Taiwan and Nonproliferation

Taiwan and Nonproliferation

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Monte Bullard

Senior Fellow, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


Taiwan plays a critical role in the security of East Asia and indeed the world. The current impasse between Taiwan and China is the issue most likely to bring two mature nuclear powers into conflict and cause them to contemplate or threaten the use of nuclear weapons. As the confrontation becomes more intense it is mandatory that we examine and understand several aspects of the problem before we apply policy measures. This issue brief will discuss three key aspects of the problem: the political background, the current action-reaction cycles of confrontation, and the likelihood and method for using force in the future.


For the first four years after the end of World War II (1945), the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) under Chiang Kai-shek ruled China from Nanjing as the Republic of China (ROC). In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao Zedong defeated the KMT in a bloody civil war and established the People's Republic of China (PRC) with its capital in Beijing. Upon defeat, Chiang, the remnants of his army, and many civilians fled to Taiwan.

The KMT claimed to be the legitimate government of all of China while in exile in Taiwan because its leaders were elected in 1947 in a relatively democratic election. The KMT government was considered by most nations of the world at that time to be the legitimate representative of China. It had diplomatic relations with most countries and was a founding member of the United Nations. China under the KMT was one of the Permanent Five (with the United States, France, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom) and helped to write the UN Charter.

From 1945 to 1971, KMT leaders represented China in the UN and in its related organizations and served responsibly with distinction. They played key roles in the newly forming nonproliferation regimes. China under the KMT signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 and was considered a member of the IAEA.

In 1971, the reality of political control over China's vast population caused most nations to change formal recognition to the People's Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China and to sever diplomatic relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan. On October 25, 1971, the UN voted in Resolution 2758 to allow the People's Republic of China to take the UN China seats and expel the representatives from Taiwan. The PRC assumed all seats and memberships in the UN at that time including membership in the IAEA.

After 1971 Taiwan was not considered a sovereign state, but a province of China. Because the Republic of China on Taiwan was not a recognized state it was unable to sign the nonproliferation treaties that entered into force in the international community after that time. Taiwan signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1972, before it entered into force, but its signature on this treaty is not officially recognized because it is not considered to be a sovereign state. For the same reason, Taiwan was not allowed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention that entered into force in 1997. Also as a result of Taiwan's international political status, it has not been permitted to join the Australia Group or other nonproliferation organizations for which state status is a requirement.

In spite of its non-state status, Taiwan's government has repeatedly stated that it will adhere to those two conventions as well as the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Taiwan's leaders, like the leaders of most states have never been totally monolithic in their thinking, although during the Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo years (1945-1988) the leadership maintained authoritarian, indeed Leninist, political processes. Nonetheless, within the ruling party (KMT) conflicting opinions existed; some were opposed to the development of weapons of mass destruction, while others promoted WMD programs.[1]

Over the years three external shocks caused some of Taiwan's leaders to question the degree to which they could depend on the United States for their security: China's explosion of a nuclear bomb in 1964, being expelled from the UN in 1971, and the U.S. cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1978. The latter included the U.S. unilateral annulment of the 1954 U.S.-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty.

The first event occurred on October 16, 1964 when China conducted its first nuclear weapons test. At that time, China was still threatening to take over Taiwan, issuing frequent propaganda threats, and massing troops in Fujian Province, which was considered a war front. China was shelling the offshore islands of Jinmen and Mazu with artillery every other day (from 1958-1979).

Taiwan believed it was a "great power" since it was a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Therefore, becoming a member of the nuclear club, like all the other members of the P-5, seemed appropriate. The decision was probably made for legitimate security reasons (independent deterrence) and for reasons of international prestige.

In 1967, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense proposed a $140 million plan to develop nuclear weapons, but President Chiang Kai-shek's science advisor, Professor Wu Ta-you expressed serious concerns in a special report to the president. His primary concerns were the cost when Taiwan was still poor, the difficulty of training scientific personnel, the lack of natural resources (uranium), the lack of a delivery means, and the potential alienation of the international community.[2] Professor Wu claimed that Chiang Kai-shek did not approve the plan, but that his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who was the director of the General Political Department in the Ministry of National Defense (MND), later worked with MND and the military-run Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology to begin a covert nuclear weapons research and development program. Chiang Ching-kuo became premier in 1976 and president in 1978. He died in office in 1988.

