Taiwan and China’s Nuclear Shield

Taiwan and China’s Nuclear Shield

If war with China unfolds under the shadow of nuclear escalation, it will be effectively a two-front war with Russia included, regardless of whether one or both powers are actually engaged in the fighting.

Whether China blockades or invades Taiwan, Beijing will be executing its strategy from behind its nuclear shield, making any conflict one under the conditions of a limited nuclear war, even if there is no nuclear detonation. Columbia University professor Richard K. Betts has argued that the evidence in past nuclear crises is that in a stand-off between weapons of immense power, outcomes depend not on total warheads but on the balance of interest between the adversaries. In other words, for the West to prevail in a contest over Taiwan, it must demonstrate greater resolve in protecting the principle of self-determination than Beijing’s powerful claim to national reunification. 

This is a troubling point. As the young twenty-three-year-old John F. Kennedy noted in his senior thesis, Why England Slept, democracies are usually at least two years behind totalitarian states in preparations for war. Taiwan is even less psychologically prepared for war than Ukraine was in 2022. The United States, for its part, still has its head buried very deep in the sand when it comes to the potential role of nuclear weapons in this flashpoint.

China provides no unclassified figures pertaining to the size of its nuclear arsenal, leaving the public to rely on the Department of Defense’s (DoD) annual China Power Report. The most recent report credits China with “more than 500” nuclear warheads now and “over 1,000” by 2030. These figures probably constitute minimum estimates—politically motivated to make China’s nuclear forces appear weaker than they actually are, thereby justifying the administration’s de facto minimum deterrence policy—rather than most likely estimates of current or future warhead totals. 

To give an example: General John Hyten, then Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated in 2021 that the new DF-41 Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) can carry up to ten warheads, which matches the view of most Western sources and Chinese state media, and is similar to the probable maximum loading of Russia’s SS-27 mod 2, a substantially smaller and lighter missile. By contrast, the 2023 China Power report credits the missile with no more than three warheads. As Dr. Mark Schneider pointed out in his thorough analysis of the issue, the “500 warhead” figure provided by the DoD cannot even assume that a significant portion of these missiles are armed with two warheads—let alone three, let alone ten. Likewise, the report assumes that China only has 350 operational ICBMs as compared to 500 ICBM launchers while simultaneously claiming that China has twice as many short and intermediate-range missiles as it has launchers to carry them, providing no justification for this discrepancy. The list goes on.

Whether or not Chinese nuclear forces have already achieved parity or superiority vis-à-vis the United States is of little consequence to our argument. At the very least, they will achieve it within a few years if no action is taken. More to the point, Russia alone already enjoys a vast superiority over the United States by virtue of its abandonment of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and is continuing to widen the gap. 

If war with China unfolds under the shadow of nuclear escalation, it will be effectively a two-front war with Russia included, regardless of whether one or both powers are actually engaged in the fighting. Either the United States must maintain a reserve of nuclear weapons to deter the unengaged adversary, or that adversary will certainly use its nuclear weapons to impose its will on the United States in other theaters. Either way, in peace as in war, American nuclear forces can only be measured against the total sum of their Chinese and Russian opponents. 

Chinese Communist Party chairman Xi Jinping’s aggressive “wolf warrior diplomacy” has provoked self-encirclement by increasingly mobilized neighbors. This foreign policy behavior is typical of a hyper-centralized leadership suffering “propaganda blowback,” meaning it has come to believe and act on its own militant nationalist propaganda.

As far as China is concerned, President Xi’s present adventurous foreign policy is hardly unprecedented. One of the great ironies of history is that China’s split with the Soviet Union, which ultimately drove China to partner with the United States, was partly engendered by Mao’s fervent belief that Nikita Khrushchev—hardly the most restrained of Russian leaders—was not being aggressive enough towards the West. To a gathering of world Communist Party leaders in 1957, Mao expressed the following view on nuclear war:

[...] if the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist; in a number of years there would be 2,700 million people again and definitely more.

Under Mao, China provoked two failed crises over Taiwan in 1954–1955 and 1958. However, even under the much more restrained leadership of Jiang Zemin, China initiated a third crisis in 1995–1996. In all of these cases, the U.S. nuclear arsenal was much larger, and the Chinese arsenal much smaller than it is today. In the first two, China had no nuclear weapons at all. Moreover, whereas the United States enjoyed overall superiority in conventional forces during the crisis of 1995–1996, China enjoyed overwhelming conventional superiority in the contests over the offshore islands during the 1950s, to the extent that U.S. leaders on the ground expected to lose unless nuclear weapons were employed within hours of a Chinese landing. In these crises, at least, only the threat of American nuclear escalation held Mao at bay. 

Middlebury College professor Russell Leng argued that when states lose crises, the main lesson they learn is that they need to be more aggressive the next time. Since it is a matter of historical record that China has repeatedly risked war over Taiwan and that, on at least two out of three occasions, China was deterred solely by American nuclear threats, it seems hardly plausible that China’s recent nuclear breakout has nothing at all to do with their stated intention to reconquer Taiwan. 

If the United States defends Taiwan by attacking Chinese forces, either from bases in the Philippines or in Taiwan itself, Beijing will have many options for leveraging its rapidly expanding nuclear capabilities, including a wide array of both strategic and non-strategic weapons. 

The first possibility is that China will use its theater nuclear capabilities to defeat U.S. and Allied forces in the Pacific while keeping its strategic weapons in reserve to deter American retaliation. The most limited target sets could include the main U.S. debarkation port in Taiwan, likely at Suao or Kaohsiung, a defensive concentration of Taiwanese blocking a Chinese advance on either Taipei, Taichung, or Kaohsiung, or on U.S. airfields in the Philippines. Since the United States unilaterally dismantled its theater nuclear forces in the aftermath of the Cold War—despite never even attempting to sign an arms control treaty that might limit Russia and China’s stockpiles of such weapons—we now face the prospect that any American retaliation against limited nuclear use by China might not only be militarily inefficient but also misinterpreted as an escalatory attack on China’s own central strategic forces. 

U.S. and Allied naval forces are another potentially lucrative target set for limited nuclear employment. The U.S. Navy is primarily concentrated at a few bases in Hawaii and the continental United States. It seems feasible that, given enough forewarning, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could suddenly “flush” its warships out of their ports immediately prior to an attack, allowing China to wipe out enemy naval forces while avoiding retaliation. Such an attack would require only a handful of very low-yield airbursts, which would produce no appreciable fallout and cause a few thousand civilian casualties in the United States. 

The current de facto minimum deterrence policy, which deliberately leaves the United States with residual forces too small to effectively pursue any strategy other than counter-value or outright counter-population targeting, hinges on convincing Chinese leaders that America will respond to the loss of zero to a few thousand American civilians by initiating a total war that will result in the deaths of tens or hundreds of millions. In other words, unless Chinese leaders are convinced that their American counterparts are insane, they will not be deterred because minimum deterrence makes no sense. 

Of course, China may embark on a war with no intention of using nuclear weapons. Still, nobody builds nuclear weapons with the intention of never using them under any circumstances. The fact is that if China ever maintained a minimum deterrent policy, that policy would be long dead because China’s foreign policy aims have increased from ensuring the survival of the state to achieving territorial expansion. Given a competitive domestic political environment that threatens the lives and liberty of politicians who fall from grace, it is ridiculous to imagine that Chinese leaders would not consider using their large and expensive nuclear arsenal to avert a potentially career-ending defeat, even if the survival of the Party itself was never in doubt.