In the pursuit of nuclear security, Taiwan represents a special case for the international community, because its legal status as an ‘outsider’ prevents it from formally participating in the many global arrangements to prevent proliferation of WMD material and know-how. Togzhan Kassenova explores what Taipei itself has done to strengthen domestic proliferation controls, and what remains to be done.

Al-Qaeda with a nuclear bomb or countries following North Korea’s path and developing a nuclear weapons program are the kinds of scenarios the international community ponders with anxiety and seeks to prevent. Keeping countries from developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or non-state actors from acquiring materials and technology for them is a serious challenge. In order to prevent WMD proliferation, the international community should be united in recognizing the threat and being prepared to tackle it. There are, however, some international players whose role is especially important. Taiwan is one of them.

Togzhan Kassenova
Kassenova is a nonresident fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment.
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Taiwan is critical to the global non-proliferation regime for a number of reasons. First, Taiwan is one of the world’s leading producers of dual-use, high-tech materials and technologies. While these materials and technologies are indispensable for many peaceful purposes, some can also benefit WMD programs. For example, Taiwan is the world’s leading producer of semi-conductor material, which is used to produce computers, telephones and radios, but can also be used for nuclear weapons and missile programs. In one example from 2006-2007, the Royal Team Corporation, a Taiwanese trading company, carried out 14 transactions to supply precision machinery workstation computers to North Korea. The equipment, it turned out, was destined for North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapon programs.1

Taiwan can also serve as a transit point for WMD-sensitive transfers. For example, in a case that became public in 2006, Meisho Yoko, a Tokyo-based company, exported freeze-drying equipment that could be used in bio-warfare applications to North Korea. Meisho Yoko exported the equipment via a trading company in Taiwan.2 In another case, the Japanese company, Tokyo Vacuum, exported vacuum pumps, which are controlled items, to North Korea via a Taiwanese company called Transmeritis.3

These cases serve as a reminder that the non-proliferation challenge facing the Taiwanese government is not an abstract one. Taiwan’s geographic location makes it one of the world’s key transit and trans-shipment hubs for commodities, in general. As such, Taiwan deals with high volumes of cargo at its ports, rendering it susceptible to malicious actors that seek to smuggle WMD. Taiwan’s commitment to securing its ports from being used for WMD transfers is an important component of the world’s fight against WMD proliferation.

Taiwan is also among the countries that have advanced nuclear power programs. Universally, nuclear power programs have inherent proliferation risks. On the one hand, mastering certain elements of the nuclear fuel production process, such as uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, gives countries the capability to produce nuclear material for a weapons program;4 on the other hand, peaceful nuclear energy programs rely on material and technology that is by definition dual-use in nature. Although Taiwan currently does not enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel, it does plan to further expand its nuclear energy program and will therefore continue to rely on proliferation-sensitive materials and technologies.

The Paradoxical Outsider

Taiwan is too important an actor to leave outside of international efforts to prevent WMD proliferation. The Treaty on Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) all require their parties to prevent proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, respectively.5 Paradoxically, however, because Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, it cannot be a party to any of these WMD non-proliferation treaties. Taiwan is also technically outside the reach of the 2004 UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires all UN member states to implement effective domestic WMD proliferation controls.6

Similarly, Taipei cannot be considered for membership in multilateral export control regimes (MECRs), voluntary coalitions of countries and major producers of dual-use materials and technology. Parties to the four MECRs — the Australia Group, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, and the Wassenaar Arrangement — adhere to a common set of rules that guide the export of sensitive goods with the objective of preventing proliferation. MECRs provide an important forum to exchange information on emerging proliferation-sensitive materials and technologies, suspicious actors, export license denials, and other data that help participating governments to implement proliferation export controls.

