September 23, 2020
Today, few would think of the peaceful island nation of Taiwan as a potential nuclear weapons proliferator. But not that long ago, following the Chinese civil war and loss of the ruling party, Kuomintang (KMT), to the Communists, the KMT government evacuated to the island of Taiwan, where a government-in-refuge, the Republic of China (ROC), was set up under the martial rule of the Chiang dynasty. The Chiangs were extremely concerned about what became the mainland Communist People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) threats to one day seize the island as its own. The father, President Chiang Kai-shek, and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, successively presided over a secret nuclear weapons program aimed at deterring an attack and bolstering Taiwan’s prestige. As it became more diplomatically isolated following the PRC’s recognition as the legitimate government of China, Taiwan’s clandestine nuclear weapons program picked up speed. It unfolded in a piecemeal fashion from the 1960s to the late 1980s, despite the PRC’s other threat that if Taipei ever developed nuclear weapons, Beijing would reclaim the island by force. By the mid-1980s, the nuclear weapons program of Taiwan aimed at bringing it within three to six months of being able to build a nuclear weapon, in essence, capable of making nuclear weapons “on demand.”
Progress on this program depended on deceiving the United States, Taiwan’s key ally and a staunch opponent of it obtaining a nuclear weapon. As one of Taiwan’s sole, major allies following the late 1970s diplomatic recognition by most of the world of the PRC, the United States had an unusually large amount of influence over the ROC government on Taiwan. Despite this influence, however, the United States took well over a decade to discover Taiwan’s highly secret steps to obtain nuclear weapons. Armed with incriminating information, key parts gained from a CIA spy within the nuclear program, the United States devised a strategy that succeeded in quickly denuclearizing Taiwan in 1988. The story of Taiwan’s denuclearization is a true U.S. intelligence and diplomatic success story that may have prevented the nightmare scenario of a nuclear-armed mainland China confronting a much smaller, nuclear-armed Taiwan. It has valuable lessons for today.
This talk is based on an Institute for Science and International Security book, Taiwan’s Former Nuclear Weapons Program: Nuclear Weapons On-Demand. Details about the book can be found at https://isis-online.org/books/detail/taiwans-former-nuclear-weapons-program-nuclear-weapons-on-demand/15
David Albright, a physicist, is founder and President of the non-profit Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C. He has written numerous assessments on secret nuclear weapons programs throughout the world and the means proliferant states use to obtain the wherewithal for making nuclear weapons and defeating export controls. During his career, Albright has testified numerous times on nuclear issues before the U.S. Congress and advised numerous governments. He has spoken to many groups, technical workshops and conferences, and trained many government officials in non-proliferation policy making. The media have frequently cited Albright, and he has appeared often on television and radio. Albright has authored or co-authored eight books, including Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Program, Illicit Trade Networks - Connecting the Dots, Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America’s Enemies, and Taiwan’s Former Nuclear Weapons Program: Nuclear Weapons On-Demand.