You Bet Taiwan Wished It Had Nuclear Weapons

You Bet Taiwan Wished It Had Nuclear Weapons

Kyle Mizokami

Security, Asia

And it nearly happened. 

Key point: A Taiwanese-Chinese nuclear standoff would have destabilized the entire region.

It would have been one of the greatest crises of postwar Asia: the revelation of a Taiwanese atomic bomb. For Taiwan, the bomb would have evened the odds against a numerically superior foe. For China, a bomb would have been casus belli, justification for an attack on the island country it considered a rogue province. Active from the 1960s to the 1980s, Taipei’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons were finally abandoned due to diplomatic pressure by its most important ally, the United States.

Taiwan’s nuclear program goes back to 1964, when the People’s Republic of China tested its first nuclear device. The test was not exactly a surprise to outside observers, but it was still Taiwan’s nightmare come true. Chinese and Taiwanese air and naval forces occasionally skirmished, and it threatened to turn into all-out war. Suddenly Taipei was confronted with the possibility that such a war could turn nuclear. Even just one nuclear device detonated on an island the size of Maryland would have devastating consequences for the civilian population.

From Taiwan’s perspective, a nuclear arsenal would be the ultimate guarantor of national sovereignty. Even if the United States split with the country, as it eventually did, Taiwanese nukes would keep the Chinese People’s Liberation Army at bay, a deterrent not only against Chinese nuclear power, but against conventional forces as well. In hindsight, this would have had a good chance of success, as North Korea’s own procurement of nuclear weapons has made the United States and South Korea reluctant to retaliate over the country’s various military provocations.

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