The Asian Wall Street Journal
Taiwan's Nuclear Card
By GERALD SEGAL
TAIPEI -- In order to forestall American efforts to push them
into the arms of
the mainland, representatives of the Taipei government are embarking on a
subtle campaign to remind the world that the Taiwanese military retains the
option of completing the development of a nuclear deterrent. They evidently
hope that a nuclear card will force the U.S. to reaffirm its commitment to
protect Taiwan's security, in order to avoid seeing the stand-off across the
Taiwan Strait go nuclear.
Taiwanese are watching with trepidation the signs that American
their island democracy is wavering. President Bill Clinton's declaration during
a trip to China last month that the U.S. would not support Taiwanese
independence or Taiwanese participation in international organizations was
seen in Taipei as the first stage in a campaign to push the Republic of China
into negotiations with mainland China that will eventually require a
compromise on the issue of the island's sovereignty.
During a visit I made to the island last week, Taiwan's politicians
were understandably cautious about publicly discussing nuclear weapons. A
nuclear weapons program that was even a pale shadow of Israel's "bomb in
the basement" strategy might give the U.S. an excuse to throw Taiwan to the
Chinese wolves. And a credible nuclear deterrent against China would also
be costly, and might provide an excuse for a pre-emptive Chinese strike.
Hence officials in Taipei are never so crude as to talk on the
their nuclear capability. Instead, they prefer to use informal briefings that
provide new details about the history of Taiwan's nuclear program, current
capabilities, and recent efforts to acquire fissile material. As Taiwanese
officials made plain in private briefings last week, they are making a
calculated decision in providing clear evidence of Taiwan's nuclear strategy
of nervous and intense ambiguity. Of course, in keeping with the need for
ambiguity, we can expect Taiwanese officials to formally deny the existence
of a nuclear program.
The success of Taiwan's strategy of ambiguity will depend on the
world appreciating the previous achievements of its nuclear weapons
program. The island began a nuclear program in the late 1960s when the
National Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology was established,
but the U.S. made periodic and successful efforts to keep Taiwan just short
of the final stages of building a nuclear weapon. Taiwan's energy supply is
some 35% nuclear-powered, therefore ensuring large supplies of uranium for
reprocessing. It also has a large nuclear research capability; the expertise on
nuclear weapons and missiles at the Chungshan Institute is still up to date.
As Australian analyst Andrew Mack concluded in 1996, "There is little doubt
that Taiwan's scientists and engineers have the technical ability to build
Taiwan's nuclear weapons program remains hobbled, however, by
its lack of
a capability to enrich fissile material to weapons grade. Taiwan has made
periodic attempts to acquire plutonium, including trying to have its spent
reactor fuel reprocessed in the U.K. in 1974-76. Following U.S. insistence
that the spent fuel be returned to the U.S., Taiwan began reprocessing spent
fuel from a 40-megawatt research reactor supplied by Canada in 1969 (much
like the one India used to produce material for its first nuclear test in 1974). A
further attempt in 1982 to acquire reprocessing technology from France was
also blocked by the U.S.
In October 1982, Taiwanese President Chiang Ching-kuo claimed
1978 Taiwan had the capability to make nuclear weapons but decided
against it. In 1988, the deputy director of the Nuclear Energy Laboratory at
Chungshan, reportedly a U.S. intelligence agent, defected to the U.S. with
clear evidence that Taiwanese efforts to acquire nuclear weapons were
continuing. Under U.S. pressure, the Canadian-supplied reactor used for
secret plutonium separation was closed. Taiwanese sources report that
although the vast majority of the plutonium that Taiwan had managed to
produce was shipped to the U.S., "some plutonium was lost in reprocessing"
and remains in Taiwan. This material, enough for two to three nuclear
weapons, is stored so that U.S. intelligence can be confident it has not yet
been weaponized. But the U.S. is fully aware that Taiwan is a threshold
nuclear weapons power.
