Written by J. Michael Cole
One can almost always anticipate the response whenever John J. Mearsheimer, the famous political scientist from the University of Chicago, says or writes anything about China and the fate of Taiwan. Sure enough, a recent commentary by Mearsheimer in the National Interest, gloomily titled “Say Goodbye to Taiwan,” has attracted the expected derision while sparking calls for Taiwan to develop the ultimate deterrent — nuclear weapons.
Granted, Mearsheimer’s conclusions are hard to swallow. Although he recognizes that most Taiwanese have no interest in being run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or seeing their country become part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Mearsheimer argues that Chinese national power will become such that the island will have no choice but to strike the best deal it can and become part of the PRC. In other words, despite the wishes of Taiwan’s 23 million, a Chinese hegemon will compel them to capitulate, the “least bad” option among future scenario that could include a devastating invasion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Critics of Mearsheimer were quick to attack his argument, which they regarded as flawed and defeatist. To be fair to him, Mearsheimer has pointed out that he is not a Taiwan expert. Furthermore, his detractors should well remember that he is a prophet of the structural theory of international relations, a realist school that uses national power as the sole instrument by which to evaluate the behavior of countries. From that perspective, it is understandable that someone would project, based upon current trends, a not-so-distant future in which China’s might would completely overshadow Taiwan and make external intervention by the U.S. too costly to be considered by Washington.
Mearsheimer’s article is not as bad as his critics would argue, especially the section where he explores Taiwanese identity and the near-total lack of desire for unification. We just need to keep in mind where Mearsheimer comes from and treat his article — and theories — as nothing more than one way of studying international relations and “predicting” future behavior.
Once we’ve accepted this, we can use his great power theory as a point of departure for a more detailed analysis of the other variables that can affect the future of relations across the Taiwan Strait. Immediately, we realize that Mearsheimer’s structural approach leaves out a crucial element of the future, which is the internal dynamics in China. His theory, for one thing, takes several things for granted, such as sustained economic growth in the PRC, national stability, and the continued modernization of the PLA. For many of the academics who specialize on China’s domestic affairs, Mearsheimer’s argument might come across as a bit naïve. At the very least, it seems to ignore human agency in international affairs. By assuming rational actors, Mearsheimer also leaves out the resilience of Taiwanese society and the will to fight should Taiwanese be pushed to an extreme, such as the loss of their country.
From a regional standpoint, the case can also be made that the current situation (Mearsheimer’s static baseline for his analysis) might change as Chines belligerence increases the desirability of a muscular U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific. A more assertive PRC could bring other countries in the region closer together (in fact, it is doing so as we speak), perhaps under an Asian “arc of freedom” such as the one proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo a few years ago. Although this looks improbable for the time being, we cannot rule out the possibility that Taiwan could at some point be invited to join a regional security alliance (an “Asian NATO”) as a hedge against a Chinese hegemon. Such factors, among others, would militate against Mearsheimer’s predictions of inevitable unification for Taiwan, as the island would no longer be isolated and as vulnerable to coercion by China.
Still, while Mearsheimer’s detractors busy themselves blowing holes into his article, some have reached the conclusion that Taiwan’s only option to avoid an inescapable demise is to develop nuclear weapons. According to them, a Taiwanese nuclear deterrent would be the surest way to avoid war with China. In technical terms, there is nothing to prevent Taiwan from developing such weapons. It certainly has the technical know-how, and indeed once had a program, which was cancelled after the U.S. government learned of its existence in the late 1970s.
But the nuclear option is not viable. In fact, launching such a program would make war in the Taiwan Strait more, not less, likely. Beijing, for one thing, would regard such a weapon as an effort to permanently close the door on the possibility of future unification and a declaration of de jure independence, something that it cannot accept. Rather than let this happen, it would intervene pre-emptively to end such a program. This is no longer the 1970s, when the PLA was a backwards land force; today, China’s Second Artillery Corps, not to mention it’s the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), have the ability to launch precision strikes against land targets in Taiwan. Given its growing ability to collect intelligence in Taiwan — imagery, surveillance — the PLA could launch strikes against nuclear sites in Taiwan using a variety of cruise and ballistic missiles, with great expectations of success. Moreover, it would be impossible for Taiwan to keep such a program secret for long, given the penetration of its defense apparatus by Chinese intelligence, and the rapidly growing contact between peoples from the two sides through tourism and business. Lastly, even if Taiwan succeeded in building a limited nuclear arsenal, the island is too small to ensure a survivable nuclear deterrent, one that could withstand a conventional or nuclear first strike by China (technically Beijing has a non-first-strike nuclear policy, but there are doubts whether this applies to areas it considers as part of its territory, such as Taiwan).
A Taiwanese nuclear program would be regarded as provocation and would therefore create incentives for use of force by China, which is not in Taiwan’s best interest. Another consequence of efforts to develop a nuclear weapon would be the damage it would cause to Taipei’s relations with Washington, which would be very unlikely to support, as it does with, say, Israel, the emergence of another nuclear power within the region. And once Taiwan goes nuclear, other countries in the region, including Japan and South Korea, would probably follow, leading to a nuclear arms race that isn’t in anyone’s interest.
In military terms, the best option for Taiwan remains conventional deterrence, along with alliances with regional partners. For a fraction of the extraordinary expenditures that would be necessary to develop a nuclear weapons program, the island’s military could develop a potent asymmetrical force that would serve to deter military adventurism by China. Land attack cruise missiles (LACM) launched from dispersible land, air, and sea platforms, along with longer-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching Chinese C4ISR architecture, airfields, and other key military infrastructure, would be as credible a deterrent as a nuclear bomb, but with the advantage of being much more difficult to neutralize. Another sector that rarely gets mention is electronic warfare, which Taiwan and allies could exploit to disable Chinese systems ahead of or in the early stages of hostilities. The key is to promise enough pain to China’s military and economy that Beijing would think twice before launching an invasion. Doing so through conventional means is much less likely to invite pre-emptive action by China and to cause damage to Taiwan’s image within the international community.
Many may disagree with Mearsheimer’s sense of inevitability when it comes to Taiwan’s future, and there is a lot to disagree with. But no matter what, a nuclear program isn’t an option for Taiwan.
J Michael Cole is a Washington DC and Taipei-based analyst and writer. His personal blog is here and he tweets @jmichaelcole1. Michael is a CPI blog Regular Contributor and Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute. Image by J. Michael Cole.