In a strange reasoning process, Taiwan initially did not consider itself to be violating the NPT since China had exploded a nuclear weapon in 1964, they represented China, and the NPT allowed states that possessed nuclear weapons to be considered nuclear weapons states and therefore not subject to the constraints of the treaty. When Taiwan was expelled from the UN and the IAEA, the weapons state fiction ended.

Taiwan's expulsion from the UN/IAEA in 1971 and President Nixon's trip to China in 1972 had a serious impact on security thinking in Taiwan. The latter event resulted in the Shanghai Communiqué, a prelude to the U.S. formal recognition of China, on February 27, 1972. Taiwan perceived the U.S. to be an unreliable ally and became determined to take measures for self protection that included strengthening the covert nuclear weapons development program. Ultimately, however, Taiwan's nuclear program was uncovered by a combination of good intelligence information and IAEA inspections.

During 1976-1977, IAEA officials inspected the activities being managed by the Institute of Nuclear Energy Research (INER). They discovered discrepancies in the activities that included a Canadian supplied research reactor, other equipment from the United States, Germany, and France, U.S.-supplied heavy water, uranium from South Africa, and technical advice from Norwegians and Israelis.

Based on strong pressure from the U.S. and the IAEA, Taiwan was forced to abandon its program. In September 1976, Premier Chiang Ching-kuo announced that Taiwan would no longer engage in reprocessing activities. In 1977, Taiwan shut down its reactor, dismantled all reprocessing facilities, and returned plutonium that was supplied by the United States. The returned plutonium was short 200 grams, but that could have been lost during processing.

In 1987, a decade after Taiwan had agreed to cease its nuclear weapons development activities, INER began building a multiple hot cell facility for reprocessing that violated the commitments of 1976. INER's Deputy Director, Col. Chang Hsien-yi, however, defected to the United States and exposed the activity. Washington responded by forcing Taiwan to shut down the research reactor in March 1988 and return all heavy water to the United States.

In recent years, Taiwan's intentions have been called into question again. The basis for concern came from political campaign rhetoric resulting from the new democratic system following democratization in 1992. National elections are hotly contested and on occasion individuals have cited the need for an independent nuclear deterrent capability. The pattern has been for an official or candidate to make a statement that Taiwan should consider developing an offensive nuclear capability and then rescind or qualify the statement a couple of days later. For example, on July 28, 1995, right after China had fired six DF-15 missiles to within 90 miles of Taiwan's ports to influence Taiwan's domestic election, President Lee Teng-hui countered by admitting that Taiwan had tried to develop nuclear weapons and that perhaps they should reconsider that program.[3] Three days later he rescinded the statement.

The Democratic Progressive Party has also followed this pattern. President Chen Shui-bian, Vice President Annette Lu, and Legislator Parris Chang have made statements about the possible need for Taiwan to develop a retaliation capability, possibly nuclear. On September 26, 2004, Premier Yu Shyi-kun evoked the possibility of a "balance-of-terror" and stated that "if you fire 100 missiles at me, I should be able to fire at least 50 at you. If you launch an attack on…Kaohsiung, I should be able to launch a counterattack on Shanghai."[4] In this case, his remark was not necessarily part of the campaign rhetoric; it was to solicit political support for a proposed $18 billion arms purchase proposal by highlighting the more than 600 missiles in China that target Taiwan.

It is important to understand the motivations for Taiwan's "proliferation" statements or actions and it is also important to distinguish those that result from perceptions of security weaknesses and that are part of domestic political rhetoric or made to promote a defense budget. It is not likely that Taiwan can pursue a major WMD development strategy without being exposed because of its current democratic political system. Keeping secrets within such a system would be almost impossible.

Prudent Taiwanese leaders recognize that there are several major reasons why Taiwan should not develop nuclear weapons. One is the cost, but equally important is that it is just not a sound strategic military decision. Taiwan's dense population and military facilities are in such a geographically small area it would take only a few PRC nuclear weapons to completely destroy Taiwan. Some have stated that it would be national suicide to develop nuclear weapons and tempt China to carry out a preemptive strike to stop their deployment.

Militarily, even if Taiwan could rationalize the use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent only, like France's force de frappe, the development of nuclear weapons would certainly alienate the United States and the rest of the world. Taiwan is now totally dependent on U.S. military power and U.S. arms sales for defense. But more importantly, international economic ties on which Taiwan depends for survival would be destroyed.

