Exploring Chinese History
- Conflict and War -



The First Taiwan Crisis

The First Taiwan Strait Crisis (also called the 1954-1955 Taiwan Strait Crisis or the 1955 Taiwan Strait Crisis) was a short armed conflict that took place between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) governments. Fighting took place on Matsu and Quemoy in the Taiwan Strait.

The Chinese Civil War had ended in 1949 with the Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT) and 1.3 million Kuomintang members abandoning the Chinese mainland and establishing a refuge on the island of Taiwan (also known as Formosa) which became, with the islands of Matsu and Quemoy, the sole territory under the jurisdiction of the Republic of China.

The Matsu and the Quemoy island group, situated in the Taiwan strait between the main island of Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, were the Nationalists first line of defense against the Communist Party of China and were highly fortified by Chiang.

While the United States recognized Chiang's government as the sole legitimate government for all of China, President Harry Truman announced on January 5, 1950 that the United States would not become involved in the dispute of Taiwan Strait and would not intervene in the event of an attack by the PRC. However, after the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, Truman declared the "neutralization of the Straits of Formosa" and sent in the Seventh Fleet of the United States Navy into the Strait to prevent any conflict between the Republic of China and the PRC, effectively putting Taiwan under American protection.

In June of 1950, President Truman issued the following statement:

"The attack upon Korea makes it plain beyond all doubt that communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war. It has defied the orders of the Security Council of the United Nations issued to preserve international peace and security. In these circumstances the occupation of Formosa by Communist forces would be a direct threat to the security of the Pacific area and to United States forces performing their lawful and necessary functions in that area.
"Accordingly I have ordered the 7th Fleet to prevent any attack on Formosa. As a corollary of this action I am calling upon the Chinese Government on Formosa to cease all air and sea operations against the mainland. The 7th Fleet will see that this is done. The determination of the future status of Formosa must await the restoration of security in the Pacific, a peace settlement with Japan, or consideration by the United Nations."

President Truman later ordered John Foster Dulles, then Foreign Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State, to carry out his decision on neutralizing Taiwan in drafting the Treaty of Peace with Japan of 1951 which legally excluded the participation of both ROC and PRC and thus left Taiwan's status undetermined[2]. According to George H. Kerr's Formosa Betrayed, Taiwan's political status was under the trust of the Allied Powers and later the UN if it could not be solved in near future as designed in the treaty.

The Kuomintang maintained as its goal the objective of invading the mainland and renewing the civil war in order to overthrow the People's Republic of China and liberate China from Communist rule in favor of rule by the Kuomintang. Truman and his advisors regarded this goal as an unrealizable fantasy but the Truman Administration was criticized by anti-Communists for preventing any attempt by Chaing Kai-shek's forces to "liberate" mainland China.

Truman, a Democrat did not run in the 1952 presidential election which was won by Republican Dwight Eisenhower. On February 2, 1953, the new President lifted the Seventh Fleet's blockade in order to fulfill demands by anti-Communists to "unleash Chaing Kai-shek" on the mainland.

In August 1954, the Nationalists placed 58,000 troops on Quemoy and 15,000 troops on Matsu. Zhou Enlai, Premier of the People's Republic of China responded with a declaration on August 11, 1954 that Taiwan must be "liberated." He dispatched the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and began shelling Quemoy and Matsu.

Despite warnings from the U.S. against any attacks on the Republic of China the People's Liberation Army unleashed heavy artillery bombardment of Quemoy on September 3 and intensified its actions in November by bombing the Tachen Islands. Since the PRC was unrecognized by United States Department of State at the time, Chiang Kai Shek was the only person they could speak with. The United States needed Chiang Kai Shek as an ally due to their lack of friends in South East Asia.

After the Korean War it had become far more vital to the United States to accept Chiang Kai Shek's version of the story. On September 12, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended the use of nuclear weapons against the mainland. Eisenhower, however, resisted pressure to use nuclear weapons or involve American troops in the conflict. However, on December 2, 1954, the United States and the Republic of China agreed to a mutual defense treaty which did not apply to islands along the Chinese mainland. The treaty was ratified by the United States Senate on February 9, 1955.

The PLA seized Yijiangshan Island on January 18, 1955 destroying the Republic of China's forces. Fighting continued along the coast of the Chinese mainland and on Matsu and Kinmen islands. On January 29, 1955 the Formosa Resolution was approved by both houses of the United States Congress authorizing Eisenhower to use U.S. forces to defend Formosa and its possessions in the Taiwan Strait against armed attack.

