Taiwan’s Nuclear History: Lessons for Today?Signs of weakened U.S. resolve to defend Taiwan could change the risk calculus for Beijing and trigger the kind of insecurity in Taiwan that led to the pursuit of nuclear weapons in the past
A number of realist international relations scholars in recent years have argued for the U.S. to abandon its already ambiguous security commitment to Taiwan. Academics such as Charles Glaser have argued that doing so would remove a flashpoint for potential conflict with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while at the same time improving the prospects for U.S.-China cooperation on other important issues. However, and setting aside the blow that this would deal to U.S. claims of supporting democracy, critics of this view have made convincing arguments that accommodating China in this way could have the reverse effect. Instead of pacifying China, it could convince Beijing of the lack of U.S. resolve not just with regard to Taiwan but the region more broadly. It would undoubtedly cause concern among Washington’s allies in East Asia, who harbor long-running anxieties over the strength of the U.S. commitment in the face of a rising China. Such worries are not entirely unfounded when prominent political figures such as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination suggest that the U.S. consider pulling back its security presence in East Asia and letting allies handle their own defense.
The debate over how China responds to U.S. actions is crucially important and rightly demands a lot of attention. Less often discussed in all of this, however, is what impact a weakened U.S. security posture might mean for Taiwan’s behavior. A close look at Taiwan’s Cold War-era efforts to develop nuclear weapons, an understudied and often overlooked episode, provides useful lessons.
Perceptions of the threat posed by China were likely the key motivator behind Taiwan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Although publicly available information is unsurprisingly sparse, the program appears to have begun as early as the 1950s. In a report to the Legislative Yuan in 1975, then premier Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) stated that initial nuclear weapons research had begun in 1958. This apparently occurred after the U.S. had denied a request by Taiwan that same year for Republic of China (ROC) forces to be armed with U.S.-supplied nuclear weapons.
Communist aggressiveness in the Taiwan Strait crises of 1954 and 1958 was at the forefront of ROC perceptions of its security environment. On both occasions, the PRC took to bombing of ROC-controlled islands off the coast of China and drew U.S. intervention on the ROC’s behalf. Both Washington and Taipei worried that loss of the islands to the PRC could be a precursor to PRC offensive action on Taiwan proper. While the ROC possessed a qualitative military superiority during this period and strong support from the U.S. through the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, the Nationalists were also likely anticipating what would undoubtedly be growing PRC conventional military strength relative to the ROC in the future.
These anxieties were greatly exacerbated by the PRC’s successful nuclear test in October 1964. Declassified U.S. government documents portray Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) as badly shaken by the test. Days after the detonation, U.S. officials noted in him an “intense feeling of frustration and anxiety” attributed in part to his surprise that the PRC had achieved the nuclear test at an earlier date than anticipated. Chiang pointed to the ROC as the “principal target” of a nuclear-armed China and stressed that Taiwan could be “wiped out in one attack.” Chiang was also described as “obsessed” with the idea that the U.S. deterrent was not sufficient to prevent a nuclear attack on Taiwan.
It is against this backdrop that Chiang reportedly approved moving the nuclear bomb project from research to active development. Of U.S. government documents that have been declassified, the earliest date indicating awareness of the ROC’s apparent attempts to develop a nuclear weapon is June 1966. A declassified CIA intelligence estimate drew a direct link between the PRC nuclear test and the ROC’s decision to establish the Chungshan Institute for Science and Technology (CSIST), the institution that housed the initial nuclear weapons program.
ROC sources also draw this connection. Dr. Wu Ta-you (吳大猷), former director of Taiwan’s National Security Council Science Development Advisory Committee, was asked in 1967 to review a US$140 million Ministry of National Defense proposal for kickstarting Taiwan’s nuclear weapons development. He attributed the motivation behind the proposal to worsening tensions between the PRC and ROC and the PRC’s nuclear test in particular.
Fears of U.S. abandonment
While the threat posed by the PRC was the prime motivator behind Taiwan’s early nuclear weapons development efforts, changes in the U.S. strategic posture are also crucial for understanding these decisions. Chiang Kai-shek demonstrated anxiety about the longevity of the U.S. security commitment virtually from the very beginning. For example, when the first U.S.-PRC bilateral talks took place in Geneva in 1955, Chiang decided to test the U.S. commitment by proposing to the Americans that he send additional troops to the island of Kinmen (Quemoy). When the U.S. did not oppose the move, he concluded with relief that “They don’t yet have any intention to break out of the alliance.”
