The China Uncensored channel is a terrific source of information about Chinese propaganda and misinformation and also has a knack of asking difficult questions that many other media outlets would not even countenance.
They did exactly this in one of their recent episodes when host Chris Chappell asked renowned US scholar Ian Easton whether Taiwan should have nuclear weapons.
The logic behind the question is a pretty sound one. The justification for all nuclear powers that continue to hold nuclear weapons is that they act as a deterrent. ‘Other countries will not attack us if we have nuclear weapons because of the damage we can cause them in response,’the thinking goes.
In his response, Easton appeared to fall into line behind this logic. "Only a nation that has completely lost its mind and is suicidal is ever going to invade another nation that is armed with nuclear weapons,” he said.
He did not go so far as to call for Taiwan to be given nuclear weapons right now. But he did say that “the U.S. needs to "think much more carefully about deterrence."
Easton is absolutely right that the governments of both Taiwan and the USA need to give greater thought to the question of deterring China from considering a military invasion of Taiwan. As Easton himself has postulated, a military invasion of Taiwan would be far from straightforward and would likely lead to huge numbers of casualties on both sides if China were to attempt it.
This in itself is a deterrence of sorts but it is unlikely to be sufficient to hold China back forever, especially given the huge sums they continue to plow into their military budgets every year.
The problems with choosing nuclear
So, is nuclear the way to go? The first problem is how popular such a program would be at home. There is already a huge movement against the use of nuclear power in Taiwan. Indeed, until the recent round of referendums, the DPP government was committed to shutting down all of Taiwan’s nuclear power stations by 2025.
In this climate, it seems likely that establishing Taiwan as a nuclear power would be hugely controversial with a domestic audience, despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of people would support greater steps to protect Taiwan from Chinese invasion.
There is also the fact that Taiwan (as the Republic of China) has ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons which commits the Taiwanese government to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons technology.
In practice, this Treaty has proved next to meaningless for many countries, but given Taiwan’s delicate international status, the question of whether it would be wise for Taiwan to break its obligations under an international treaty is an important one.
Can Taiwan ever have an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent?
There is also the question of independence. A nuclear deterrent is only really effective if it is truly independent. The government of a nuclear power must have sole control over the decision of if and when their nuclear weapons should be used.
There was recently a big public debate in the UK about the merits of renewing their now aged Trident nuclear missile system. One of the strongest arguments against Trident renewal was that it was no longer an independent nuclear deterrent.
While the submarines that carry the Trident missile system and the nuclear warheads themselves are made in the UK, the Trident missiles themselves are not. They are made and maintained in the USA. They are even drawn from a joint missile-pool at the US Strategic Weapons facility at King’s Bay, Georgia.
There is, therefore, a genuine question over whether, if the UK’s foreign policy ever ventured far from that of the USA, the UK’s nuclear deterrent would still be available or would the US simply pull the plug?
This independence is likely to be magnified in the case of Taiwan. Were Taiwan to obtain nuclear weapons, they would almost certainly have to be sourced, in full, from the USA. The likelihood is therefore that the US would maintain a large, if not total, say over when they could be used.
It is therefore worth asking whether, if push came to shove, the US would really give the go-ahead for Taiwan to launch a nuclear attack on China? Would that course of action ever really be in the interests of the USA?
The huge costs of going nuclear and would it even work?
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? Ian Easton said 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?
Some other deterrence options
Which brings us to the question of what sort of deterrence Taiwan can develop to put China off the idea of an invasion. Ian Easton suggested a 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 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.