In February, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned the U.S. against using nuclear weapons but in March, United States Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stated publicly that the U.S. was seriously considering a nuclear strike. In response, NATO foreign ministers warned at a meeting of the alliance against such action. In late March, U.S. Admiral Robert B. Carney said that Eisenhower is planning "to destroy Red China's military potential."

The People's Republic backed down in the face of American nuclear brinksmanship and in light of the lack of willingness by the Soviet Union to threaten nuclear retaliation for an attack on the People's Republic. The People's Republic of China government stated on April 23, 1955 that it was willing to negotiate. On May 1 the PLA ceased shelling Quemoy and Matsu.

The fundamental issues of the conflict remained unresolved, however, and both sides subsequently built up their military forces on their respective sides of the Taiwan Strait leading to a new crisis three years later.

The Second Taiwan Crisis

Location of Matsu and Quemoy islands
Location of Matsu and Quemoy islands

The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, also called the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, was a conflict that took place between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) governments in which the PRC was accused by the ROC of shelling the islands of Matsu and Quemoy first in the Taiwan Strait.

It started with the 823 Artillery Bombardment (Traditional Chinese: 八二三炮戰; Simplified Chinese: 八二三炮战; Pinyin: bāèrsān pàozhàn) at 5:30pm on August 23, 1958, when People's Liberation Army forces began an intense artillery bombardment of the Quemoy. ROC forces in Quemoy dug in and returned fire. In the subsequent bombardment roughly 400 ROC troops were killed and an unknown number on the PRC side.

This was a continuation of the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, which had started immediately after the Korean War. Chiang Kai-shek had began to build on the two islands of Matsu and Quemoy. In 1954, ROC shelled the PRC focusing most of the attack on Quemoy. In response the People's Liberation Army (PLA) began shelling Quemoy and Matsu.

The Eisenhower Administration responded to ROC's request for aid according to its obligations in the 1954 US-ROC defense treaty by reinforcing US naval units and ordering US naval vessels to help the Nationalist government protect Quemoy's supply lines.

The Soviet Union dispatched its foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, to Beijing to discuss China's actions.

This situation in 1958 continued for 44 days and took approximately 1,000 lives. Faced with a stalemate, the PRC called a unilateral ceasefire on October 6 at the urging of the Soviet Union. Beijing issued a “Message to the Compatriots in Taiwan” in the name of Defense Minister Peng Dehuai, however the message was actually drafted by Mao Zedong. The message called for a peaceful solution to the Taiwan issue and called for all Chinese to unite against the "American plot to divide China".

Afterwards, both sides continued to bombard each other with shells containing propaganda leaflets on alternate days of the week. This strange informal arrangement continued until the normalization of ties between the US and PRC in 1979.

The question of "Matsu and Quemoy" became an issue in the 1960 American Presidential election when Richard Nixon accused John F. Kennedy of being unwilling to commit to using nuclear weapons if the People's Republic of China invaded the Nationalist outposts.

The PRC fired around 450,000 shells at the Quemoy islands in the conflict. The shells have become a natural resource of steel for the local economy. Since the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, Quemoy has become famous for its production of cleavers made from PRC bomb shells. A blacksmith in Quemoy generally produces 60 cleavers from one bomb shell. Tourists often purchase Quemoy Cleavers as souvenirs together with other local products.

The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis

Also called the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis or the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, was the effect of a series of missile tests conducted by the People's Republic of China in the waters surrounding Taiwan including the Taiwan Strait from July 21, 1995 to March 23, 1996. The first set of missiles fired in mid to late 1995 were allegedly intended to send a strong signal to the Republic of China government under Lee Teng-hui, who had been seen as moving ROC foreign policy away from the One-China Policy. The second set of missiles were fired in early 1996, allegedly intending to intimidate the Taiwanese electorate in the run-up to the 1996 presidential election.

Lee's 1995 Visit to Cornell

The crisis began when President Lee Teng-hui accepted an invitation from his alma mater, Cornell University, to deliver a speech on "Taiwan's Democratization Experience." Seeking to diplomatically isolate the Republic of China, the PRC opposed such visits by ROC leaders.[citation needed] It argued that Lee harbored pro-Taiwan independence sentiments and was therefore a threat to stability in the region. A year earlier, in 1994, when President Lee's plane had stopped in Honolulu to refuel after a trip to South Africa, the U.S. government had refused Lee's request for a visa. Lee had been confined to the military airfield where he landed, forcing him to spend a night on his plane. A U.S. State Department official called the situation "embarrassing" and Lee complained that Taiwan was being treated as a second-class country.