By the time of the PRC nuclear test, the split between the PRC and the Soviet Union had been well established. Western governments were beginning to recognize the PRC, notably France in 1964. The Nationalists naturally worried about potential changes in U.S. policy as well. U.S. government documents illustrate awareness of this anxiety on the part of U.S. officials. An April 1966 telegram from Embassy Taipei noted serious concerns in the ROC government over the “eventual drift of US policy toward greater accommodation with Communist China.” The following year, in the journal Foreign Affairs, Richard Nixon famously wrote that the U.S. “could not afford to have China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates, and threaten its neighbors.” Chiang Kai-shek is said to have viewed the Nixon piece as a “serious omen.”
Taiwan was likely watching closely the developments in Vietnam, reading into what they might mean for the continued U.S. presence in the region. The Nixon Doctrine of 1969 made clear that the U.S. would be scaling back its security presence there. More concrete signs of a weakening U.S. security commitment to Taiwan would begin to take shape that same year. The U.S. first removed destroyers from the Taiwan Strait. This was followed by stark reductions in military aid in 1970, from US$30 million annually to US$7 million. Chiang Ching-kuo, in a meeting with the U.S. ambassador to the ROC, fretted that “confidence in US consistency and dependability had been seriously diluted” as a result of the sharp decrease in aid, and that “there had to be policy implications in such a drastic unilateral move.” In private discussions with ROC officials, the U.S. continued to stress its commitment to Taiwan’s defense, but the nationalists were shaken by a growing gap between such rhetorical commitments and concrete U.S. actions.
ROC unease would prove well founded, as Chiang and his father would later understand these moves as presaging the Nixon administration’s larger effort to normalize relations with the PRC. The February 1972 Shanghai Communiqué between the U.S. and the PRC promised a “progressive reduction” in U.S. military forces and installations on Taiwan leading up to a complete withdrawal. In keeping with this understanding, U.S. forces in Taiwan were sharply reduced from the previous stable level of about 8,000 troops to 4,619 in 1974, 2,584 in 1975, less than a 1,000 by 1977, and were finally withdrawn entirely in 1979. In 1974, the U.S. withdrew its nuclear weapons stationed in Taiwan.
As the U.S. and PRC moved closer, the ROC leadership consistently sought reassurances from the U.S. regarding its commitment to Taiwan’s security, but the U.S. was no longer willing to offer even robust rhetorical support. In September 1974, a letter from Chiang Ching-kuo to President Ford indirectly asked for re-affirmation of the mutual defense treaty. On the advice of then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and others in the foreign policy leadership, who argued for “conditioning the ROC leadership” to changes in U.S. China policy, the president’s reply mentioned only a general “commitment to the security of the Republic of China.” A year later, Chiang again wrote the president seeking a re-affirmation of the security commitment. This time President Ford’s reply made no mention of a U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s security but only a “prudent regard for the vital interests of your people.”
Changes in the U.S. strategic posture were alarming for Taiwan, and this weakening security commitment from the U.S. coincided with an apparent intensification of the ROC’s nascent nuclear weapons program. In 1969, Taiwan purchased a small heavy water research reactor from Canada. Work also began that year on other facilities, including a plant to produce natural uranium fuel, a small reprocessing facility, and a plutonium chemistry laboratory. Taipei also began that year what would become a longstanding quest to obtain a larger reprocessing facility.
A 1972 CIA analysis of Taiwan’s nuclear behavior drew a direct connection between changes in the U.S. security posture and Taiwan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The analysis notes that “Taipei’s concern about standing alone has grown” and that “some on Taiwan may be questioning how long they can count on all-out U.S. support.” Reflecting on the changing U.S. security posture, the analysis argues that the government in Taipei may have seen a nuclear weapons option as “one of the few feasible deterrents to communist attack in an uncertain future.”
The U.S. intervenes — repeatedly
While worries over U.S. abandonment appear to have fueled an aggressive expansion of Taiwan’s nuclear weapons program, it was intervention from the U.S. that would ultimately prove decisive in ending the program. But getting to that point was a slow, fitful process that reflects the depth of Taipei’s fears regarding the U.S. commitment.
Although the ROC sought to disguise its weapons efforts as peaceful energy development, as previously noted, the U.S. had indications of Taiwan’s weapons intent at least as early as 1966. These concerns increased markedly in 1972 when the U.S. became aware of Taiwan’s efforts to purchase a large fuel reprocessing facility from West Germany. Although Taiwan backed away from the deal in part because of U.S. opposition, it pursued new talks the following year, this time with Belgian and French companies. U.S. suspicions over the ROC’s nuclear intentions continued to mount during this period, with a February 1973 report from the U.S. embassy in Taipei noting a “strong military element” in the administration of the Institute of Nuclear Energy Research (INER), which oversaw the reactor that had been purchased from Canada. The report also stated that the reactor itself was considered a “military secret” in Taiwan, and that the apparent lack of research on the fuel cycle, which was the reactor’s stated purpose, had “caused considerable comment among Chinese and foreigners.”