On July 28, 1995, as China escalated threats against Taiwan ahead
island's legislative and presidential elections, President Lee Teng-hui
responded with a threat of his own. He admitted for the first time that Taiwan
had been trying to develop nuclear weapons and said that Taiwan "should
re-study the question from a long-term point of view." Three days later,
President Lee said Taiwan "will definitely not develop nuclear weapons," but
the deterrence signal had already been sent. Since 1997, Taiwan has begun
trying to obtain a new reprocessing facility by repairing the
Canadian-supplied reactor that was disabled by the Americans in 1988. The
Americans are demanding that the remodeling program stop and that Taiwan
acquire an American reactor under strict American safeguards.
Taiwan's lack of uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing
capability--and International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of civil
nuclear power plants--make it difficult for Taiwan to build a reliable arsenal.
However, Taiwanese sources say the existing weapons-grade material could
be weaponized in three to four months. If Taiwan were abandoned by the
U.S., they say, it would take no more than a year to build a reprocessing
plant for the plutonium that might be burned at a fast rate in its civilian
nuclear power reactors.
Taiwan is apparently seeking further supplies in the former Soviet
Some speculate that Taiwan is using connections with Chinese organized
crime to locate "loose nukes" from the former Soviet Union. Other Taiwanese
sources point to the size of the Taiwanese "embassy" staff in Moscow
ostensibly concerned with "nuclear waste management" as evidence of a
serious search for fissile material.
Taiwan clearly does not feel the need to alter its current strategy
ambiguity. But there are potential benefits in reminding the Americans and
Chinese of its nuclear option. Hence the argument by Parris Chang, the
chairman of the Defense Committee of the Taiwan Legislative Yuan, that "if
Taiwan were to perceive no alternative guarantee to its security and a
possible sell-out of Taiwan by the U.S., . . . the motivation to go nuclear
would be there." Hence also the description by senior officials in Taipei last
week of Taiwan as a threshold nuclear state and the talk of "leaving options
open" and "pragmatism and ambiguity" about nuclear weapons. Taiwan
already has confidence that its nuclear deterrent would include a credible
means of delivering the weapon, and officials speak openly of the need to
conduct research on a more secure missile delivery system.
As some in Taiwan see it, an important virtue of such nuclear
the implicit warning to Beijing that just because Taiwan is vulnerable to
Chinese missile attack--there is not even a medium-term prospect of the
deployment of U.S. theater missile defenses--Beijing nevertheless should not
assume that it will capitulate without a struggle. The island is determined to
defend its democratic right to self-determination, in the presidential election
in March 2000 and beyond.
Because Taiwan's democrats are aware that they now hold the moral
ground in debates in Washington about China-Taiwan relations, Taipei will
be extremely careful about nuclear signaling to the U.S. But in the run-up to
the year 2000 elections, Taiwan can, and will need to make a strong case
that the Taiwanese people need and deserve U.S. support in making free
choices. In the present climate, when the American president is perceived to
be moving toward Beijing, and former U.S. officials such as Chas Freeman
are promoting the idea of cutting arms sales to Taiwan, some in Taipei
recognize the necessity of reminding the U.S. that Taiwan suspended its
nuclear program in exchange for a U.S. security guarantee and
reassurances about continuing arms sales.
Taiwan would be reassured if it saw evidence of the U.S. fulfilling
promises, made in the Taiwan policy review of 1994, to send cabinet-level
delegations to Taiwan, and to be less neuralgic about contacts with
Taiwanese officials in the U.S. With China's application to the WTO stalled
for the foreseeable future, Taiwan's desires for more international space
would be assuaged by allowing Taiwan to join the WTO without China.
Taiwan would be even more reassured by a replacement of the policy
"three nos" with a "two yes" declaration--a formal U.S. acknowledgment of
Taiwan's democratic process and a commitment that the U.S. will defend
Taiwan's right to make up its own mind about what kind of relationship it
wants with China. Otherwise, a Taiwan that feels its back against the wall
may seek the ultimate deterrent.
Mr. Segal is director of studies at the International Institute
Studies in London and Director of the U.K.'s Pacific Asia Program.
--From The Asian Wall Street Journal
Copyright © 1998 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.