 5, 2021 at 9:15 pm

    Because Democratic Party don’t admit the Sin of Truman and Oppenheimer in World War II, many people claim that deterrence policy is effective to prevent nuclear war.

    However, Eisenhower and Trump, as well as Kissinger and von Neumann, think the true meaning of deterrence is that nuclear weapons must be used in the end, so deterrence is the actual nuclear war, not the boast.

    Therefore, we don’t want to make more risks in nuclear war.

    In addition, the history of World World II between United States and China you said is not real.

    Because of the cooperation between Democratic Party and Communist Party, Communist Party occupied mainland China, then occupied Vietnam.

    Nixon and Kissinger bear the Sin of Democratic Party.
    So it is immoral to accuse Nixon or Kissinger.

    The thought of long telegram is wrong, because people don’t ask Soviet Union to trust God, and flaunt that containment is effective. But, they make Soviet Union easy to propagate atheism to other countries.

    Moreover, Taiwan province is a part of Republic of China, people in Taiwan province has no determination to fight socialism party by themselves, so people in America should not die for it.

    Unless all people in the world agree that this is the final war.

    Even the minister of Defense of R.O.C. promise for fighting socialism party to the end, but U.S. Army once talk about the question in hearing, when is the final war?

    If we remember the wrong thoughts in Vietnam War,
    we will defeat socialism party and worship God together.

    God bless all people.
    May God’s mercy on us.

  3. WZ

    November 5, 2021 at 9:26 pm

    Dumb argument. If there is any hint Taiwan is building nuclear weapons then China will preemptively strike with conventional warfare, in order to prevent “weapons of mass destruction” threatening its population. Sound familiar? Ever heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis – same dynamics. Having US troops on Taiwan already gifted the CCP the premise now for a strike, since if Taiwan is used as a platform and base by a hostile power then it’s more than fair game. Think counterfactually – what do you think the US reaction is if Chinese troops is on Cuba??

  4. Greg

    November 5, 2021 at 10:30 pm

    Nuclear weapons don’t necessarily deter reprisals or punitive actions. But history clearly shows nuclear weapons are an effective deterrent to existential threats. Israel and Egypt in the Yom Kippur war were a perfect example. Read the words of Anwar Sadat if anyone doubts it.

  5. Frank M.

    November 6, 2021 at 2:32 pm

    With very few exceptions, policy outcomes over the long-term have borne very poor results for the country. The vaunted experts are not so expert.

  6. Heywood Jablowme

    November 9, 2021 at 10:49 pm

    The USA should give Taiwan 5 nuclear warheads and the delivery systems to allow those warheads to reach China’s 5 largest cities. Once those systems are in place, Taiwan needs to broadcast their new-found deterrence (testing a warhead in the South China Sea would be the perfect forum). This will send Beijing a clear message that any invasion would result in disaster for the Communists and preserve peace in Asia. When was the last time a nuclear armed country was invaded and conquered? I’ll wait for your answer.

  7. Jack O'Leary

    November 10, 2021 at 8:34 am

    One author (I don’t remember who) stated about 10 years ago that Taiwan could assemble several nuclear warheads over a long weekend. They made the same comment about Japan, and further noted that Japan had stockpiled sufficient plutonium for a fair number of nukes. Can anyone validate or demolish those statements?

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