As a result of these concerns, the U.S. sent a study team to meet with Taiwanese officials at various nuclear installations that November. On the trip, U.S. officials took a harder line than before, threatening damage to cooperation on Taiwan’s nuclear power program if reprocessing efforts continued. In response, Taiwan’s foreign minister affirmed that Taipei had dropped its plans for purchasing a reprocessing plant and stated that the ROC would “not be so foolish as to jeopardize US nuclear cooperation without which [the ROC] could not succeed.”
Concerns would nonetheless surface again in 1976 when the U.S. became aware that Taiwan was once again pursuing purchase of a reprocessing plant, this time from a Dutch firm. In addition, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector observed signs that secret reprocessing may have been taking place at the previously purchased Canadian research reactor. This time, the U.S. also made threats about potential harm to Taiwan’s broader relations with the U.S., including security relations. In addition, the U.S. ambassador in Taipei, Leonard Unger, met with premier Chiang Ching-kuo to seek assurances at the highest level of the ROC government. Unger noted his impression that Chiang had hoped to “obfuscate or skirt the principal cause” of U.S. concern during the meeting, but he was nonetheless able to achieve a clear commitment from Chiang not to pursue reprocessing. Chiang further stated that “all reprocessing research, peaceful or otherwise, will be terminated.” The ROC made this commitment publicly in a statement issued a couple of days later.
Despite both public and private assurances from Chiang himself, a few months later the U.S. would obtain evidence that negotiations with the Dutch firm over the reprocessing plant were continuing. At the same time, there were new suspicions arising from an IAEA inspection, which found that an unsafeguarded exit port in the existing research reactor that had been purchased from Canada could have been used to divert nuclear materials for secret reprocessing.
These revelations would push the U.S. to finally insist on far-reaching changes to Taiwan’s nuclear program. The U.S. demanded the disposal of spent fuel, the termination of all fuel cycle activities, the transport of all plutonium to the U.S., the suspension of operation of the research reactor until proper safeguards were in place and a “mutually acceptable” research program was established, and the avoidance of any activities which, after consultation with the U.S., were determined to “have application to the development of a nuclear explosive capability.” Essentially, the U.S. was demanding that Taiwan ensure that all of its nuclear activities henceforth would be entirely incompatible with nuclear weapons development. These demands were accepted. An April 1977 note to President Carter from National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski states briefly that the effort to “crack down” on Taiwan’s nuclear weapons project had been successful. Another document written as the efforts to make these changes were in process noted that Taiwan was exhibiting “honest, albeit reluctant, effort to comply.” Subsequent inspection visits were described as “trouble free.”
Yet the saga still wasn’t quite over. Ten years later, in 1987, INER apparently began building a multiple hot cell facility. This was discovered thanks to information provided to the U.S. by Col. Chang Hsien-yi (張憲義), the deputy director of INER and reportedly a CIA informant. There is little available public information on this incident, but it appears that pressure from the U.S. was again crucial in persuading Taiwan to cease these nuclear activities, with the ROC promising to shut down its research reactor for conversion to a light-water reactor and ship its remaining heavy water to the U.S., assurances made through written guarantees from then President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) to President Reagan. At long last, the U.S. appeared to have achieved a conclusive nuclear reversal.
Shifting U.S. security posture
The U.S. struggled over many years to persuade the Nationalists to back away from nuclear weapons development, despite the immense leverage it possessed as Taiwan’s sole security guarantor. This difficulty is attributable in large part to the fact that the U.S. security commitment to Taiwan was in an active state of erosion as these counter-proliferation efforts were occurring. This was manifest in the conventional troop withdrawals, the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Taiwan, and cuts in military assistance that I described previously, as well as the broader political processes that were ongoing to establish diplomatic recognition of the PRC at Taiwan’s expense. The apparent renewed nuclear weapons effort in the late 1980s occurred after a further weakening of security ties to Taiwan — that is, after the U.S. had switched diplomatic recognition to the PRC in 1979, ended its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan in 1980, and made commitments to the PRC in 1982 to begin decreasing arms sales to Taiwan.
Declassified U.S. government documents draw this connection explicitly, noting the need for continued vigilance as the “underlying security fears of the ROC” would remain while “our protection becomes increasingly less credible.” It was also noted that the problem of Taiwan’s nuclear weapons program may “recur again in the future when the supervision and pressure of the USG is relaxed.” The U.S. correctly understood that ROC insecurity, stoked by the changing U.S. secure posture, had driven Taiwan to take on immense risks in search of a credible deterrent against potential PRC aggression. It was this insecurity that made achieving a nuclear reversal so difficult.
