Taiwan’s search for a decisive deterrent capability against China, highlighted by recent reports that President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration has canceled the medium-range Yun Feng (雲鋒, Cloud Peak) missile program, has gone through two major phases, but is about to encounter a more dangerous third phase.
The first two phases were in reaction to new threats posed by China. After China’s first nuclear bomb test in 1964, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) started a quiet program to develop an indigenous Taiwanese nuclear weapon. By the mid-1970s Taiwan was making progress, such as developing weapons-grade plutonium.
However, having stationed US Air Force nuclear warhead armed MGM-1 Matador cruise missiles in Taiwan in the late 1950s to deter a Chinese attack, by the late 1970s Washington came to oppose Taipei’s nuclear weapons program as an impediment to its rapprochement with Beijing. Following disclosures by a Taiwanese defector in the mid-1980s the US applied great pressure on Taiwan to halt its nuclear weapons program.
A second phase followed China’s firing of missiles to areas near Taiwan in 1995 and 1996 to intimidate Taiwanese from voting for Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). China’s tactic backfired as then-US president Bill Clinton’s administration sent two aircraft carriers to signal support for Taiwan, and Lee won the presidential election.
However, Taiwanese were given a fright; Lee briefly considered reviving Taiwan’s nuclear weapons program, but instead began a series of missile programs which have had bipartisan support in Taipei for more than 20 years.
Early on Washington opposed Taiwan’s long-range missile programs, even denying access to US-made missile components, but by 2013 Washington had started to significantly change its tune, now engaging Taipei toward the development of new, yet-to-be disclosed “asymmetric” weapons.
While the news that the arms sales adverse US President Barack Obama’s administration might help Taiwan develop better deterrent capabilities was greeted with some relief, it is not yet known whether real programs have started.
These are required soon as Taiwan faces looming decisive threats from China. Current estimates that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aims at Taiwan up to 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) could grow to 4,000 if new multi-missile SRBM systems replace current single-missile systems. In addition, for the first time since the 1950s the PLA is close to gathering the range of capabilities needed to invade Taiwan.
Normally a Normandy-style invasion would require fantastic luck, but what if the US or its allies South Korea and Japan have been attacked by North Korean nuclear missiles? Might China take advantage of such US preoccupation to attack Taiwan?
This highlights the current and more dangerous stage in Taiwan’s search for an effective deterrent: China’s deliberate proliferation of missile and nuclear technologies to North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, which in turn create multiple possible missile and nuclear missile threats to Taiwan.
What Taiwan and other US allies are facing is not just the threat to deterrence from Washington’s loss of overwhelming military superiority vis-a-vis China, but also new threats emerging from Washington’s failure after 25 years of trying to contain China-propelled nuclear missile proliferation.
Such looming dangers are one reason for reports that US military leaders and some US allies have expressed opposition to the Obama administration’s reportedly favoring a “no first use” nuclear doctrine and further reductions in US nuclear forces. They would be correct to fear that such decisions would increase Beijing’s and Pyongyang’s temptation to consider surprise conventional strikes.
Washington could take one step relatively rapidly, which would address Asian anxieties: redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to US forces in Asia. This would mean producing new nuclear warhead-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles and putting them on US Navy submarines and ships. Washington should also offer South Korea, Japan and Australia NATO-style “shared basing” for tactical nuclear weapons.
While such additions to US power in Asia would also increase deterrence in the Taiwan Strait, Taipei still requires new deterrent capabilities should nuclear crises preoccupy Washington. One asymmetric option to consider would be for the US to develop new cheap, light weight but highly accurate cruise missiles and sell them to Taiwan. With warheads of less than 50kg they would pose no offensive threat to China, but could attack PLA invasion fleets and missiles in the Taiwan theater.
China’s increasing threats and its direct and indirect support for North Korea’s nuclear missile program have increased sentiment in South Korea and Japan to consider their own nuclear deterrent. Taiwan can avoid being pushed down a similar path by rapidly adopting new asymmetric conventional deterrent capabilities, but Washington must also quickly redress the Asian conventional and nuclear military balance.
Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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