Taiwan – Nuclear deterrence against China

Taiwan – Nuclear Deterrence against China

Last August, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his « deep concern » about the « rapid growth » of China’s nuclear arsenal with Southeast Asian foreign ministers. He accused Beijing of « sharply deviating from its decades-old nuclear strategy based on minimum deterrence. » This is the US’ official response from the highest level after various US think tanks over the past few months have claimed that China is building a great number of « new missile silos » in Yumen of Northwest China’s Gansu Province and in the Hami region in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Since losing mainland China to the Chinese Communist Party, the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan, has remained a significant flashpoint in East Asia. While Taiwan pursued, and abandoned, nuclear weapons programs in the past, its current relationship to nonproliferation regimes remains ambiguous, as most countries do not recognize its sovereignty. Should Taiwan have nuclear weapons to deal with the threat of invasion from China? On the other hand, Taiwan may have other deterrence options besides costly and controversial nuclear weapons.

For three generations, U.S. diplomats have purchased what they imagined to be the Chinese Communist Party’s good will by serial reductions in America’s own geopolitical interest in Taiwan. They have refused to see that tiny Taiwan is key to Beijing’s political vulnerabilities and ambitions. The ambiguity and flexibility of U.S. policy made it easier for China’s Communist regime gradually to secure its domestic legitimacy as well as to reduce America’s influence in the Western Pacific. It also has enabled Beijing to establish the political and military conditions for forcefully taking the island. Acknowledging this error, reversing what has been basic U.S.–China policy since 1949 by putting Taiwan beyond Beijing’s reach politically as well as militarily, is essential to avoiding an increasingly likely war for the Western Pacific. Nothing would so surely change Beijing’s calculus on Taiwan as the presence there of nuclear weapons targeted on the Party’s leadership. The Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan, a mere 23 million people, challenges the Communist regime’s legitimacy by reminding the mainland’s 1.4 billion Chinese that they are not free. Dominating the China Sea from the south to the north, the ROC is the fortress that Beijing must conquer if it is to establish control over its ocean flank. And over Japan’s lifeline. So long as Taiwan is free, Beijing cannot expel American influence from the Western Pacific. Taiwan’s place atop Beijing’s priorities has never been in doubt. From Chiang Kai-shek’s founding of the ROC on Taiwan in 1949, the Beijing regime demanded that the U.S. denounce it as the precondition for continuing its then good relations with the Washington foreign policy establishment. Secretary of State Dean Acheson agreed, and gave Beijing all that the U.S. political system allowed. That is why he refused to believe that Mao would challenge the U.S. in Korea. When Mao did sponsor and then lead the 1950 Korean invasion, the Truman administration ordered the U.S. Seventh Fleet to prevent the ROC from attacking Beijing from the rear. Thus did the establishment compound its stupidity.

Two decades later, China’s Communist regime was in bigger trouble, having defied Moscow politically and militarily. It feared Soviet nuclear strikes on its own nuclear program, and was facing fifty-three nuclear-armed Soviet divisions on the Amur River border. It begged for help from the Nixon administration—the only power that might restrain the angry Bear. When Henry Kissinger went to China in 1971, its Prime Minister Zhou Enlai was over the proverbial barrel—the classic demandeur. Nevertheless, Zhou boldly demanded that the U.S. de-recognize the Republic of China on Taiwan as the price for being allowed to pull Beijing’s chestnuts out of the Bear’s maw. Henry Kissinger agreed, in arguably his greatest show of incompetence. U.S. de-recognition effectively turned Taiwan into an international outlaw. A decade after that, the Reagan administration proved to be a brief, partial exception to incompetence. In January 1977, George H. W. Bush, director of Central Intelligence and recently U.S. ambassador to Beijing, had sworn to a secret session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. government knew nothing either about China’s military preparations against Taiwan, or even about a famine that had claimed millions of lives. As Reagan’s Vice President, Bush fostered the beginning of the massive U.S. corporate presence in mainland China, and resisted efforts within the administration to sell Taiwan armaments comparable in sophistication to what China was deploying.

Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama lived by the mantra that Beijing would grow in peaceful responsibility, the richer and more powerful it became. And that Taiwan was an irritant to that salvific process. Over that generation, the establishment’s identification of U.S. interests with the Chinese regime enabled that regime to build the world’s second-ranking economy and to become the Western Pacific’s dominant military power. Rather than using opportunities to moderate Beijing’s international behavior, this generation’s presidents have given that regime sound cause to believe that, after all is said and done, America would let Taiwan go quietly. But this political confidence, coupled with its overwhelming military advantage in the region, has led Beijing’s regime to flaunt its determination to take Taiwan while humiliating the Americans. This « middle finger » policy was on display in January 2021, when Chinese aircraft made mock attack runs on U.S. carriers in the Taiwan Strait, and again in April, when some twenty bombers hooked around to Taiwan’s eastern side, emphasizing that there is no safety for any Americans anywhere near Taiwan. Aloso, last october, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reportedly sent nearly 200 aircraft to the aerial area near the island of Taiwan for exercises, in a move that experts said has deterred Taiwan secessionist provocations and foreign interference attempts.

Meanwhile, the regime has just completed the world’s largest heliport a mere 150 miles from Taiwan. Were China to invade, the first wave would arrive by air. Were China to strike, it could defeat organized resistance in 8-12 hours. Some 1,200 accurate ballistic missiles would strike every military target of any importance. Chinese fifth generation fighters, supported by AWACS, would sweep the skies of Taiwan’s obsolete F-16s. As the remaining Taiwanese ground forces moved to defend the beaches, they would be bombed. As the tanks were about to land, heliborne divisions would be hitting the defenders from the rear. Beijing has been building this hard-military reality in plain sight. Suddenly, it seems, some in US foreign policy establishment are entertaining the possibility that China might not be playing games. Of course, the attack would succeed. How would the U.S. government respond? Make war on China? What for? To restore the independence of an island the independence of which it had denounced, and that it had refused to protect? The U.S. would suffer geopolitical shrinkage. A Sino-Japanese war would be among the consequences. Nothing Americans say could deter this horrible prospect, because no words could counter seventy years of U.S. policy’s ambiguity and flexibility to Chinese demands. There is no reason why Beijing should credit any U.S. declaratory policy, especially given its now deep grip on the U.S. political process atop overwhelming local military advantages.

Deterrence worthy of the name could come only by deploying forces that could actually defeat China’s military preparations. Such forces would also have to preclude the possibility that China would escape unacceptable consequences for even trying to invade Taiwan. Defending Taiwan would have to begin by providing a thick anti-missile defense—many batteries of AEGIS-Ashore. But nothing could so surely deter aggression as the presence of nuclear weapons. Deterrence is what happened in the 1980s, when the U.S. deployed Pershing II missiles with W-85 nuclear weapons to Europe, targeted them on the Soviet leadership, and let it be known that they would be launched were Soviet forces to have invaded. The Pershings are gone. But other missiles and nukes could substitute. Would such a move trigger war? On the contrary. It is difficult to imagine a less forceful, less unambiguous move, preventing war. Taiwan could field a nuclear arsenal, that is, and its leadership could summon the determination to use the arsenal under specific circumstances such as a nuclear or conventional attack on the island. In other words, it could accumulate the capacity to thwart acts the leadership deems unacceptable or punish them should they occur. But would Chinese Communist magnates find the island’s atomic arsenal and displays of willpower convincing?

