Taiwan’s 20th Century Brush With a Nuclear Capability

Just how close was Taipei to going nuclear?

Taiwan’s 20th Century Brush With a Nuclear Capability
Credit: Presidential Office, Republic of China (Taiwan)

How close did Taiwan come to developing a nuclear weapons capability? Recent scholarship has painted a much clearer picture of Taiwan’s interest in developing such a capability, as well as U.S. efforts to prevent Taiwan from reaching that point. A recent monograph by David Albright and Andrea Stricker helps illuminate some aspects of Taiwan’s program, as well as the U.S. reaction. In association with this, the National Security Archive has collected a trove of unclassified documents from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, detailing the U.S. response to Taiwan’s program.

Taiwan’s interest in nuclear weapons stemmed from an acute sense of vulnerability. Although the United States held an overwhelming military advantage over China, that military advantage would not hold forever, and it left Taiwan at the mercy of Washington’s generosity. When the PRC tested a nuclear weapon in 1964, it became apparent to Taipei that a deterrent relationship of the sort that held in Europe might make the U.S. think twice about coming to Taiwan’s aid in war.

This logic was not lost on the United States, which began to worry about the program in the mid-1960s. Taiwan attempted and failed to acquire a nuclear reactor from West Germany, later successfully purchasing a Canadian reactor. Later, Taiwan pursued reprocessing capabilities, to the alarm of the U.S. State Department. Along the way, Taiwan undertook some clandestine activities, including hiding equipment designed to produce heavy water.

Taiwan took active steps to deny that it was working on a nuclear program, likely understanding that the United States would react poorly. The United States was not faintly unclear about this point, but it did not challenge Taiwan’s program in multilateral fora. Taipei sought the ability to produce device without having any specific intent to produce device. This meant that Taiwan would have the requisite materials, engineering know-how, and physical plant necessary to build a device within the time frame of a few months, presumably too short for either Beijing or Washington to stop the effort.

The situation came to a head in January 1988, when the United States exfiltrated a Taiwanese scientist who had been providing intelligence on the nuclear program. U.S. officials believed that Chang Hsien-yi had provided sufficiently specific information that it would be possible for Taiwanese intelligence to identify him, which would have led to a prosecution that would have embarrassed both sides. Word of Taiwan’s program broke into the media, including attention from The New York Times. Under pressure, Taiwan turned over its heavy water and some other equipment that it could use to support a nuclear program. By late 1988 the United States no longer had significant concerns about Taiwan’s nuclear program.

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Long story short, Taiwan was keeping its options open, and keeping its options open meant keeping the United States at arms length with respect to nuclear capabilities. But the United States handled the situation delicately. The State Department wished to avoid a situation in which Taiwan would be publicly embarrassed, or would have to privately come clean to U.S. officials. The U.S. successfully prevented what might have become a major breach of the international non-proliferation regime.

Of course, some could argue that Taiwan should have gone nuclear then; some would argue that Taiwan still should go nuclear now. That would have been very bad for the international non-proliferation regime, but may have reduced the overall chance of war with the PRC, and ensured Taiwan’s independence. While U.S. non-proliferation sentiments with respect to Taiwan are genuine, ending the Republic of China’s program also kept Taipei dependent for its security on Washington, a situation which today seems just a trifle tenuous.

The views expressed here are his personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, the Army War College, or any other department or agency of the U.S. government.