“War is a contagion,” warned Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and fears that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could precipitate a Chinese communist attack on Taiwan are spreading. Could deploying US nuclear weapons in Taiwan prevent an attack? Probably not.
President Truman threatened to use nuclear weapons against Chinese communist forces in Korea, but they continued to fight. President Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons against mainland China during the Taiwan Strait Crisis of the 1950s. Once again, it did not deter Beijing from pursuing and obtaining its objectives.
Today, Chinese military manuals teach troops they are training to “fight a conventional war under conditions of nuclear deterrence.” More specifically, they are preparing to fight a war to prevent Taiwanese independence even if the United States threatens to use nuclear weapons to try to stop them. If the United States were to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese forces attacking Taiwan, Chinese military planners intend to retaliate, most likely against US military bases in Okinawa and Guam.
Once it starts, no one can reliably predict how far or how fast a nuclear contagion could spread. The worst-case scenario is too horrible to imagine. Within an hour, every major city in China and the United States could be reduced to rubble. Hundreds of millions of people could be killed. The global economy, and the global environment, could collapse.
It is precisely because of this possible outcome that Chinese communist leaders believe they can safely ignore US threats to use nuclear weapons. This is what the peasant revolutionary leader Mao Zedong meant when he called US nuclear weapons a “paper tiger.”
It is tempting to believe the so-called “ultimate weapon” is the ultimate answer to the problem of war. But nuclear weapons have been around for several generations now and the problem of war, as well as the problem of Taiwan, are still with us.
Want to Dig Deeper?
The UCS Global Security Program has a few resources you might find helpful.
• The most relevant to the question of whether nuclear weapons can prevent an attack on Taiwan is this detailed examination of Nuclear Weapons in the Taiwan Strait.
• We also have a primer on the possibility of a US-China war over Taiwan.
• A quick look at the diplomatic maneuvering on Taiwan that led to the establishment of US diplomatic relations with communist China might also be helpful.
• And a sense of why many Taiwanese feel betrayed by that maneuvering is essential reading.
• You may also be interested in this authoritative examination of China’s Nuclear Strategy, as well as this brief discussion of how that strategy might be changing.
Photo caption: President Tsai Ying-wen greets a veteran on the 62nd anniversary of the Battle of August 23rd, one of the most important of the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954-1958