Small Wars Journal

Review Essay: Taiwan’s Former Nuclear Weapons Program: Nuclear Weapons On-Demand

Sat, 08/26/2023 - 8:30pm

Review Essay: Taiwan’s Former Nuclear Weapons Program: Nuclear Weapons On-Demand


By Tom Ordeman, Jr.


Taiwan’s Former Nuclear Weapons Program: Nuclear Weapons On-Demand

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, November 2018 / Two of Five Stars


Following an aborted Thanksgiving 2021 attempt that mostly involved me falling asleep, I recently made a concerted effort to plough through David Albright and Andrea Stricker's 2018 volume, Taiwan's Former Nuclear Weapons Program: Nuclear Weapons On-Demand. While Albright and Stricker's volume adds to the corpus of cold war case studies, its contents leave a great deal to be desired, and arguably neglect many of the most important questions raised by their subject matter.


First and foremost, unless the reader is well acquainted with nuclear weapons, they would do well to skip this book. My own postgraduate study included a module on strategic nuclear doctrine, which involved a cursory overview of the contemporary nuclear landscape; and while I understood most of the high points, I admittedly struggled with much of the poorly integrated technical minutiae. Unfortunately, while Albright and Stricker devote many pages to the technical aspects of Taiwan's nuclear program, they omit even the most casual context. Absent is any sort of checklist or outline of major development steps, challenges to be overcome, or how various pieces of contraband equipment would have contributed to this ultimate objective. Aside from a brief discussion of the criticality of computer modeling in lieu of an actual test detonation, the reader is left to wonder. The overall result is a largely chronological narrative, rife with out-of-context technical minutiae that will quickly overwhelm casual readers.


Also absent is any sort of discussion of Taiwan's potential strategic doctrine for nuclear weapons use. The authors mention collaborations with Israel and South Africa, but neglect to mention Israel's enduring doctrine of nuclear ambiguity, or South Africa's doctrine of leveraging a nuclear test to force foreign intervention in the event of an existential crisis. Passing mention is made of a notional counter-value posture in which Taipei might have answered a crisis by targeting a handful of mainland Chinese cities, but the authors offer no further study of how a notional Taiwanese nuclear capability might have been employed in service to Taiwan's strategic goals. Certainly, the manner in which Taiwan's nuclear weapons might have been integrated into Taiwan's wider defense strategy deserved some discussion.


Finally, and worthy of the most retrospection, was the authors' failure to consider the long-term ramifications of the Reagan Administration's decision to permanently curtail Taiwan's nuclear weapons program, particularly in light of present conditions. In their closing chapter, the authors reiterate a position that goes unchallenged throughout their volume:


"Few would argue today that Taiwan's lack of nuclear weapons has made it less secure in dealing with the Peoples' Republic of China; most would admit, however, that the result of Taipei obtaining those weapons could have been a disaster."

- Page 225


Could have? Certainly; and to their credit, the authors provide an adequate review of the conditions that compelled the Reagan Administration to move against Taiwan's nuclear weapons program in late 1987, though their review omits the influence of the Donggang Incident. However, by 2018, a great deal had changed on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. For example, by 2017, the problematic Taiwanese military dictatorship of 1987 had been replaced by one of the Asia-Pacific region's most successful democracies.

Conversely, the authors assert that because a Taiwanese nuclear weapons program constituted a red line for Beijing, the revelation of a successful program in 1987 would have triggered an immediate invasion by mainland Chinese forces. In fact, Beijing lacked any such capability in 1987. In 1987, Britain's turnover of Hong Kong to Chinese control under the "One China, Two Systems" agreement was nearly a decade away. At the time, during the waning months of the Cold War, Washington and Beijing enjoyed a cordial relationship.


However, once one jumps forward to the present day, the landscape looks considerably different. While Beijing would likely still struggle to mount a successful invasion of Taiwan, by the book’s November 2018 publication, the prospect of a People's Liberation Army invasion was becoming more credible with every passing year. Xi Jinping has also spent recent years leveraging Beijing's political and economic clout to further isolate Taiwan by pushing one hold-out after another to withdraw their recognition of Taipei. By 2018, Beijing's abandonment of its "One China, Two Systems" commitments in Hong Kong was already suspect; in 2019, Beijing made its goal of consolidating political control in Taiwan abundantly clear, and the likelihood of Chinese respect for Taiwan's democratic system following a notional invasion should be equally clear. These developments take place against the backdrop of Beijing's ongoing efforts to either seize or create territory in its maritime near abroad, and sustained adversarial behavior directed at both China's neighbors and Western competitors. While China's military capabilities and economic health may be in question, Xi's intent is substantially more transparent than the smog that has since replaced Beijing’s previously thin air.


Meanwhile, conditions in America have also changed. In 1987, it was difficult to envision a future in which the United States might fail to defend Taiwanese autonomy. However, the Obama Administration's isolationist tendencies led to both foreign and domestic concerns about American resolve to defend traditional allies and partners, the Biden White House has sent mixed signals about America's resolve to defend Taiwan, and even previously Taiwan-friendly Donald Trump has signaled his own reticence to defend Taiwan during a prospective second term. On the one hand, the Biden Administration has offered consistent support to Ukraine, and implemented China-isolating initiatives like the CHIPS and Science Act and a new regime of export controls on semiconductors. On the other, growing concerns about American resolve reached a fever pitch following the Biden Administration's chaotic 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. Indeed, Vladimir Putin's estimation of Biden's resolve likely influenced the decision to launch Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and Taiwan's notional similarity to Ukraine raises serious questions about Washington's commitment to Taiwan's defense.


