[News analysis] Why a 4th Taiwan Strait crisis won’t look like anything that came before it

Posted on : 2022-08-03 17:18 KST Modified on : 2022-08-03 17:18 KST
The situation triggered by Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is fundamentally different from that in the first, second and third crises, when the US was far more powerful than China
An article about US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan makes up the front page of a Taipei newspaper on Aug. 2. (Reuters/Yonhap News)
An article about US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan makes up the front page of a Taipei newspaper on Aug. 2. (Reuters/Yonhap News)

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on Tuesday while US-China relations are in a deep freeze was watched with concern by people around the world. Could the current tensions escalate into a fourth Taiwan Strait crisis?

Since the early 1950s, there have been a series of crises in the Taiwan Strait in which China has raised tensions or engaged in military clashes while threatening to wage war over Taiwan.

The first and second Taiwan Strait crises were basically part of mainland China’s struggle for recognition. Even after defeating the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War and gaining control of the Chinese mainland, the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing hadn’t received international recognition.

That led to a cycle of armed clashes that were eventually defused as the Communists claimed Taiwan as part of China. Through negotiations with the US and other countries, mainland China eventually gained international status.

Although conflict and tensions reached a point where the US and the Soviet Union contemplated nuclear war, China ensured that those crises did not cross the red line.

On Aug. 11, 1954, China initiated a bombardment of Kinmen and Matsu islands, held by Taiwan but only 3 kilometers from the Communist-held city of Xiamen. Then Premier Zhou Enlai announced that Taiwan needed to be liberated and that the People’s Liberation Army had been dispatched to the region to see it done. That marked the beginning of the first Taiwan Strait crisis.

While a major defensive buildup on the Kinmen and Matsu islands by the Taiwanese was the pretext of Chinese actions in the 1954 crisis, they were actually retaliation for the US stepping up its containment of China. US President Dwight Eisenhower, who had taken office the previous year, had halted the US 7th Fleet’s patrols in the Taiwan Strait even while holding negotiations for a defense pact with Taiwan and working to establish the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).

The US 7th Fleet had provided a buffer between China and Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese took the US’ suspension of patrols as toleration of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Proof of that was Taiwan’s bolstering its defensive positions on the Kinmen Islands and elsewhere.

The first Taiwan Strait crisis erupted just five days before the Manila Pact was to be signed, establishing SEATO.

Two American military advisors were killed on Sept. 3 during the daily bombardment of the Kinmen Islands. On Sept. 12, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended the use of nuclear weapons on the Chinese mainland, bringing the crisis to a head. The US also dispatched three carrier strike groups to the region.

But both China and the US demonstrated a capability for crisis management that kept the conflict from escalating even while raising tensions. Mao Zedong forbade any attack on the US military, and China’s bombardment of the Kinmen Islands grew more and more perfunctory with each passing day. The US also excluded the Kinmen Islands from its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, which was concluded in December.

China managed to save some face by occupying the Dachen Archipelago and the Yijiangshan Islands on Jan. 18, 1955, and the US assisted the evacuation of Taiwanese forces.

While attending the Afro-Asian Conference of nonaligned states in Bandung, Indonesia, that April, Zhou Enlai said that China didn’t want war with the US and expressed his willingness to discuss easing tensions in the Far East, and in Taiwan in particular, with the American government. The Chinese halted their bombardment the following day.

Later, Mao Zedong told Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that occupying the islands would forfeit China’s ability to rattle Chiang Kai-shek whenever it wanted. Mao’s remarks suggest that China had been trying to constrain Taiwan and had never actually meant to take the islands.

It was through this first Taiwan Strait crisis that China resumed official dialogue with the US. Talks in Geneva were elevated to the level of ambassadors. The US adopted a defensive stance of focusing its diplomacy on convincing China to officially renounce the use of force.

China resumed its bombardment of the Kinmen Islands on Aug. 23, 1958, in the second Taiwan Strait crisis, which would last four months. The ostensible target here was the US, but on a more substantial level, it was the Soviet Union.

That was a time when China and the Soviet Union were undergoing a deep-rooted geopolitical rupture over ideological differences. Mao provoked the second crisis on the strait to hobble Khrushchev, who had been advocating peaceful coexistence with the US.

Considering that Khrushchev had visited Beijing three weeks before China incited the 1958 crisis, there was speculation that the Soviets had signed off on China’s actions. But in fact, Khrushchev had sparred with Mao during his visit to China.

The Soviet Union was caught flat-footed. The Soviets urged China for restraint while offering to communicate to the Americans their willingness to support China even in a nuclear war.

After knocking the Soviets off balance, the Chinese moved to calm the crisis, telling the Americans their goal was to restore bilateral dialogue at the ambassador level.

This crisis, which resulted in over a thousand casualties, was “the first serious nuclear crisis” for the US, according to Secretary of State Christian Herter.

Bombings of the Kinmen Islands occurred intermittently, and almost ceremonially, until 1979. China announced that it was halting the bombings on Oct. 25, 1979, after normalizing diplomatic relations with the US.

The third crisis along the strait was triggered by a visit to the US by the then Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1995, when the US and China were expanding strategic cooperation following the establishment of diplomatic relations. While China had actively provoked the first and second crises, the third crisis was more of a passive reaction by the Chinese.

When Lee Teng-hui expressed his wish to attend an alumni reunion at Cornell University, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution in May granting him permission. The US government then approved his visit in an unofficial capacity.

While visiting the US, Lee made a series of provocative speeches. On July 7, China test-launched missiles in the Taiwan Strait and mobilized its military. Missile launches and live-fire exercises lasted for 10 days in mid-August. Then a large-scale amphibious assault exercise was held in November.

China’s military actions intensified once again around the Taiwanese legislative election in December, and the US dispatched two carrier strike groups to the area. This was the largest military mobilization in East Asia since the Vietnam War.

Once again, the two sides were careful not to cross the line. The missiles that China launched were loaded with dummy warheads, and the live-fire exercises were symbolic. And despite sending carrier strike groups, the US secretary of state expressed support for the “one China” principle in a meeting with the Chinese foreign minister and offered the compromise of making it tougher for Taiwanese officials to visit the US.

The 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, which lasted for eight months, was a turning point in China-US relations following their normalization of diplomatic ties. The incident revealed their mutual distrust.

Repeatedly forced to submit to American military strength, China eventually launched a military buildup program. China has focused on blocking American carrier strike groups from accessing the “first island chain,” which runs from Okinawa to Taiwan and then to the Philippines.

Toward that end, China has bolstered its intermediate-range missile forces by developing, among others, the anti-ship Dong Feng-26, which has been dubbed the “carrier killer.” That fleshes out China’s “anti-access area denial” (A2/AD) military strategy against the US.

The situation triggered by Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is fundamentally different from that in the first, second and third crises, when the US was far more powerful than China. In its 2020 and 2021 reports on Chinese military capabilities, the US State Department concluded that the US couldn’t win a local conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

Given the sharp conflict between the US and China in every area, from the economy to national security, it’s also unclear whether the two countries will prove to be as competent at crisis management as they have in previous crises.

When former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin during the third crisis whether Mao’s statement that China would wait 100 years for Taiwan was still valid, Jiang said it wasn’t — 23 years had passed since that promise, he noted, and only 77 remained.

Today, China is openly proclaiming the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” A fourth crisis is brewing in the Taiwan Strait, and the situation is qualitatively different from before.

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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