Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant in Hengchun Township, Taiwan.

Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant in Hengchun Township, Taiwan. CEphoto, Uwe Aranas via Wikipedia

Add Taiwan to the International Atomic Energy Agency

Once a near-nuclear power, Taipei has since been an exemplary anti-proliferator — in cold contrast to Beijing.

Washington recently showed solidarity with Taipei by sending a delegation led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the most senior U.S. official to visit Taiwan in decades. But amid rising Chinese efforts to infringe the sovereignty of its neighbors, including provocative military maneuvers and verbal threats, the United States can do more to protect Taiwan’s independence — starting with galvanizing support for Taipei’s membership in international organizations and UN agencies.

There is an especially strong case for Taiwanese admission to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors global nuclear proliferation. Taiwan has stellar non-proliferation credentials, whereas China bears responsibility for the proliferation of nuclear-weapons technology to some of the world’s most dangerous regimes. But it is Taipei that was ejected from the IAEA, thanks to the UN’s 1971 decision to switch official recognition to the People’s Republic of China on the mainland — and Taipei that has been blocked by Beijing as it bids to join or rejoin various international organizations, pacts, and regimes. 

Taiwan not only adheres to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty despite its official non-member status; it is a top performer. Assisted by a U.S.-IAEA-Taiwan agreement, Taipei applies the IAEA’s highest standard of “integrated safeguards” to its civilian nuclear program, as well as the watchdog’s rigorous verification agreement, the Additional Protocol. 

Yet Taiwan was not always so upstanding. Until 1988, Taipei had a relatively advanced nuclear weapons program, sparked by the first Chinese nuclear test in 1964. By the program’s end, and shortly before Taipei rejected authoritarian governance in favor of democratic reform, Taiwan was roughly one to two years away from having nuclear weapons. 

Following U.S. pressure, Taiwan shut down its nuclear weapons program and became a non-proliferation paragon. Every year since 2006, the IAEA has reached a “broader conclusion” that all of Taipei’s nuclear materials and activities are in peaceful uses. The agency reportedly continues to inspect Taiwan’s defunct nuclear weapons-related sites.

By contrast, despite being an IAEA member state since 1983, Beijing has contributed to some of the world’s most intractable proliferation problems. It directly provided nuclear facilities to North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan. Beijing also looked the other way as Chinese companies sold related equipment and technology to all three regimes, as well as to others. Most recently, a U.S. intelligence report leaked to the media alleged that China may be helping Saudi Arabia to construct two covert facilities in remote desert areas, which Washington suspects have a nuclear use. This is in spite of Riyadh’s crown prince openly pledging to match Iran’s nuclear capabilities. With China’s assistance, Saudi Arabia is also constructing another clandestine facility for ballistic missiles. 

Beijing has plans to roughly double its own nuclear weapons stockpile over the next decade, Washington estimates, a clear departure from current downsizing trends for states that possess nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency also suspects that China plans to upgrade its nuclear-capable missile delivery capabilities. 

Even though Taipei clearly merits a role at the IAEA, the UN’s 1971 decision to revoke recognition of Taiwan poses non-trivial legal obstacles. The IAEA is a UN subsidiary agency and the international community has not recognized Taiwan as a state. The IAEA’s statute does not prevent non-UN members from joining, but it does refer to members as “states.” 

If the IAEA’s members moved to support Taipei’s membership in any case, the 35-member IAEA Board of Governors would need to recommend it by a vote of two-thirds. Next, the IAEA General Conference, composed of 171 member states, would need to do the same. 

Even if the smaller Board of Governors recommended Taipei’s membership, it is unlikely today that the General Conference would concur, since many members of the 125-nation Non-Aligned Movement, which frequently vote as a bloc, support China. Beijing would use all means of diplomatic and economic coercion or threaten to prevent Taipei’s membership. 

However, China’s own actions may be turning the tide in favor of support for Taiwan’s membership in the IAEA and other international organizations. 

Beijing’s provocations include myriad violations of its international agreements, aggression against Hong Kong, India, and nations in the South China Sea, and construction of concentration camps for Muslim Uighurs at home. China’s actions have dashed any hope it could become a “responsible stakeholder” in the post-Cold War order. These actions also make it imperative to defend those whom China may next assault.

Washington and its allies should make clear to Beijing the ramifications of its threats to violate the autonomy of Taiwan. These measures should include, but not be limited to, the U.S. elevating Taipei’s status in international organizations. 

Congress has already expressed support for Taiwan’s expanded membership in international organizations. In March 2020, it passed into law the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, or the TAIPEI Act, which directed the U.S. government to “advocate, as appropriate…for Taiwan’s membership in all international organizations in which statehood is not a requirement and in which the United States is also a participant” and to work for Taipei’s observer status in other international organizations. 

As encouraged under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, America should also improve the quality and deterrent factor of its defense assistance to ensure Taipei’s security.

U.S. protection of Taiwan’s sovereignty through support for its membership in key organizations would both raise Taipei’s profile internationally and send a clear message to China about contemplating aggression against its smaller neighbor. Unlike China, Taiwan has proven it is a reformed, model member of the global community when it comes to non-proliferation and many other issues. It should be treated accordingly.