Current Action-Reaction Cycles

Two parallel action-reaction cycles are taking place between China and Taiwan. One is military and the other is political.


China has been modernizing its military in recent years at a pace that appears to be too fast by its neighbors. It is a classic case of the "security dilemma" whereby one country adds to the quality or quantity of its military forces, and its neighboring states perceive a threat and respond by increasing their military capabilities.

China's military modernization has included major improvements in the quality of personnel by downsizing, the acquisition of better recruitment, education, and training methods, and the streamlining of organizational processes. It has also included significant changes in military strategies and doctrines to better fit today's world. These changes have transformed the old style "people's war" or guerrilla war-fighting doctrines into doctrines that focus on rapid mobility as well as information and electronic warfare.

China's major effort to acquire more modern military equipment is more important and certainly more visible than changes in doctrine. Beijing has improved its own research and development capabilities, acquired foreign technologies, and purchased major weapons systems from abroad. For example, China has acquired submarines, destroyers, and jet aircraft from Russia.

China's rapid march to military modernization was slowed after the Tiananmen Incident in 1989 when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was used against students protesting government corruption. In the aftermath, the United States and the European Union placed an embargo on transfers that would help China improve its military capability because of China's human rights violations. In 2005, some European countries began to debate the embargo question since supplying weapons and technologies to China could be quite profitable. The United States has placed major pressure on European countries to maintain the arms sales embargo, but the European rationale is not based totally on China's human rights record. The embargo is now rationalized more in terms of China's emerging challenge to the military balance of power in Asia, particularly across the Taiwan Strait.

During China's rapid military modernization, the United States has responded by helping Taiwan to prepare to defend itself with a better defensive military capability. U.S. arms sales have been based on the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), passed by the U.S. Congress on April 10, 1979, just three months after the U.S. agreed to recognize the PRC as the legitimate government of China.

The TRA provided a legal basis for a continued U.S. relationship with Taiwan. It included four key statements in Article 2 that provide the rationale for supporting Taiwan's defense:

    (3) to make clear that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means;

    (4) to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;

    (5) to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and

    (6) to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.

Over the years, the United States has responded to China's military modernization by selling over $20 billion worth of defensive military equipment and support contracts to Taiwan.[5]

The most controversial aspect of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, from China's perspective, has been the proposal to provide a theater missile defense system or Aegis guided missile destroyers with an air defense capability. China's reasons for opposition are that these capabilities could be converted into an offensive capability or that Taiwan's possession of them would link Taiwan and the United States into a defense architecture aimed at China. It would create close logistical, political, and even intelligence relationships between the two sides that encourage separatist elements within Taiwan to make bolder moves toward independence.

The overall arms procurement action-reaction cycles between China and Taiwan are exacerbated by the PRC deployment of over 600 DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles in the area opposite Taiwan. Not only have they been deployed, but during 1995-1996 they were tested by firing them into areas within about 145 km of Taiwan's main seaports. In addition to the missile testing, China has held amphibious landing exercises in areas opposite Taiwan, and the Taiwan military has responded with military exercises to show they are capable of defending against Chinese military operations.

In October 2002, China's President Jiang Zemin suggested to President George W. Bush at Crawford, Texas, that the cycle be broken by exchanging missile deployments opposite Taiwan for a U.S. agreement not to sell arms to Taiwan. The U.S. side was unable to agree with this proposal. All three sides–Taiwan, China, and the United States–believe continued arms procurement is justified by the acquisitions of the other side.


Political action-reaction cycles have occurred since the PRC was declared a state on October 1, 1949. Since that time the atmosphere has fluctuated from warlike to hope of accommodation. The current cycle began when the former president of the Republic of China (Taiwan), Lee Deng-hui, began to talk of "state-to-state" relations in May 1994. Lee has been followed by his successor, President Chen Shui-bian, who has made several statements in different forms that Taiwan is an independent sovereign country.[6] Chen has mitigated his statements somewhat since he was elected by insisting that he will stick to his "Four No's" statement first articulated in his inauguration speech of May 2000. In that speech he stated:

    Therefore, as long as the CCP regime has no intention to use military force against Taiwan, I pledge that during my term in office, I will not declare independence, I will not change the national title, I will not push forth the inclusion of the so-called "state-to-state" description in the Constitution, and I will not promote a referendum to change the status quo in regards to the question of independence or unification. Furthermore, the abolition of the National Reunification Council or the National Reunification Guidelines will not be an issue.

