China's Big Problem: Taiwan Likely Has Nuclear Weapons

By Marisa Herman

11 October 2021

China has bombarded Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone with nearly 150 aircraft — including fighter jets, bombers, transport planes, and surveillance planes — during a tense first week of October, heightening fears that China may soon take a dangerous plunge and use military force as its next step in its quest to "reunify" the mainland and Taiwan.

Here's a rundown of the key issues:

Why is China ramping up tensions over Taiwan?

Taiwan and mainland China having been governed separately since the end of a civil war more than 70 years ago. Beijing has made it clear that it ultimately wants complete control over Taipei and its recent series of incursions began Oct. 1, the "National Day" holiday marking the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Some experts also believe China’s recent aggression may be a result of feeling emboldened by a series of U.S. foreign policy stumbles, including President Joe Biden’s chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan. But Chinese leaders have been ramping up their "One China" rhetoric for months.

Others believe Chinese President Xi Jinping faces internal dissent over his draconian rule and his economy’s sluggish performance. Increasing tensions stir patriotic feelings in the homeland while diverting attention from other problems.

Is China actually making incursions into Taiwan’s airspace?

The People's Liberation Army Air Force has avoided entering Taiwan's actual sovereign airspace, which is defined as 12 nautical miles off its coastline. However, the flights have entered Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone, an area where an incursion would typically trigger a response of radio warnings and fighter jet intercepts. While the ADIZ is not recognized by international law, many countries monitor all air traffic that enter the zone.

Still, China’s incursions into the ADIZ is unprecedented and provocative.

Will China ever invade Taiwan?

China expert and author Gordon Chang summed up the situation: "If you told me World War III starts next week, I wouldn’t be surprised. If you told me nothing will happen, I wouldn’t be surprised." China’s rhetoric vowing a reunification with Taiwan is not an empty threat — but it’s unclear if China would force the issue via a potentially catastrophic military campaign or whether it’s content to chip away and exploit advantageous situations. Heritage Foundation senior research fellow and U.S. Air Force veteran John Venable noted the record 65 warplanes sent by China on Oct. 4 featured "basically everything you need to go in and execute a full-on attack on an area or region."

China watchers suggest that Beijing would prefer to avoid an armed invasion or military attack. Lifting a page from the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu’s 5th century B.C. "Art of War," the Chinese leadership is to achieve the desired result without war. China was able to re-acquire control of Hong Kong through an agreement with Britain. But Xi seems to ignore diplomatic subtleties and may want to show China’s muscle, especially with a weak administration in Washington.

Do the Taiwanese want to fight against a Chinese attack?

Taiwanese officials have ramped up the rhetoric as China ramps up its aggression, with President Tsai Ing-wen vowing in a Foreign Affairs opinion piece that the island won’t bend to China’s pressure campaign. Recent polling also indicates that Taiwanese citizens are willing to defend their nation in the event of an invasion, according to The Guardian. The October survey found that 77.6% of respondents said they would fight, while a poll earlier this year showed that about half of the island’s population are worried that war is on the horizon. It’s important to remember that most citizens of Taiwan consider themselves Taiwanese and not Chinese. China is considered a foreign power seeking to take over their homeland.

Could a Hong Kong-style deal ever be made over Taiwan?

It is unlikely that Taipei or Beijing would agree to a Hong Kong-style deal, which would broker a "one country, two systems" political arrangement. While the idea has been floated by China in the past, Taiwan rejected such a proposal as recently as 2019, noting that the agreement has failed in Hong Kong. Beijing reneged on almost all of their pledges to allow democracy, home rule, and free enterprise to flourish in Hong Kong. China’s massive intervention in Hong Kong and the scene of mass protests after a Chinese crackdown on democratic institutions was further proof to the Taiwanese that Beijing simply cannot be trusted.

Could Taiwan repel a Chinese invasion?

China’s military capabilities completely dwarf Taiwan’s in terms of both the range of weapons available and overall manpower. While Taiwan has been purchasing weapons from the U.S., it doesn’t have anywhere near the arsenal possessed by China. Taipei also has far fewer military aircraft and a much older fleet.

Would the U.S. defend Taiwan?

The State Department says the United States and Taiwan "enjoy a robust unofficial relationship," meaning that, though America maintains "cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations" with Taiwan, the United States has since 1979 officially defined Taiwan as part of China and recognized the People’s Republic of China as the "sole legal government" of China. The United States "does not support Taiwan independence," but America has committed to helping Taiwan "in maintaining its defensive capability." Biden this week said he and Xi agreed to "abide by the Taiwan agreement," an apparent nod to the so-called "strategic ambiguity" doctrine. But in late August, Biden’s comment that the U.S. would unequivocally defend Taiwan if it were attacked, necessitated a swift walk-back by an administration official who stressed U.S. policy "has not changed." The U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity has helped Taiwan remain free, but the Biden administration’s decision to pull out support for Afghan allies without notice has set off alarm bells in Taipei.

Does Taiwan have nuclear weapons?

While Taiwan has pursued several programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, there has never been public acknowledgement the island nation has such devices. Reportedly, Taiwan began working to build a nuclear weapon after China’s first nuclear test in 1964. Though it reportedly produced plutonium for the program during the 1970s, the official story line is that the U.S. ultimately pressured Taipei to officially halt the research in 1976. Other reports indicate nuclear research continued in secret into the 1980s.

Still, many believe Taiwan has quietly built a stockpile of tactical nuclear warheads that, if used, would give China serious pause and could help repel a People’s Liberation Army seaborne invasion. The late Sam Cohen, the father of the neutron bomb, told journalists that Taiwan had a stockpile of such weapons and that he had personally briefed the Taiwan military staff on their use. The neutron bomb, developed in the 1970s and 80s, is a controversial device that disperses massive amounts of radiation in a limited target area without the blast of a traditional weapon. Such a bomb that kills people while doing little destruction to structures could be ideal for a small nation seeking to pushback a hostile invasion.

What is the risk to Japan and Australia?

Tsai warned in her opinion piece that a successful Beijing invasion of Taiwan "would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system." Japan appears keenly aware of the situation and highlighted the increasing tension in its annual defense white paper in July. Tokyo is particularly concerned due to Japan’s proximity to the Okinawa chain at the western end of the Japanese archipelago. Japan has pledged to help defend Taiwan, even though it considers China a key trading partner. Australia already has an icy relationship with China and condemned the recent air provocations. It’s recent signing of the AUKUS pact with the United States and United Kingdom means Australia will eventually have nuclear-powered subs and long-range missiles at its disposal and would likely be allied with whatever action — or inaction — the U.S. decided to take over an invasion of Taiwan.