Lessons for today?
While perceptions of the threat posed by the PRC drove Taiwan’s initial decision to pursue nuclear weapons research and development, the weakening security commitment from the U.S. appears to be have been the crucial additional factor that accounts for the program’s longevity. Once the U.S. security posture began to indicate potential abandonment, the ROC intensified its nuclear weapons program, undertaking greater risks of detection in the process. These same fears of abandonment drove Taiwan to persist in these efforts in the face of strong U.S. opposition. Only after repeated failed attempts to continue these efforts clandestinely, and faced with wholesale abandonment by the U.S., did the ROC leadership finally relent and abandon the program.
What implications might this history have for policymakers today? Although Taiwan is believed to have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a relatively short period of time if it chose to do so, it is very unlikely to contemplate such a move in the current context. As before, doing so would obviously jeopardize continued U.S. support. Moreover, Taiwan today is markedly different from what it was in the 1970s and 1980s. The level of transparency and independent media brought about by its democratization would make the secret pursuit of a nuclear program challenging even if the leadership were interested in going down that road.  Such secrecy would be crucial given that the PRC has been explicit in its opposition to the development of nuclear weapons in Taiwan. As Derek Mitchell has written, by returning to nuclear weapons development, Taiwan would run the risk of provoking the very attack it seeks to deter.
That said, the underlying security challenge that provoked the nuclear weapons program remains, and by some measures is becoming more intense. The balance of conventional military power has been continually shifting in China’s favor since that time, while PRC resolve for unification is as strong as ever. In 2005, the PRC enshrined in its domestic law its willingness to resolve the “Taiwan issue” by force if peaceful means have been exhausted. More recently, public statements by President Xi Jinping (習近平) indicate a strong desire to at least make progress on resolving the issue to China’s satisfaction sooner rather than later, perhaps as part of his broader political legacy. But to Beijing’s frustration, China’s strategy of economic and then political integration with Taiwan appears to be at a dead end. The Taiwanese public has rejected the cross-strait trade policies of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration. Central government interference in Hong Kong makes it look less attractive as a potential model for Taiwan by the day. And, as has been thoroughly documented, people in Taiwan increasingly conceive of their identity as separate and distinct from China. These trends must have the leadership in Beijing contemplating a long-term change in strategy, a fact that is not lost on their counterparts in Taipei, though they can at least take comfort in the fact that at this point Beijing remains thoroughly preoccupied with domestic challenges.
U.S. policy, as before, remains the crucial factor in this equation in constraining not just Beijing’s actions but Taiwan’s as well. Signs of weakened U.S. resolve to defend Taiwan would not only change the risk calculus for Beijing, but they could also trigger the kind of insecurity on the part of Taiwan’s leadership that led to the island-nation’s pursuit of nuclear weapons in prior decades. This is particularly true if the U.S. were to pursue a wholesale abandonment strategy as some have advocated. In such a case, Taipei may still conclude that the risks of pursuing nuclear weapons are too high. However, given how dangerous such a course would be for the prospects of continued peace, any U.S. action that brings forth the level of insecurity that led Taiwan down the nuclear path in prior decades is worthy of concern. The broader point that policymakers in the U.S. must be cognizant of is that the U.S. security posture remains essential in shaping Taiwan’s decisions today, just as it did then.
Mike Weber is a graduating Masters of Public Affairs student at Princeton University. He previously spent four years in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. All views expressed here are his own.
 Brian Hook, Michael Yahuda, and Dick Wilson, The China Quarterly, no. 64, Dec. 1975, http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/653033.pdf?acceptTC=true, 808.
 U.S. Department of State, “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Volume XIX, China, Document 250,” https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1958-60v19/d250.
 U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, “The Taiwan Straits Crises,” https://history.state.gov/milestones/1953-1960/taiwan-strait-crises
 William Burr and Jeffrey Richelson, “China’s First Nuclear Test 1964 – 50th Anniversary,” The National Security Archive at George Washington University, Document 20: U.S. Embassy, Taipei, cable number 347 to Department of State, 24 October 1964, Secret, excised copy, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB38/document20.pdf, 1-3.
 Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo’s Son (Harvard, 2000), 275.
 William Burr, “New Archival Evidence on Taiwanese “Nuclear Intentions”, 1966-1976,” U.S. Embassy Taipei, Airgram 1037, 20 June 1966, Indications GRC Continues to Pursue Atomic Weaponry, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB20/docs/doc18.pdf.
