Avoiding Nuclear War in the Taiwan Strait
Nuclear Weapon Use Risk Reduction

Avoiding Nuclear War in the Taiwan Strait

Click on the adjacent link to download the full report.

In this special report, titled “Avoiding Nuclear War in the Taiwan Strait, Dr. Sheryn Lee, senior lecturer in the Department of Leadership and Command and Control at the Swedish Defence University, assesses the prospect of conflict and nuclear use in the Taiwan Strait. 

The report argues that the ambivalence in China’s no first use of nuclear weapons policy, the deteriorating “strategic ambiguity” policy of the US since the Trump administration, and the increasing identification of Taiwan as an independent polity raises the prospect of conflict over Taiwan. 

The report first examines China’s aim to achieve unification with Taiwan via its use of threat and use of force in both the nuclear and conventional domains. It then outlines the geostrategic and geopolitical rationale for continued American support for democratic Taiwan, followed by an examination of the role of Taiwan’s consolidating democracy and how Taipei responds to Beijing’s coercion. The report concludes with how the Taiwan Straits case may affect the possibility of nuclear weapons use in Northeast Asia, including in Japan and on the Korean peninsula. 

Key points: 

  • “Peaceful unification” on Beijing’s terms is unlikely to occur, due to China’s self-imposed goal of unification by 2049, the context of US-China competition, and Taiwan’s incremental trend towards greater political independence.  
  • In previous crises in the Taiwan Strait, China has been forced to back down due to US pressure. China might cross the nuclear threshold in a conflict scenario to avoid that happening again. Still, the report argues that the use of nuclear weapons in the Taiwan Straits would happen only under extreme circumstances. 
  • A conflict over Taiwan might affect the relationships between the United States and its Northeast Asian allies, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK). The report argues that a failure to protect Taiwan might lead to Japan and the ROK considering the development of their own nuclear weapons. 

This report is a part of a joint project on Reducing the Risk of Nuclear Weapon Use in Northeast Asia (NU-NEA) and has been cross-posted by the Nautilus Institutethe Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition (RECNA), and the Panel on Peace and Security of North East Asia (PSNA). The year 1 final report of the project is now available here.


About the Author

Dr Sheryn Lee is a senior lecturer in the Department of Leadership and Command and Control at the Swedish Defence University, Stockholm. Dr Lee was previously an analyst for the Office of National Intelligence, Australia. Prior to that she was a lecturer in the Department of Security Studies and Criminology, Macquarie University. She holds a PhD from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU, where she was a TB Millar Scholar, and an AM in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania where she was a Benjamin Franklin Fellow and Mumford Fellow. She has also been a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at the CSIS Pacific Forum and a Robert O’Neill Scholar at the IISS-Asia, Singapore. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.

Image: Penghu Island in the Taiwan Strait/ Pixabay/ chandella0122