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How To Counter the Taiwan Nuclear Menace

One of the problems commonly cited about gun control is that it keeps firearms out of the hands of law-abiding citizens, leaving the field to criminals, who by definition do not care about following the rules.

Does a similar dynamic exist in the nuclear realm? That certainly seems to be the case in Asia, where the U.S. has worked hard to halt the spread of these fearsome weapons.

North Korea tested its first bomb last October. It may have been a partial dud; the evidence is unclear. Whatever the case, the U.S. has repeatedly stated that a nuclear-armed North Korea would be intolerable. But tolerating it we are. Pyongyang is thought to have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons and may be building more.

Communist China, not nearly as hostile as North Korea, but a potential adversary nonetheless, has a much larger arsenal. Some of its smaller devices appear to be copies of ours, the warhead designs probably obtained by espionage. At this point, we are doing nothing about Chinese nuclear weapons; we have no choice but to acquiese. But back in the early 1960’s when was China was in the throes of revolutionary chaos, the problem was worrisome enough for both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to contemplate a preemptive first strike to take out the fledgling Chinese nuclear program.

Pakistan is not now an adversary, but given its political instability, it is a lit fuse on a stick of dynamite. This basketcase of a country already has an arsenal of perhaps 100 weapons. If a nuclear device is detonated in anger in the next decade, or passed on to a terrorist band, my bet is that it will be one of these.

Then there is our friend Taiwan, a threat to no one, a stable and law-abiding country, threatened by its giant Communist neighbor, which has been engaged in an intense military build-up across the Taiwan straits. In the 1970’s, feeling increasingly isolated and vulnerable in light of Richard Nixon’s opening to Communist China followed by Jimmy Carter’s abrupt severing of diplomatic relations, the Taiwanese government launched a covert nuclear-weapons development program.

Fascinating newly declassified documents, some of them top-secret and just put on-line by the National Security Archive, a private research group, show that the U.S., particularly under Carter, came down hard, leading Taiwan’s premier to complain that Washington was treating Taiwan “in a fashion which few other countries would tolerate.”

Whether the U.S. pushed too hard can be debated, but the pressure did achieve the desired result. Taiwan today does not have nuclear weapons.

Should we applaud? If so, only with one hand. Most of the criminals in this particular neighborhood now have the guns while one of its upstanding citizens was successfully disarmed.



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