The problem is that from Taiwan's perspective it is not clear that China "has no intention to use military force against Taiwan." In fact the military modernization discussed above and statements by PRC leaders that refuse to renounce the use of force are common. In fact, the potential to use force was incorporated into Chinese law with the Anti-Secession (or Anti-Separation) Law that was passed by the National People's Congress on March 14, 2005. Article 8 of the law states:

    In the event that the "Taiwan independence" secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan's secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

A major political escalation began in March 2000 when President Chen ran and won as an opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate against the Kuomintang Nationalist Party that had been in control since 1947. Part of the DPP platform is to achieve independence from China. Beijing perceived that the DPP government was continuing its movement toward a declaration of independence when it passed Taiwan's Referendum Law on November 27, 2003. The law was viewed by PRC analysts as laying the foundation for future referendums that could be used to promote Taiwan independence. Throughout this period of DPP rule, many initiatives, such as changing high school and college curricula, were also taken to establish a "separate Taiwanese identity."

From China's perspective, President Chen Shui-bian was saying one thing and doing another. He was perceived as steadily moving the island toward a position that would allow a declaration of independence based upon the "wishes of the Taiwanese people." Those wishes, Chinese analysts believed, would emerge in the form of some type of new referendum to change the name from the Republic of China to Taiwan, or to rewrite the 1947 Republic of China Constitution to identify Taiwan as an independent sovereign country.

China's reaction to this steady and comprehensive movement toward independence was to pass the Anti-Secession Law. The passage of the law invoked an immediate response in Taiwan and the United States. In Taiwan, President Chen, on March 16, announced his "Solemn Six-point Statement Regarding China's 'Anti-separation Law.'" He used language that would appeal to his domestic audience as well as the international community. He pointed out that the law is aggressive and is an attempt to legalize the use of force by China contrary to the wishes of the international community. He also reiterated the point that Taiwan is a democratic country being intimidated by an undemocratic China.

American reaction was equally swift. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said that the passage of the anti-secession law was "not helpful." The House of Representatives went further, also on March 16, by passing a resolution entitled "Expressing Grave Concern of Congress Regarding Passage of Anti-secession Law by the National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China." The U.S. Senate passed a similar resolution just four days later. The resolutions recall China's promises in agreements with the United States to resolve the cross-strait situation peacefully. They state that this law provides legal justification for the use of force against Taiwan and changes the status quo unilaterally. The resolutions also note that in conjunction with the military buildup and the missiles aimed at Taiwan, there is an apparent threat to solve the problem with the use of force.

The U.S. Congressional resolutions also mentioned the U.S. legal responsibility under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 under section 2(b)4 "to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;" and under section 2(b)(6) "to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan."

Future Use of Force

China currently has a preponderance of force on the Asian mainland but lacks the capability to project force into the maritime areas around China, including Taiwan.[7] After the lessons of Vietnam, and considering the size and military power of China, the United States would not consider any type of warfare on the Asian mainland. On the other hand, Taiwan has some military capability but could not defend itself completely from a full-scale Chinese attack without American military support. The United States has the capability to prevent a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or Washington could even inflict severe damage on Chinese military facilities.

In the ensuing debate over whether the new law is a "war law" or a "peace law" most U.S., Chinese, and Taiwanese analysts assumed that China's use of "non-peaceful" means equated to an invasion of Taiwan to occupy or punish it for moving too far toward independence. Such an assumption has been used for years to justify arms sales to Taiwan and it may be flawed because China's military doctrine emphasizes using political and economic warfare combined with the use of force when preparing for hostilities.

Chinese military leaders probably plan to use military means to force Taiwan to the conference table for negotiations, not to occupy the island. That would allow China to justify its actions in the eyes of the world community by stating that all it wants is for Taiwan to negotiate over its future degree of autonomy. Such a goal would mitigate adverse world opinion. Having the goal of forcing Taiwan into negotiations, instead of invading and occupying Taiwan, makes a huge difference in the types of military strategies involved and the kind of support required.

A goal of forcing Taiwan to the negotiations table means China can use an incremental strategy. It would not begin with a "surprise-decapitation" attack, but with gradually escalating warnings. China's target audiences would not only be Taiwan's leaders, its military, and population, but world leaders and global opinion as well. There is likely to be a special effort to drive a wedge between Taiwan's contending political parties. China has already shown that it can influence opinions effectively in other countries. The gradual escalation is likely to include the use of missiles and submarines to blockade the seaports Taiwan depends on. In PLA eyes, the lobbing of missiles toward Taiwan is more for the political impact than the actual military damage they could cause. A slow escalation would also likely result in a tremendous debate within the United States about whether or not to support Taiwan militarily. The U.S. response is not automatic.

