Taiwan Eyes US ‘Nuclear Umbrella’ To Deter Chinese Invasion; Will Washington Help Taipei Like Japan & South Korea?

Taiwanese politicians have stated that a proposal to include the self-governing island under US “nuclear umbrella” has been considered favorably by defense experts.

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The strategy is not to host atomic weapons on the island but for the US launching a nuclear response if the island comes under an attack – presumably from China. But this Chinese strike has to be nuclear to trigger such a response from Washington. 

Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Wu, was quoted saying in the Legislative Yuan, “Taipei and Washington are engaged in talks on the matter.” A cursory reading of the reports from Taiwanese media indicates that the statement has been made for domestic consumption before the upcoming elections. 

Assuring supporters of the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP) that the government has credible military options, like a US-operated nuclear weapon against a Chinese attack, besides its military and conventional US military support, earns rich political dividends.

Neither was there any official response from the US to the statement from Taiwan, implying Washington itself is not considering the option and would likely dissuade any such formal plan. 

Taiwan Testing The Waters

The Taipei Times report quoted leading defense expert Su Tzu-yun explaining that Taiwan’s national security doctrine explicitly forbids the development of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons “despite the threat of such weapons being used against it.” 

Su is a research fellow at Institute for National Defense and Security. “The extension of an ally’s nuclear umbrella over Taiwan would significantly benefit Taiwan’s security,” he said.

Taiwan’s armed forces “already provide conventional deterrence; obtaining a nuclear deterrence would reduce its susceptibility to nuclear coercion.” 

Optics Behind the Statement & Reality Of Chinese Nuclear Intentions

The provocative statement also appears to have been made for optics rather than a concrete military decision that the leadership aims to implement. For one, there has been no recorded instance of China threatening the nuclear option against Taiwan, India, or the United States. 

China officially propagates “peaceful reunification” but has not ruled out military force if it perceives a permanent and irreversible threat to that option.

This includes Taiwan independence outfits like the DPP declaring independence; the US or any other major country or organization contravening the One China principle (by recognizing Taiwan as either separate or as the representative of the Chinese nation) or; the island receiving capital weapons like aircraft carriers or nuclear weapons. 

A nuclear-capable Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) in an underground launch silo

Any such statement from China in the past would have triggered an angry response from the US, with a slew of formal condemnations from the entire global community, including Russia. 

The East Asian region and the non-G7 countries (except Baltic countries like Lithuania) have maintained studied neutrality on the Taiwan issue and did not condemn Beijing’s live-fire drills around the island following former US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August 2022. A nuclear threat by Beijing on Taiwan would become a compelling reason to drop that neutrality. 

There has also not been any statement or reaction from either the Department of State, Department of Defense, or the White House on the statement from Joseph Wu. This implies the US has no plans to defend Taiwan using nuclear weapons. 

Any such announcement would raise questions on whether China, too, has made such a threat. Moreover, it would represent the very threat to its reunification foals that would guarantee a military recourse on Taiwan from China. 

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The US has accused China of only expanding and modernizing its nuclear arsenal, with periodic satellite images of new underground nuclear launch silos emerging to make the point. But its official reports still note the small size of China’s warhead inventory, ranging between 300 to 400. The warheads are also believed to be separate from their delivery systems. 

The US Knows No Nuclear Threat – The North Korea Example

The dynamics are similar to the South and North Korea issue, where President Joe Biden’s administration signed an agreement with the former to resume the periodic docking of American nuclear submarines in late April.

EurAsian Times had reported how experts raised questions on the US’ commitment to using nuclear weapons, observing the announcement was more to placate South Korean fears over Pyongyang’s repeated threats and ballistic missile tests. A secondary motive was to dissuade Seoul from pursuing its nuclear program. 

At the time, Biden had promised to use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack by North Korea on the South. This left the question of whether such retribution would be guaranteed if it launched a conventional attack. 

This bares the full knowledge of US planners that Pyongyang would initiate only a conventional attack on Seoul and had no plans to use atomic weapons for reuniting the two Koreas. 

North Korean Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile
North Korean Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile

Its threats to use nuclear weapons are, as it says, would only be in response to a perceived imminent attack by the US that threatens it existentially. The US withdrew all permanent nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula in 1991. 

These observations validate experts’ view that the US threat to use nuclear weapons on the North is not followed up by a demonstration of the willingness to use these weapons, and it is only meant to assuage the South. They point to temporarily basing nuclear submarines and limiting the nuclear response to North Korea only to a nuclear attack, not a conventional strike, to make their point. 

How Does Taiwan Fit In?

A similar dynamic is at play in Taiwan, where not responding to Joseph Wu’s statement implies that even the US recognizes there is no nuclear dimension from the Chinese side on the issue. 

For one, any Chinese threat to use nuclear weapons first on the Taiwan Strait issue would have seen unprecedented regional tensions, more severe than the ones between the USSR and the US during the Cold War.

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The US would have also begun basing permanent nuclear weapons in Japan and South Korea aimed at China and North Korea. 

And secondly, at a military operational level, if China does use nuclear weapons on the Straits, the radiation and fallout will possibly affect even China itself, including the entire Southeast Asian region.

The economic repercussions of such a war would impact Beijing’s geoeconomic goals to dilute US influence in the region.