Do US Nuclear Weapons Help Protect Taiwan?

August 17, 2020 | 9:38 am
Photo taken by 1352nd Photo Group
Gregory Kulacki
East Asia Project Manager

In an earlier post I explained there is a risk the United States and China could go to war over Taiwan. The United States is prepared to use nuclear weapons to win that war. Some believe that helps protect Taiwan. But does it?

Shall we play a game?

At the end of the 1983 movie War Games, a massive US Department of Defense computer plays out every possible nuclear war scenario looking for a way to win. All of them lead to the same dismal end; a global nuclear holocaust. The computer concludes nuclear war is “a strange game” where “the only winning move is not to play.”

Six months after the movie was released, US President Ronald Reagan told a joint session of Congress, “A nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.” He repeated it many times afterwards, including in a speech at Fudan University in Shanghai. Unfortunately, US war gamers never let go of the idea that a nuclear war can be won, especially if the adversary is China.

I can understand why. China has a few hundred nuclear weapons. The United States has thousands. The United States also has what are called tactical, non-strategic or low-yield nuclear weapons that China does not have. Some US officials argue if the United States used these low-yield nuclear weapons it would be difficult for China to retaliate without risking escalation to a full scale nuclear war: a war China would lose because its arsenal is so small. They seem to believe China would be unwilling to take that risk even though China has promised to retaliate if attacked with any type of nuclear weapon.

Limited nuclear war

The reason the US war planners think about using nuclear weapons in a Taiwan war is because the United States might lose a conventional fight. They worry China’s conventional forces cannot be stopped without nuclear weapons. This isn’t a new concern. President Eisenhower faced a similar choice during the Taiwan Strait Crisis of the 1950s.

In March 1955 Eisenhower believed Taiwan might fall if the communist Chinese captured two small islands called Quemoy and Matsu. The Joint Chiefs of Staff told him the only way they could assure victory was to use nuclear weapons. The United States publicly threatened to use nuclear weapons if the communist Chinese continued their attacks on the two islands.

The plan was to fight a “limited” nuclear war with tactical nuclear weapons. China did not have nuclear weapons then, but it was allied with the Soviet Union. The international community worried any use of nuclear weapons, no matter how limited, would, like in the movie War Games, inevitably lead to a full-scale nuclear war.

Effect on Taiwan

The US plan to fight a limited nuclear war backfired.  Many nations, including US allies, decided protecting Taiwan was not worth the risk of triggering a global nuclear holocaust. They successfully pressured the United States to negotiate with the Chinese communists.

The talks dragged on for years with little progress.  But they gave Eisenhower time to question his advisors and rethink the problem. He concluded Taiwan could survive if Quemoy and Matsu fell. He reassessed the military balance with China and concluded the plan to use nuclear weapons was ill-advised.

The fighting resumed in August 1958 after negotiations broke down. But this time Eisenhower set aside the nuclear option. He settled the military problem with a minimal amount of US involvement. This level-headed approach strengthened international support for Taiwan and led the communist Chinese to stand down.

These facts are thoroughly documented in a detailed history of Taiwan Strait Crisis I published earlier this year.

Past and prologue

Today, the rapid deterioration of US-China relations, disturbing changes in Chinese policy towards Hong Kong and a provocative visit of a US official to Taiwan suggest a new crisis is brewing. As talk of a new Cold War with China increases, a careful look back at the old one may be helpful.

Only a handful of nations maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But the island democracy enjoys far greater international sympathy than the dictatorship that Eisenhower defended in the 1950s. Still, it is unclear how many nations, including US allies in Europe as well as Asia, would support risking a nuclear war to defend Taiwan’s independence.

Whatever that number might be, history suggests more nations may be willing to support a US military effort to defend Taiwan if the United States took the option to start a nuclear war off the table. It may seem counterintuitive, but canceling plans to reintroduce US tactical nuclear weapons into Asia and declaring the United States would never use nuclear weapons first, under any circumstances, may be the best way to strengthen Taiwan’s defense.


Featured image: Mark 7 bomb (not identified as a nuclear weapon) being readied for mounting by members of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, during 1st Annual Pacific Air Force Munitions Loading Competition, October 23, 1962. U.S. Air Force 1352nd Photo Group

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Gregory Kulacki collects information and conducts analysis on security problems in East Asia. He uses that information and analysis to facilitate constructive dialogue between scientists, scholars and legislators from the United States, China, Japan and South Korea who seek solutions to security problems that do not depend on the use or threat to use nuclear weapons.