As far as multilateral frameworks are concerned, Taiwan has only a limited set of tools at its disposal to prevent WMD proliferation. The island’s political status restrains its access to international bodies that could help Taipei pursue proliferators. For example, Taiwan cannot call upon organizations such as Interpol to chase down proliferators and their agents. Taipei does not have access to Interpol’s I-24/7 global police communication system, which provides real-time information on criminals and criminal activities.7 Taipei is also limited in fighting international crime because it can only sign extradition agreements with a handful of small island nations with which it has diplomatic relations. As a result, Taiwan is not able to extradite criminals from other nations, nor can other nations easily repatriate criminals who may treat Taiwan as a “safe haven.”

As a non-party to non-proliferation treaties and a non-member of multilateral export control regimes, Taiwan does not have the same legal obligations on the non-proliferation front as countries that belong to them. As a result, the international community is limited in its ability to hold Taiwan accountable to international non-proliferation standards. Taiwan also suffers from a lack of access to information and mechanisms that can help strengthen its ability to deal with proliferation challenges. Unfortunately, this creates a lose-lose situation, which, given Taiwan’s political status, is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

The Taiwan Way

Since Taiwan is outside of the global non-proliferation regime, Taipei’s unilateral policies, motivations and actions in the non-proliferation field are paramount. There are several key drivers that influence Taiwan’s choices in this regard. First, while the international community cannot technically hold Taiwan accountable to the treaties and regimes to which it is not party, it does expect and pressure Taiwan to adhere to globally accepted non-proliferation norms. The United States, for example, has played a major role in the trajectory of Taiwan’s nuclear policy. The US government heavily influenced Taiwan’s decision to abandon a nuclear weapons program that it attempted to begin twice, in the 1950s and the 1980s. The US has also encouraged and assisted Taiwan with developing its strategic trade control system.8

Another dimension of Taiwan’s non-proliferation policy is economics-driven. Taipei realizes that its trade in high-tech dual-use goods depends heavily on whether it is perceived as a reliable actor. Legislation of some of Taiwan’s key trade partners — the US and Japan — specifically addresses the question of a state’s non-proliferation record. US legislation makes it difficult and on occasion impossible for US companies to engage in trade with actors with a poor non- proliferation record.9 Japanese strategic trade-control legislation imposes varying levels of export-control requirements depending on security concerns and the stringency of the importing country’s export control system.10

Finally, Taiwan’s non-proliferation policy is driven by its desire to be a part of the international community. While being formally outside all international arrangements that require statehood, Taiwan aims to adhere to global non-proliferation norms. Most noticeably, Taiwan’s non-proliferation policy manifests itself in the strategic trade control system. Despite not being a member of any multilateral export control regimes, Taiwan chose to incorporate items controlled by all four MECRs in its national control list. In essence, Taiwan voluntarily adheres to rules guiding trade in dual-use goods and technologies. The Taiwanese government requires traders to seek an export-import license before engaging in transactions that involve items listed on Taiwan’s national control list. More importantly, Taiwanese legislation established a “catch-all” provision that requires traders to apply for an export-import license for items that do not appear on the national control list but might be used for WMD purposes. This allows the government to throw an even wider net over products that might lead to proliferation.

In another gesture demonstrating Taiwan’s desire to follow international norms, Taipei established stricter non-proliferation controls with regards to North Korea and Iran. Taipei developed a “Sensitive Commodity List” that includes a number of items that are controlled by the government if destined for these two countries.

Given Taiwan’s important role in world trade, it is critical that two out of four of its ports participate in US-led non-proliferation initiatives. Kaohsiung and Keelung ports are members of the Container Security Initiative (CSI). CSI participating ports conduct screening of high-risk cargo before its departure to the US. Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s largest and the world’s 12th largest port, also participates in the Megaports Initiative. That initiative assists with strengthening capabilities of the world’s largest ports to deter, detect and interdict illicit radioactive and nuclear cargo.

