Elephants in the Room
Arm Taiwan—but Skip the Nukes
As the military balance of power shifts in China’s favor, Beijing may be increasingly tempted to act against Taiwan.
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu warned in late July that mainland China’s military threat to Taiwan is “on the rise.” His warning was echoed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who assessed that Beijing has “become more aggressive” toward Taiwan and taken the threat “to a new level.”
In response to Beijing’s increasing bellicosity, there is a growing debate in Washington about various forms of military aid to Taiwan. Some have even suggested that the United States equip Taiwan with nuclear weapons. That would be a provocative mistake, as students of the Cuban missile crisis might predict. Instead, the United States should urgently provide additional conventional military aid to address the dangerous shift in the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait, which if left unchecked could invite aggression by mainland China.
Since 1979, the Taiwan Relations Act has served as the foundation of U.S. policy toward Taiwan. The law unequivocally states that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” would represent “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area” and be “of grave concern to the United States.”
Peaceful means, however, are not what the Chinese Communist Party seems to have in mind. Not only has Beijing undertaken the most ambitious military modernization effort in the history of the People’s Republic of China, but it has also been using its growing military might to intimidate and coerce Taiwan.
Last year, for the first time in years, Beijing sent fighter aircraft across the median line in the Taiwan Strait. According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a bipartisan group established by the U.S. Congress, China also conducted “joint firepower assault” and “beach raid” exercises near Taiwan last year, involving “bomber aircraft, naval surface combatants, amphibious ships, and helicopters.”
And it has only gotten worse since then. In June, according to the Taiwanese defense ministry, Beijing sent military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone eight times. Beijing used Su-30 fighters, as well as J-10 and J-11 fighters, Y-8 surveillance aircraft, and H-6 bombers, to probe Taiwan’s defenses. Last month, Esper rightly called Beijing’s actions “destabilizing,” saying they “significantly increase the risk of miscalculation.”
So, what is to be done? The Chinese threat against Taiwan has grown so acute that Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former Pentagon official, has even suggested the United States should equip Taiwan with medium-range nuclear weapons as a means to deter attack.
It is tempting to suggest Taipei acquire the ultimate deterrent, but that could invite the very aggression that such a step is designed to prevent—by giving Beijing a de facto deadline for a lower-risk attack. Rubin responds by suggesting the United States could sneak nuclear weapons into Taiwan before Beijing knew what happened. That would be a dangerous gamble.
Giving nuclear weapons to Taiwan would also deliver another blow to nuclear nonproliferation—a regime that is already under severe strain. And it would surely invite international condemnation, reinforcing Beijing’s successes in diplomatically isolating Taiwan.
The United States worked to stop Taipei from acquiring nuclear weapons in 1977 and 1988. Washington’s rationale was sound then, and it remains so today. But that does not mean Washington should simply accept the status quo. Beijing’s willingness to disregard its treaty obligations in Hong Kong and pursue an authoritarian power grab, together with intensified military exercises and provocations, suggest Taiwan could be next.
With the Taiwan Relations Act, Washington already has a policy to aid Taipei enshrined in law. The act provides that the United States will provide “defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
Even if U.S. administrations have too often hesitated to provide arms to Taiwan for fear of angering Beijing, there is ample precedent for U.S. help. In August 1982, for example, then-President Ronald Reagan sent a now-declassified internal memorandum to Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger reiterating U.S. policy on arms sales to Taiwan. Reagan emphasized that the “quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat” from Beijing. He underscored that calibrating the level of arms sales to the intensity of the threat from Beijing represents “a permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy.”
Recent years have, in fact, seen an uptick in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Some might argue that it was these deliveries that invited a more aggressive posture from Beijing. That, however, would be a misreading of the facts.
The Chinese Communist Party’s foreign and defense policy became more hostile when Xi Jinping became general secretary of the party in 2012. And if Beijing’s more aggressive posture were merely a response to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, then what explains Beijing’s parallel escalations in the South China Sea, toward Hong Kong, or on the border with India?
To its credit, Washington has taken several positive initial steps in the last few years to help Taiwan prepare for a possible attack, including decisions to provide Stinger missiles, F-16C/D fighters, MK 48 torpedoes, upgraded PAC-3 missiles, and M1A2T tanks.
While these arms deliveries are welcome, they are insufficient. In order to convince Beijing that it cannot use military force to achieve reunification with Taiwan at an acceptable cost, Washington should also help Taipei field an array of asymmetric defensive capabilities. Taiwan needs, for example, anti-ship missiles—and lots of them. That includes cruise missiles for coastal defense. Naval defensive mines and short-range air defense should also be a priority.
But arms sales alone are not enough. To underscore Washington’s commitment to deterring Beijing’s aggression, the U.S. military should continue to fly and sail where international law permits—including in the Taiwan Strait.
Washington should also jettison excessive inhibitions related to training the Taiwanese military. The United States should help Taiwan develop tough and realistic training with the new systems, focusing on joint warfighting effectiveness. Taiwan also needs help building the capability and capacity of its reserve forces.
The United States could accomplish this in an incremental and modulated manner that signals U.S. commitment and achieves real gains in military readiness without sparking a conflagration with Beijing. For example, U.S. National Guard military advisors could conduct a regular and progressive program of training in Taiwan. Over time, if Beijing’s provocations continue, this could be expanded to small-unit National Guard training. Japanese and Australian partners could be invited to monitor or participate in the training.
Similarly, U.S. Coast Guard vessels could also conduct combined exercises, perhaps stopping for a brief port call in Taiwan after the exercise concludes. By using the National Guard instead of active-duty soldiers and the Coast Guard instead of the U.S. Navy, the signal to Beijing is clear and the help for Taiwan is real, while seeking to avoid an overreaction from China. Additional and more robust deterrence steps would remain an option in case of further escalation by Beijing.
Washington has often tried to ignore or accommodate Beijing. That has not worked, while the threat to Taiwan and U.S. interests in the region has only grown.
Beijing fears Taiwan because it is a prosperous, vibrant democracy—a constant reminder of a Chinese alternative to Communist Party rule. As the military balance of power with Taiwan has shifted to Beijing’s advantage, the Chinese Communist Party may be increasingly tempted to act against Taiwan. Helping to deter any such aggression doesn’t require nukes, but it should nonetheless be an urgent national security priority for Washington.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former advisor to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. Twitter: @Brad_L_Bowman