Could Taiwan have completed development of a credible nuclear deterrent simultaneous to its maturation as a functioning democracy? In lieu of squashing the program, could Washington have shepherded Taipei while ensuring that Taiwan's breakout nuclear weapons program fell under responsible domestic arms controls? Could Taiwan's unique extra-legal status have allowed Washington to circumvent the restrictive Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? By 2018, could a credible Taiwanese nuclear deterrent have ensured that the protection of Taiwan's autonomy remained central to America's strategic engagement in East Asia, while actively deterring Beijing's adventurism? What about the context of the 2017 Chinese border standoff against nuclear-armed India, which has continued in recent years? In the event that Beijing elects to follow Russia's example by launching an invasion of Taiwan, and the White House fails to act, inhabitants of the Republic of China will not be alone in wondering if their suspended nuclear weapons program could have prevented Taiwan's annexation by Beijing. However, these obvious questions go wholly unanswered; Albright and Stricker let their own premise go entirely unchallenged.


Perhaps most baffling of all is Albright and Stricker's final chapter, which lists apparent lessons for de-nuclearization and counter-proliferation. In every such case, the authors neglect to acknowledge the legal nuance of Taiwan's unique status, which renders any applicable lessons tenuous when applied to the circumstances of other countries. Of note in this regard are the authors' citations of North Korea and Saudi Arabia. In the former case, the authors write:


"As the United States was secretly working to denuclearize Taiwan in 1988, China was largely ignoring its close ally North Korea's growing nuclear weapons program... China did not do the United States any favors or copy the U.S. approach in Taiwan by applying economic and security leverage to ensure North Korea did not build nuclear weapons. A sobering lesson is that while the United States acted responsibly, China did not. Even today, many of the same reasons for Taiwan not to build nuclear weapons apply to North Korea's on-going possession of them. Its security situation is worsening, and it faces severe challenges in developing economically in the face of economic sanctions... If [China] wants to avoid war and promote peaceful development on the Korean peninsula, it should ensure via applying severe leverage that North Korea denuclearizes."

- page 236


Setting aside the questionable claim that Pyongyang's security situation is worsening, the North Korean nuclear program illustrates precisely the opposite of what the authors claim. Neither the Xi nor Kim regimes want peaceful development on the Korean peninsula; instead, they want leverage against Western and allied nations that they perceive to be adversaries. Just as the Reagan Administration did in Taiwan in 1987, if Xi wished to do so, Beijing could eliminate Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program overnight. While the United States "acted responsibly," Beijing continues to act in its own strategic interest by utilizing North Korea as a buffer between China and democratic South Korea. Pyongyang's nuclear program ensures that buffer's continuation. If anything, Washington's move against the Taiwanese nuclear weapons program eliminated that program as leverage for negotiating a deal that could have de-nuclearized North Korea and Taiwan simultaneously. Instead, Beijing and Pyongyang both continue to benefit from Pyongyang’s illicit nuclear arsenal. Particularly in light of the grisly 2011 fate of Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddhafi, which followed the surrender of his own nuclear weapons program, the failure of Albright and Stricker - themselves representatives of the Institute for Science and International Security - to understand this situation is baffling.


Further, in the case of Saudi Arabia, the authors write:


"When it comes to U.S. allies, the Taiwan case argues to always link bilateral relations to allies maintaining commitments not to pursue reprocessing, uranium enrichment, or nuclear weaponization. A test case today for exerting U.S. leverage is Saudi Arabia. It should be expected to agree to forgo reprocessing and enrichment as a condition of U.S. security and nuclear cooperation. If it moves forward with developing these capabilities, the United States should threaten an end to both nuclear and military cooperation."

- page 225-226


Unfortunately, it would be difficult for the Saudi government to interpret the case of Taiwan as anything short of an inducement to develop a nuclear deterrent, irrespective of American counter-proliferation efforts. In late 2013, reports circulated that the Saudi government had nuclear weapons "on order" from Pakistan. Then, in March of 2018 - eight months before this book's publication - Riyadh once again pledged to develop a nuclear deterrent if Iran's efforts to do the same were not curtailed. In 2015, as news outlets reported that Saudi Arabia had lost faith in the United States, the Saudis engaged in aggressive price manipulation of the oil market in an effort to induce Iran to accept a binding nuclear deal. However, reports indicated that officials in Riyadh were frustrated, rather than reassured, by the controversial Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Saudi-American relations seemed to improve under the Trump Administration before cooling once more with Joe Biden’s return to the White House. In 2022, de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman casually declined Biden's request to increase oil production, an apparent indicator of the White House's diminished credibility and influence in Riyadh.


The authors suggest that American officials should make security guarantees contingent upon a Saudi commitment not to develop nuclear weapons. Instead, recent geopolitical developments in the Gulf, in addition to Taiwan’s enduring example, suggest precisely the opposite: if Washington wishes to prevent Riyadh from securing a nuclear deterrent, this objective is best accomplished by credible American security guarantees, to include successful prevention of an Iranian nuclear deterrent capability.


Ultimately, Albright and Stricker offer valuable historical context on a seldom-discussed and perpetually relevant historical topic. However, their narrative is difficult to follow, they tend to create more proverbial smoke than light, they fail to provide any discussion of core questions, and their ultimate conclusions betray their lack of strategic understanding. For these reasons, I rate this book two of five stars.


About the Author(s)

Tom Ordeman, Jr. is an Oregon-based information security professional, freelance military historian, and former federal contractor. A graduate with Distinction from the University of Aberdeen’s MSc program in Strategic Studies, he holds multiple DoD and industry security certifications. Between 2006 and 2017, he supported training and enterprise risk management requirements for multiple DoD and federal civilian agencies. His research interests include the modern history of the Sultanate of Oman, and the exploits of the Gordon Highlanders during the First World War. His opinions are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of any entity with which he is associated.