Taiwan has an expanding nuclear power program. Six nuclear power reactors are currently in operation, with two more under construction. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a mandate to verify that nuclear activities are carried out for peaceful purposes only. This mandate rests on the safeguards agreements that the IAEA signs with countries around the world. Working around the inability of Taiwan to be a member of the IAEA, Taiwan, the US and the IAEA signed a trilateral safeguards agreement (INFCIRC/158) in 1964. The agreement transferred responsibility for Taiwanese nuclear safeguards from the US, which had implemented them since 1955, to the IAEA. In 1988, Taiwan accepted additional safeguard responsibilities in line with the requirements contained in the IAEA Model Additional Protocol. That protocol requires parties to provide the IAEA with even greater access to all activities related to nuclear fuel cycles.

Keeping weapons-usable nuclear material secure is the most important component of the non-proliferation regime, and Taiwan’s performance in this realm is strong. In a recently released NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index, Taiwan received above average rating for the level of security of weapons-usable nuclear material on its territory. Taiwan received 100 out of 100 in the categories of domestic nuclear materials security legislation and safeguards adoption and compliance. Taiwan’s overall score (55 out of 100) was weighed down, however, by low ratings in the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540 and other international legal commitments, two categories that are problematic for Taiwan for the reasons mentioned above.

Challenges Remain

Over the past decade, Taiwan has made significant strides in strengthening its domestic proliferation controls, a laudable record given that Taiwan is an “outsider” in the global non-proliferation order. Nevertheless, some gaps remain. The most notable weaknesses are in the area of controlling intangible technology transfers that might contribute to WMD proliferation and cargo transiting or trans-shipping through Taiwan. Intangible technology transfers refer to situations where sensitive technology is shared by electronic means or in technical discussions with foreign citizens. Taiwan lags behind its peers in controlling technology flows. It does not have comprehensive legislation that would provide the basis for imposing necessary controls. Countries with advanced proliferation controls require that even intangible transfers of technology must receive an export license from the government. Taiwan’s controls over transit and trans-shipment also could be stronger. Taipei requires traders to apply for a license only when goods are being transited or transshipped to “certain restricted areas.” These include Iran, Iraq, North Korea, mainland China, Cuba, Sudan and Syria.11 In this respect again, Taiwan lags behind those countries that impose greater controls on transit and trans-shipment of sensitive goods.

Taipei appears to be willing to adhere to global non-proliferation norms and has gradually developed domestic proliferation controls to a relatively high level, but there is still room for improvement. Taipei’s continued commitment will be critical in the global fight against WMD proliferation and the international community should do all that it can to support its efforts.

This article originally appeared in Global Asia

1. “Two Indicted in Taiwan Over Illegal Exports to North Korea,” Taipei News, Dec. 27, 2007.
2. “Illegal Export Linked to North Clinic, Bio-War Lab,” Japan Times Online, August 12, 2006, .
3.  Masako Toki and Stephanie Lieggi, “Japan’s Struggle to Limit Illegal Dual-Use Exports,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sept. 5, 2008, .
4.  Once a country masters uranium enrichment for peaceful nuclear energy programs, it will not face significant technological impediments to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a military nuclear program. Plutonium recovered during spent fuel reprocessing can be used in a nuclear weapon.
5. Taipei ratified the NPT in 1970 and BWTC in 1973 before losing its UN status.
6. UNSCR 1540 (2004), United Nations, .
7. “INTERPOL’s Global Police Communications System: I-24/7,” Interpol, .
8. A strategic trade control system refers to a set of government policies and practices designed to regulate trade in proliferation-sensitive products for the purposes of preventing the spread of WMD and simultaneously facilitating trade in strategic goods. For a full methodology and ratings refer to .
9. Bureau of Industry and Security, US Department of Commerce, “The Entity List: Supplement No. 4 to part 744 of the Export Administration Regulations,” April 18, 2011, .
10. Center for Information on Security Trade Control, “Overview of Japan’s Export Controls,” February 2010, .
11. “Public Notice Announcing a Revision of the Categories of Strategic High-Tech Commodities, Specific Categories of Strategic High-Tech Commodities, and Restricted Areas for Export,” Bureau of Foreign Trade, December 26, 2008.