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Why Taiwan Should Be Included in the US Nuclear Umbrella

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Why Taiwan Should Be Included in the US Nuclear Umbrella

While providing Taiwan with nuclear weapons may not be practical, including Taiwan under the U.S. nuclear umbrella is a feasible alternative.

Why Taiwan Should Be Included in the US Nuclear Umbrella
Credit: Depositphotos

Recently, there have been debates across the Pacific about whether the United States should include Taiwan under its nuclear umbrella, sparked by Taiwan’s legislative session. In response to an question from a legislator in the Foreign and National Defense Committee, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu confirmed – for the first time – that the issue has been discussed, without elaborating as to the content of the discussion. This confirmation alone has brought the sensitive topic to the forefront, unnerving Taiwanese society. 

It is worth noting that Taiwan previously explored the possibility of developing its own nuclear weapons from the 1960s into the ’80s. However, these efforts were thwarted by the United States, which is the island’s only security provider. Taiwan dismantled the nuclear reactor at the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science & Technology after evidence surfaced of efforts to produce weapons-grade plutonium. This had significant implications for Taiwan’s national defense strategy and was closely tied to the evolving relationship between the United States, China, and Taiwan.

In the early 1960s, Taiwan became interested in developing nuclear weapons after China conducted its first atomic bomb test at Lop Nur. While this achievement bolstered China’s military capabilities, it also posed a threat to the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Taiwan. The authoritarian government sought to counterattack mainland China, but lacked the necessary weaponry to balance China’s nuclear advancements. Fearing that a counterattack could result in complete destruction by nuclear bombs, the KMT government believed that developing nuclear weapons was not only crucial to fulfilling its ambition, but also a necessary act of self-defense.

During this time, Taiwan prioritized nuclear weapons research as a benchmark policy, even secretly collaborating with Israel to develop the necessary equipment using indigenous methods. Despite opposition from scientists at the Academia Sinica, a nuclear engineering research institute was established at National Tsing Hua University. The National Chung-Shan Institute of Science & Technology, under the Ministry of National Defense, also participated in efforts to cultivate the research talent needed to manufacture nuclear weapons. Notably, military officers were sent to the United States to specialize in nuclear engineering. Among them, Dr. Chang Hsien-yi played a decisive role in Taiwan’s nuclear weapons research and development during this period, even in its aftermath. 

Chang earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee, following his graduation from the Department of Physics at the Army Academy of Science and Technology (now Chung Cheng Institute of Technology, National Defense University). After completing his doctorate, he returned to Taiwan and joined the First Institute of the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science & Technology (now Institute of Nuclear Energy Research, Atomic Energy Council), where he specialized in nuclear development. Chang quickly rose through the ranks to become the deputy director of the institute in 1984.

While highly respected by the KMT government, Chang was secretly recruited by the CIA, who were able to monitor Taiwan’s progress in nuclear weapons research and development through years of contact. In 1988, Chang defected to the United States and testified before the U.S. Congress, providing evidence of Taiwan’s nuclear weapons research and development. After the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, the United States worked alongside the International Atomic Energy Agency to close the laboratory in Taiwan, effectively ending the country’s nuclear weapons program, with President Lee Teng-hui’s agreement.

Taiwan’s decision to pursue nuclear capabilities was driven by its need for strategic defense, as a means of self-preservation in a challenging geopolitical context. While China’s first nuclear test was one factor, it is important to note that Taiwan’s isolated diplomatic status played an equally significant role in the decision. During the 1970s, Taiwan experienced numerous diplomatic setbacks, including losing its seat in the United Nations and the United States establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. The United States was unwilling to provide Taiwan with diplomatic recognition or clear security guarantees, and instead strongly opposed Taiwan’s nuclear program, leaving Taiwan isolated in the international arena and without strategic barriers for defense. This vulnerability made Taiwan highly susceptible to being annexed by China, which was not in Taiwan’s interest, nor that of the United States.

In his article titled “Say Goodbye to Taiwan,” John J. Mearsheimer suggests that in order to prevent a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, two options are available: Taiwan must either be included under the U.S. nuclear umbrella or have nuclear weapons of its own. By choosing either option, the possibility of Chinese aggression would decrease, he argues. The United States has rejected the latter option, but it must commit to the former in order to alleviate any doubts regarding U.S. support for Taiwan. The inclusion of Taiwan under the U.S. nuclear umbrella would be beneficial to both Taiwan and the United States. It would send a stronger signal to China that the U.S. is committed to defending its allies in the region and that any aggression toward Taiwan would be met with a strong response. This would strengthen the deterrent against potential Chinese aggression, promote regional stability, and enhance security. 

While providing Taiwan with nuclear weapons may not be practical, including Taiwan under the U.S. nuclear umbrella is a practical alternative. As Taiwan approaches its presidential election season, this firm nuclear guarantee would be the best way to dispel any doubts about U.S. support for Taiwan’s security and prosperity, and eliminate the possibility of China driving a wedge between the two.