Against a nuclear attack, maybe. If Taipei maintained an armory that could inflict damage on China that CCP leaders found unbearable, then Beijing ought to desist from a nuclear attack under the familiar Cold War logic of mutual assured destruction. The two opponents would reach a nuclear impasse. Kissinger appends a coda to his formula for deterrence, namely that deterrence is a product of multiplication, not a sum. If any one variable is zero, so is deterrence. What that means is that Taiwan could muster all the military might and fortitude in the world and fail anyway if China disbelieved in its capability, resolve, or both. And it might: Chinese Communist leaders have a history of making statements breezily disparaging the impact of the ultimate weapon if used against China. 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. The gist of such statements: nuclear threats cannot dissuade China from undertaking actions that serve the vital interest as the CCP leadership construes it. Again, though, nuclear deterrence ought to be a peripheral concern for Taipei. Beijing is unlikely to order doomsday strikes against real estate it prizes, regardless of whether the occupants of that real estate brandish nuclear arms or not. Far better for the island’s leadership to refuse to pay the opportunity costs of going nuclear and instead concentrate finite militarily relevant resources to girding for more probable contingencies. Wiser investment will go to armaments that make the island a prickly « porcupine » bristling with « quills » in the form of shore-based anti-ship and anti-air missiles along with sea-based systems such as minefields, surface patrol craft armed to the teeth with missiles, and, once Taiwan’s shipbuilding industry gears up, silent diesel-electric submarines prowling the island’s environs. These are armaments that could make Taiwan indigestible for the PLA. And Beijing could harbor little doubt Taipei would use them. It will make contingencies such as repulsing a conventional cross-strait assault.

 The other big problem of developing a nuclear deterrent is the cost. Nuclear defense programs cost enormous sums of money. Looking back again at the British Trident renewal in 2016, the cost was estimated to be a cool £31 billion (NT$1.2 trillion). This was widely acknowledged to be a very conservative estimate with a £10 billion (NT$400 billion) contingency fund available that most experts suggested would, at least, be used in full. Given Taiwan’s size and the economic challenges it faces, the question of whether this would be a sensible use of public funds is a big one. It is also worth asking if a nuclear deterrent would even work against China? Only a country that has lost it mind would attack a nuclear power. But Communist China is hardly a rational nation and the regime has proved time and time again it has little or no regard for the life of its citizens. Given what the Chinese Communist Party has staked on its nationalist « One China » agenda, would they really be put off by the possibility of a nuclear strike from Taiwan, especially given their vastly superior nuclear arsenal which Taiwan could never hope to match? Which brings us to the question of what sort of deterrence Taiwan can develop to put China off the idea of an invasion. There are few possibilities including « conventional (weapons), economic, political, trade, or other measures. » These solutions are a little vague and it is not immediately apparent how they would make a significant difference to the CCP’s thinking. The best deterrent of all would be to develop still closer military ties with the USA. Inviting US ships to dock in Taiwanese ports, encouraging the prospect of one or more US military bases on Taiwan, even allowing the US to build a military base on Taiping Island in the hotly contested South China Sea region. Such a move would, of course, hugely antagonize Communist China. But it would also make them think twice about attacking Taiwan too because such an attack would in effect be an attack on US troops too. Another deterrent is to make the prospect of an invasion as unpleasant as possible. While the CCP may not care too much about the lives of their people, they will care about the negative PR associated with a long and bloody invasion.

Taiwan should, therefore, seek to invest more in its anti-invasion capabilities, looking to develop internally anything it cannot buy from overseas. Anti-aircraft and submarine defense capabilities should be a top priority and funds have already been committed in this area. But it should also be seeking to modernize its troop capabilities as well. An army of people with nothing more than national service experience isn’t going to hold off the PLA for long. Instead, Taiwan should be looking to develop a large elite unit of commandos (and reservists) capable of taking a real stand against any Chinese invasion and then, if defeated, retiring into the mountains to fight a long and painful guerilla war. The president of Chinese Taipei, Tsai Ing-wen, has vowed to bolster the island’s military capabilities in the face of what she has called China’s attempt to « compromise its sovereignty. » The prospect of such an ongoing conflict will be far from attractive to the CCP and, when put together with the international community opposing the Chinese occupation of Taiwan, could just be enough of a deterrent to put China off. It would certainly be a far more affordable and domestically palatable approach than spending huge sums on a nuclear weapons program that might never see the light of day.