Chinese leaders understand that only with U.S. military support and world community support can Taiwan withstand such an assault. They also understand that since their principal obstacle is the U.S. Navy, they must work especially hard to prevent it from entering the battle. Some PLA leaders believe they can inflict enough damage on the U.S. Navy to cause American public opinion to go against U.S. participation in the defense of Taiwan. They work hard to develop anti-satellite weapons, anti-ship missiles, and information warfare to make that happen. The slower the entry of the U.S. Navy into the confrontation, the more likely, they believe, will be the negative public reaction within the United States. This is especially true now, when U.S. military forces are stretched thin.

Some experts think Taiwan could protect itself by hardening its military facilities, improving its air defense or anti-submarine defense capabilities, or by maintaining air superiority across the Taiwan Strait. All of this focuses on unlikely invasion scenarios. PLA strategic plans for defeating Taiwan are far more sophisticated than simplistic invasion scenarios. While the PLA does practice joint-force amphibious invasion exercises, it plans to rely on information warfare and political, economic, and military pressures to cause Taiwan to negotiate.

PLA leaders know they can cause severe problems for Taiwan without attacking. Just announcing a potential attack would cause Taiwan's stock market to plummet, plus a flight of capital–as happened after the 1995-1996 missile tests. They believe that missile firings offshore plus an effective propaganda campaign and diplomatic/economic manipulation around the world could force Taiwan's leaders to the negotiation table. In their view, an amphibious invasion or even an extensive bombing attack is not necessary.

In sum, there is no balance of power now across the Taiwan Strait; China will not eschew the use of force but will not attack to conquer and occupy Taiwan. Nor will China necessarily be labeled by world opinion as the aggressor if there is a military confrontation.


The cross-strait issue not only involves China and Taiwan, it also involves the United States and it has a direct impact on nonproliferation regimes. Parallel military and political activity is trending toward a military confrontation between China and Taiwan that could draw in the United States. History has created a special confrontational situation that is more complicated than between East and West Germany or between North and South Korea. It will require extraordinary means to resolve.

The rapid build-up in arms by both China and Taiwan and the asymmetries in military power encourage thoughts about the use of WMD and missiles. Taiwan's public statements about developing a deterrent capability to cope with China's vastly superior military force are similar to China's development of a deterrent capability to prevent U.S. military support for Taiwan. In both cases, nonproliferation regimes are challenged.

In the meantime, parallel military and political activities by both China and Taiwan seem to worsen the confrontation. Although the United States has maintained the same basic policy for more than 50 years, that this situation must be resolved peacefully and by the Chinese themselves, it has become increasingly important and acceptable that the United States participate in finding a solution. The ultimate solution cannot be one that is imposed by the United States, but it can be a solution worked out between the two Chinese sides with Americans using objective good offices or mediating without taking sides.


[1] Much of the information in this section comes from the seminal article by David Albright and Corey Gay, "Taiwan: Nightmare Averted" in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Vol. 54, No. 1, January/February 1998. Additional details can be found in the article. Also see: William Burr, "New Archival Evidence on Taiwanese 'Nuclear Intentions', 1966-1976" in National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, Another useful description of Taiwan's nuclear activity is SIPRI's Taiwan country profile at
[2] See Dr. Ta-you Wu, "A Footnote to the History of Our Country's 'Nuclear Energy' Policies,"
[3] See: Gerald Segal, "Taiwan's Nuclear Card," The Asian Wall Street Journal, August 5, 1998,
[4] Ko Shu-ling, "Taiwan Premier Heralds 'Balance of Terror,'" Taipei Times, September 26, 2004.
[5]For an excellent and detailed discussion of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, see: Shirley A. Kan, "Taiwan: Major U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990," CRS Report to Congress, September 10, 2002,
[6] See Office of the President, Republic of China, "President Chen Issues a Solemn Six-point Statement Regarding China's 'Anti-separation Law,'" March 16, 2005.
[7] Robert S. Ross, "The Geography of the Peace: East Asia in the Twenty-first Century," in The Rise of China, pp. 167-204.

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