alliances, allies, Asia, China, East Asia, geopolitics, Indo-Pacific, Japan, national interests, national security, nuclear proliferation, nuclear weapons, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Porcupine Theory, semiconductors, South Korea, Taiwan, vital interests
Since early in the nuclear age, students of international relations scholar from time to time have advanced a dramatically heretical idea: that a world in which more than a few countries possessed nuclear weapons would be safer than a world in which such arms were limited to those countries that already had them. The reasoning: Attacking nuclear-armed countries is a lot riskier for the aggressor than attacking non-nuclear countries, so the risk of wars breaking out would fall. If you think about the success of the little mammal with big quills, you can see why this notion has become known as the “Porcupine Theory”.
I bring up the subject because I increasingly find myself wondering whether encouraging Taiwan to build a nuclear arsenal would be the best way for the United States to safeguard interests in the island’s independence that have become vital recently because Taiwan has become the world leader in manufacturing advanced semiconductors – which are so crucial to the national security and prosperity of every country, including the now lagging United States.
There can’t be any doubt that the burgeoning importance of Taiwan’s independence and the apparently burgeoning determination of China to reestablish control over what it views as a renegade province, have produced a situation that’s increasingly dangerous for the United States. China, after all, is a power whose conventional military forces may now be strong enough to defeat America’s if it decides to help Taiwan fight off a Beijing attack.
In principle, Washington could resolve to turn the tide by using its own weapons of mass destruction in a battle for Taiwan. But China’s own arsenal is now so powerful that the result could be a full-scale nuclear exchange that brings disaster to the U.S. homeland. In other words, as I’ve written for years, America arguably has lost escalation dominance in Asia, and may have no choice but to acquiesce in China’s takeover of the island and its world class tech capabilities.
Nonetheless, this dire threat so far hasn’t deterred U.S. leaders from moving closer to declaring their intent to defend Taiwan militarily (notably, e.g., as reported here), and ending the posture of “strategic ambiguity” that has so far helped keep the peace in the region. So no one can responsibly rule out push coming to shove in this intensifying crisis.
To date, the United States has opposed countries like Taiwan from crossing the nuclear weapons threshhold mainly because Washington has rejected the Porcupine Theory. In addition, however, this anti-proliferation stance, especially toward allies and quasi-allies like Taiwan, has stemmed from the nuclear weapons parity that the United States enjoyed vis-a-vis the old Soviet Union and today toward Russia, and the overwhelming superiority of its nuclear forces versus those of China and North Korea in Asia. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the Asian nuclear balance has deteriorated from the U.S. standpoint.
The United States has also always viewed its security alliances with Germany and Japan in particular to be essential to preventing their reversion to the disastrously militaristic ways of the 1930s and 1940s. Nuclear weapons controlled by these two countries were therefore completely out of the question. (Interestingly, a revealing difference of opinion between then President Barack Obama and then presidential candidate Donald Trump was sparked by these issues in 2016.)
Reliability concerns, however, have also dominated Washington’s position on nuclear weapons spread outside the U.S. alliance network. Specifically, American leaders have always worried about these devices being acquired by unstable governments (which supposedly are less capable of securing them against terrorists and other extremists) and so-called rogue states (which supposedly would be more likely to use them or threaten their use).
A nuclear-armed Taiwan could resolve the prime dilemma for the United States by letting it off the hook for the island’s defense. After all, if China hasn’t yet pulled the trigger on a Taiwan without nukes, it makes sense to believe that it would be much less likely to attack the island if a conflict could bring Taiwanese nuclear warheads falling on Chinese soil.
It’s true that, as I’ve heard various observers argue, that the semiconductor problem may be exaggerated – because, for example, the United States could keep the relevant technology out of Chinese hands by bombing the factories and labs. In theory, the Taiwanese may have plans to blow up these facilities themselves. But it’s also true that these speculations could be way too optimistic – especially since the most crucial knowhow resides in the heads of Taiwanese scientists and engineers, who would need to be protected somehow against a Chinese roundup.
An American endorsement of a nuclear Taiwan could also bring benefits throughout Asia, signaling to Beijing that continuing its bellicose behavior could convince the United States to give a nuclear green light to Japan and South Korea.
Moreover, the longstanding main U.S. anti-proliferation rationales look a lot weaker today. Taiwan is clearly neither a rogue state nor a country with an unstable government. Ditto for Japan and South Korea, for that matter. Besides, precisely because of the weakening U.S. military position in East Asia, and consequently growing worries about Washington’s willingness to make good on its nuclear commitments, many observers believe that all three countries are already latent nuclear powers. (See, e.g., here.) That is, they could build nuclear weapons quickly whenever they wished.
Yet encouraging Taiwan to go nuclear would hardly be risk-free. If and when openly announced, it could spur the Chinese to attack – to enable them to capture the island before its nuclear-ization was completed. A nuclear Taiwan would also be less deferential to American wishes. In fact, its semiconductor superiority has already enabled it to resist some U.S. demands related to plans for increasing microchip production and supply chain security cooperation between the two countries. (The same has held for South Korea, as reported in the linked article immediately above.)
More broadly, nuclear weapons acquisition by Japan and South Korea would certainly undermine America’s post-World War II status as kingpin of East Asia, and all the benefits it ostensibly creates for Americans in one of the world’s most economically important regions.
But even if those benefits were nearly as great as widely believed (and continuing U.S. difficulty opening Asian markets to American exports makes clear that they haven’t been), a nuclear-armed Taiwan would create much bigger benefits: dramatically reducing the odds that China acquires some of the world’s most important technology, and that the risk of a Chinese nuclear attack on the United States if Beijing resulting from a conflict over Taiwan.
The key, as suggested above, would be supporting nuclearization without provoking all-out Chinese aggression – suggesting that this goal deserves more attention in Washington than it’s receiving these days.