A nuclear Taiwan is too terrifying to contemplate…”the island should develop its own nuclear weapons to create a deterrent ‘balance of terror’”

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My Take by Alex Lo

A nuclear Taiwan is too terrifying to contemplate

According to a Taiwanese academic, if the island isn’t sure that the US will come to its defence or about its own capacity to fight back an attacker alone, the island should develop its own nuclear weapons to create a deterrent ‘balance of terror’

Alex Lo

Alex Lo + FOLLOW

Published: 9:00pm, 4 Jan, 2022

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Of the many analyses that I have read recently about cross-strait relations, an opinion piece that appeared on Monday in the Taipei Times disturbs me the most. It lays out, with impeccable logic, at least from Taiwan’s perspective, the rationale for the island to create its own nuclear deterrent.

This seems to me a very real possibility in the years ahead. In place of a hot war, what if the mainland and the island end up in a MAD (mutually assured destruction) situation?

Ironically, the op-ed appeared on the same day as China, France, Russia, Britain, and the United States released a joint statement reaffirming their commitment not to use nuclear weapons for offensive purposes and to work together on nuclear disarmament.

In the newspaper article, Chen Shih-min, a political scientist at the National Taiwan University, lays down the current conundrum of the island’s defence posture: Is “Taiwan’s ‘resolute defence [strategy]’ enough to deter a Chinese invasion”? And can it be sure “the US would come to its defence”?

The problem, he points out, is that those in charge of Taiwan’s defence are unsure about the answers to either question, but especially about the second one.

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From that premise of uncertainty, therefore, Chen draws the following conclusion: “If Taiwan is unsure about either of these, or wants to lock in the right to decide its own fate, it must develop an effective and independent deterrent.”

Actually, I beg to differ that a state-level actor’s possession of nuclear weapons necessarily guarantees self-determination in its external relations. But there is no question that many political leaders around the world think so.

Chen continues: “If Taiwan hopes to retain the right to determine its own future, then it should adjust its strategic thinking and shift from ‘defence and deterrence in the wake of an outbreak’ to ‘deterrence prior to an outbreak’.

“The strategy of ‘effective deference’ [to the US] should become ‘deterrence by punishment’, with the aim of inflicting ‘intolerable damage’ on the enemy.” Read more Diplomatic disputes hide pettiness and savagery Read more No welcome mat for HK dissidents in Taiwan Read more US clarification over Taiwan much needed

Now, if a university professor openly pontificates on the possibility of “the balance of terror” across the Taiwan Strait, you can be sure that Taiwan’s generals and top politicians are pretty advanced along that line of thinking, if not actual planning for a very long time.

There seems to be no doubt that Taiwan has the technical capability to develop its own nuclear weapons. Not being recognised as a sovereign state, it is not bound by, and is not a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Actually, it did ratify the treaty in the early 1970s when it considered itself the only legitimate “one China”. But that was then, this is now.

Of course, there is no way Washington would allow it. If the Americans wouldn’t let Japan and South Korea have their own nuclear weapons – even though North Korea is nuclear-armed – they have no reason to tolerate Taiwan’s nuclear ambitions.

To that, Taiwanese could reply: “The Japanese and Koreans are your allies to whom you are treaty-bound to come to their defence. You already have a long-standing significant troop presence in their countries. We have no treaty and no troop deterrent.

“They have always had ‘strategic clarity’ in the US security guarantee; all we have is ‘strategic ambiguity’, which means you may or may not come to our defence in our hour of need.”

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Perhaps that’s the whole – unspoken – message in the professor’s thinking: Threaten to go nuclear to force a change of US strategic policy from ambiguity to clarity, as some anti-China hawks in Washington have already been advocating, and for the US to offer the same security guarantee to the island as it does to its Asian allies.

But that would also be very difficult, if not impossible for the US, as it would effectively mean recognising Taiwan as a full ally and therefore a sovereign state. Would that amount to a casus belli for Beijing?

Of course, Taiwan could do an Israel, which is to pretend not to have nuclear weapons while secretly amassing them. Or it could do a Japan, which technically doesn’t have such weapons but which many military experts believe has all the components in place to quickly assemble them.

Chen approvingly quoted You Si-kun, the former Democratic Progressive Party premier who openly advocated Taiwan independence. You said in 2004: “Deterrence is the easiest thing. To achieve absolute peace across the Taiwan Strait, all we need is the balance of terror like the past.

“China has the power to destroy Taiwan, and vice versa. This brings the balance of power, in which there would be no war. If China strikes against Taipei and Kaohsiung, Taiwan can hit back at Shanghai. If we have such a means of countermeasure, then Taiwan will be safe.”

Well, after total destruction, there is necessarily absolute peace, too. As Tacitus famously wrote, “they make a wasteland and call it peace”.

Alex Lo + FOLLOW

Alex Lo has been a Post columnist since 2012, covering major issues affecting Hong Kong and the rest of China. A journalist for 25 years, he has worked for various publications in Hong Kong and Toronto as a news reporter and editor. He has also lectured in journalism at the University of Hong Kong.

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