After Lee had decided to visit Cornell, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher assured PRC Foreign Minister Qian Qichen that a visa for Lee would be "inconsistent with [the U.S.'s] unofficial relationship [with Taiwan]." However, the humiliation from Lee's last visit caught the attention of many pro-Taiwan figures in the U.S. and this time, the United States Congress acted on Lee's behalf. In May 1995, resolutions asking the State Department to allow Lee to visit the U.S. passed the House 396 to 0 and the Senate 91 to 1. The State Department relented on May 22, 1995 and the PRC condemned the U.S. for ruining Sino-American relations.

Lee spent June 9- 10, 1995 in the U.S. as the Chinese state press branded him a "traitor" attempting to "split the motherland."

PRC Military Response

The PRC government was furious over the US’s policy reversal and resorted to military intimidation. On July 7, 1995, the Xinhua News Agency announced missile tests to be conducted by the People's Liberation Army and pointed out that this would endanger the peace and safety of the region. The PRC conducted tests from July 21 to 26 in an area only 60 kilometers north of ROC-held Pengchiayu Island. At the same time, the PRC mobilized forces in Fujian. In the later part of July and early August numerous commentaries were published by Xinhua and the People's Daily condemning Lee and his cross-strait policies.

Another set of missile firings, accompanied by live ammunition exercises, occurred from August 15 to 25, 1995. Naval exercises in August were followed by amphibious exercises in November. Though many of these military activities were part of the normal PLA training regiment, this was the first time in many years that they were announced publicly.

The U.S. response was low key: the USS Nimitz passed through the Taiwan Strait in December 1995, a few months after the PLA's tests. This transit, the first by a U.S. warship since 1976, was announced only six weeks later. Nevertheless, PLA General Xiong Guangkai warned a visiting American envoy, "In the end, you care more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei."

The PLA's activities in 1995 had the effect of reducing the value of the Taiwanese stock market by one-third and reducing the capital in Taiwan by US$ 10 million. An intimidated electorate, believing Lee had unnecessarily provoked Beijing, increased representation of the strongly pro-reunification Chinese New Party in the Legislative Yuan from 8 to 21 while Lee's Kuomintang lost seats and the Democratic Progressive Party gained less than expected. [edit]

Run-up to the 1996 Election

Beijing intended to send a message to the Taiwanese electorate that voting for Lee Teng-hui in the 1996 presidential election meant war. A third set of PLA tests from March 8 to March 15 (just shortly preceding the March 23 election), sent missiles within 25 to 35 miles (just inside the ROC's territorial waters) off the ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung. Over 70 percent of commercial shipping passed through the targeted ports, which were disrupted by the proximity of the tests. Flights to Japan and trans-Pacific flights were prolonged by ten minutes because airplanes needed to detour away from the flight path. Ships traveling between Kaohsiung and Hong Kong had to take a two-hour detour.

On March 8, the U.S. announced that it was deploying the Independence carrier battle group (CVBG), already stationed in the western Pacific, to international waters near Taiwan. On the following day, the PRC announced live-fire exercises to be conducted near Penghu from March 12-20. On March 11, the U.S. deployed the Nimitz CVBG, which steamed at high speed from the Persian Gulf. Tensions erupted further on March 15 when Beijing announced a simulated amphibious assault planned for March 18-25.

Sending two carrier battle groups showed not only a symbolic gesture towards the ROC, but a readiness to fight on the part of the U.S. The ROC government and Democratic Progressive Party welcomed America's support, but staunch unificationist presidential candidate Lin Yang-kang and the PRC decried "foreign intervention."

The PRC's attempts at intimidation were counterproductive. Arousing more anger than fear, it (as most analysts believe) boosted Lee by 5% in the polls, earning him a majority as opposed to a mere plurality. The military tests and exercises also strengthened the argument for further U.S. arms sales to the ROC and led to the strengthening of military ties between the U.S. and Japan, increasing the role Japan would play in defending Taiwan.

The crisis, however, had a noticeable impact in disrupting the Taiwanese economy. The stock market fell by 17% for the duration of the crisis. Capital fled the island and real estate prices fell. The government was forced to spend US$ 18 million for economic recovery.


Scroll to Top