 Ibid, Document 1A: Special National Intelligence Estimate 43-1-72, “Taipei’s Capabilities and Intentions Regarding Nuclear Weapons Development,” November 1972, Secret, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb221/T-1a.pdf, 5.
 David Albright and Corey Gay, “Taiwan: Nuclear nightmare averted,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Jan/Feb 1998, 55.
 Ibid, 489. Taylor cites Chiang Kai-shek’s diaries.
 U.S. Department of State, “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968 Volume XXX, China, Document 138, Page 279,” https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1964-68v30/pg_279.
 Taylor, The Generalissimo, 529-533.
 Etel Solingen, Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East (Princeton University Press, 2007),103.
 U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976 Volume XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 92, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v17/d92.
 U.S. Department of State, “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976 Volume XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 146, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v17/d146.
 Tim Kane, “Global U.S. Troop Deployment, 1950-2003,” The Heritage Foundation, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2004/10/global-us-troop-deployment-1950-2003.
 Solingen, 103.
 Gerald Ford Presidential Library, “China, Republic Of – Premier Chiang Ching-kuo,” http://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/document/0351/1555798.pdf, 1-8.
 Ibid, 27-31.
 Albright and Gay, 56-57.
 Burr, “New Archival Evidence…” Document 1A: Special National Intelligence Estimate 43-1-72, “Taipei’s Capabilities and Intentions Regarding Nuclear Weapons Development,” November 1972, Secret, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb221/T-1a.pdf, 7.
 Burr, “New Archival Evidence…” U.S. Embassy Taipei, Airgram 1037, 20 June 1966, “Indications GRC Continues to Pursue Atomic Weaponry,” http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB20/docs/doc18.pdf.
 Ibid, State Department Memorandum of Conversation, “German Inquiry Regarding Safeguards on Export of Parts to ROC Reprocessing Plant,” 22 November 1972, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB20/docs/doc16.pdf.
 Burr, “New Archival Evidence…,” Embassy Taipei to State Department, “Chung Shan Nuclear Research Institute,” Cable 1197, 24 February 1973http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB20/docs/doc09.pdf, 1-2.
 Burr, “U.S. Opposed…,” Document 3B: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 7051 to State Department, “Fonmin Reaffirms ROC Decision to Refrain From Acquiring Nuclear Reprocessing Plant,” 23 November 1973, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb221/T-3b.pdf.
 Ibid, Document 4A: U.S. Embassy Netherlands cable 8502 to State Department, “Nuclear Fuel Processing Plant,” 7 July 1976, Secret Limdis, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb221/T-4a.pdf.
 Ibid, Document 6A: State Department cable 91733 to Embassy Taiwan, “ROC’s Nuclear Intentions,” 4 September 1976, Secret Exdis, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb221/T-6a.pdf, 3-4.
 Ibid, Document 7A: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 6272 to State Department, “ROC’s Nuclear Intentions: Conversation with Premier Chiang Ching-kuo,” 15 September 1976, Secret Nodis, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb221/T-7a.pdf, 5-6.
 Ibid, Document 7B: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 6301 to State Department, “ROC’s Nuclear Intentions,” 17 September 1976, Unclassified, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb221/T-7b.pdf.
 Ibid, Document 10G: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 332 to State Department, “US Nuclear Team Conclusions and Recommendations,” 17 February 1977, Secret Nodis, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb221/T-10g.pdf, 2.
 Ibid, 4-5.
 Ibid, Zbigniew Brzezinski to President Carter, “Weekly National Security Report #11,” 29 April 1977, Top Secret, Excerpt, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb221/T-14.pdf.
 Ibid, Document 15A: U.S. Embassy Taipei cable 2646 to State Department, “Visit of CAEC Secretary General – Dr. Victor Cheng,” 6 May 1977, Secret (repeated to Brzezinski at White House), Secret Nodis, excised copy, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb221/T-15a.pdf, 2.
 Burr, “U.S. Opposed…”
 Derek J. Mitchell, “Taiwan’s Hsin Chu Program: Deterrence, Abandonment, and Honor,” in The Nuclear Tipping Point (Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 300-301.
 Burr, “New Archival Evidence…,” Document 16B: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 3310 to State Department, “U.S. Technical Team Visit,” 6 June 1977, Secret Limdis, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb221/T-16b.pdf, pg 3.
 Mitchell, 304.
 Mitchell, 303.
 Nusa Dua and Indone Sia, “China’s Xi Says Political Solution for Taiwan Can’t Wait Forever, Reuters, October 6, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-asia-apec-china-taiwan-idUSBRE99503Q20131006.