U.S. President Joe Biden can reestablish deterrence by offering Taiwan a mutual defense treaty. If he does not want to do that, he should either base American nuclear weapons in Taiwan or transfer such weapons to the island so it can defend itself. Pictured: A Taiwanese Air Force F-16 fighter jet drop bombs during the annual Han Guang live-fire drill on August 25, 2016. (Photo by Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)
"The island's society must be warned that they better not believe the 'rock solid' promise of the U.S. because Washington will never fight to the death with the Chinese mainland for the island's secession," the Chinese Communist Party's Global Times proclaimed on October 14, referring to Taiwan.
The words, contained in an editorial, reflects the Party's propaganda line, and that line almost certainly reflects the thinking of Chinese leaders.
There has in recent months been a dangerous erosion in deterrence. U.S. President Joe Biden can reestablish deterrence by offering Taiwan a mutual defense treaty. If he does not want to do that, he should either base American nuclear weapons in Taiwan or transfer such weapons to the island so it can defend itself.
It is clear Beijing no longer respects America, something especially evident in March when China's top two diplomats traveled to Anchorage to lecture, in derisive tones, America's secretary of state and national security advisor.
Moreover, in August, as Afghanistan was failing, Chinese propagandists went on the attack. On August 10, for instance, People's Daily, China's most authoritative publication, ran a piece titled "U.S. No Longer Has the Position of Strength for Its Arrogance and Impertinence."
At that time, Beijing propagated the notion that the U.S. could not hope to counter China because it could not deal with insurgents, the Taliban.
Moreover, Beijing wasted no time going after Taiwan's governing party, the Democratic Progressive Party. "The DPP authorities need to keep a sober head, and the secessionist forces should reserve the ability to wake up from their dreams," an editorial from Global Times, controlled by People's Daily, stated. "From what happened in Afghanistan, they should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island's defense will collapse in hours and the U.S. military won't come to help."
China, in short, apparently believes it can run over America to make Taiwan its 34th province. To disabuse Chinese aggressors at this late date, the U.S. should ditch the decades-old "strategic ambiguity," the policy of not telling either Beijing or Taipei what it would do when conflict is imminent, and publicly offer Taipei a mutual defense treaty.
A treaty would be, of course, a sure sign of American will. Washington, when it switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, terminated the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan of 1954. The U.S. should admit the mistake and sign a new one, fast.
There is an alternative to a treaty: make sure Taiwan, one way or another, has nuclear weapons.
Such weapons are so fearsome that the mere possibility that a country has them is itself a deterrent. As RAND's Scott Harold told Gatestone, some believe Taiwan would not necessarily need many of these weapons. Just a few—and perhaps just one—could establish deterrence.
Some think the island already possesses an arsenal of such devices. Others, however, are not so sure. "Of course, you can't be completely certain, but most likely Taiwan does not have nuclear weapons after successive American efforts to end those programs," said Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center to Gatestone. At least twice—in the mid-1970s and late 1980s—Washington forced Taiwan to stop secret atomic bomb programs.
How would Taiwan get its hands on the world's most destructive weaponry now? Taiwan could restart its nuclear weapons program, but even though it may be close to assembling a device—it is, after all, a so-called bomb-in-the-basement country—it would take time to build an arsenal.
While building one, China could accelerate plans to invade. Many believe Chinese leaders consider that Taiwan's imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons would be an additional casus belli. So as RAND's Harold perceptively points out, "How one gets from 'could Taiwan deter if it had nuclear weapons' to 'now Taiwan has them' could be a dangerous road to walk."
The U.S. could shorten the period of risk by giving Taiwan an off-the-shelf bomb, an instant deterrent, or basing American nukes on the island. In the 1980s, the U.S. beefed up deterrence of the Soviet Union by basing nuclear-tipped Pershing missiles in Europe.
Taiwan has always been critically important to America. The island makes advanced chips for U.S. products, anchors America's western defense perimeter, and is a beacon of democracy. After the fall of Kabul, Taiwan is seen as the test of U.S. resolve. The U.S. should, therefore, be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect the island.
Taiwan is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, so it has no obligation to remain nuke-free. The U.S., however, is a party to the treaty and has an obligation not to proliferate.
Yet it is high time to reconsider compliance with that treaty. Treaty-member China has proliferated nuclear weapons technology and materials to various regimes, and Beijing was behind the Pakistani nuclear black-market ring of A. Q. Khan, who transferred Chinese nuke tech to, among others, Iran and North Korea. Because China has armed aggressors with nukes, America, to maintain deterrence and keep the peace, should arm potential victims with them.
Would the proliferation of nukes to Taiwan be dangerous? After watching—and not stopping—Communist China from proliferating for more than a half century, there are no un-dangerous options for Washington.
Sha Zukang, the former Chinese ambassador for disarmament to the U.N. in Geneva, last month suggested that China create large exceptions to its announced no-first-use policy, the promise not to be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.
In 1996, when he was China's top arms negotiator, Sha told Newsweek that his country's policy of no-first-use did not apply to Taiwan. The foreign ministry subsequently said Sha was speaking out-of-turn, but many thought he had in fact revealed official thinking on the subject.
In any event, Taiwan and the U.S. need to do something now to deter an extraordinarily aggressive China. On the 4th of this month, the Global Times issued an editorial with this title: "Time to Warn Taiwan Secessionists and their Fomenters: War Is Real."
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, a Gatestone Institute distinguished senior fellow, and a member of its Advisory Board.