Three previous Taiwan Strait crises and the current U.S.-China conflict

In 1997, during a press conference with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Washington, D.C., President Bill Clinton raised his hands to indicate that he would like to end the ban on the export of nuclear power technology to China. Getty Images/Joyce Naltchayan remove caption

switch to caption Getty Images/Joyce Naltchayan

In 1997, during a press conference with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Washington, D.C., President Bill Clinton raised his hands to indicate that he would like to end the ban on the export of nuclear power technology to China.

Getty Images/Joyce Naltchayan The plane carrying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan on Tuesday night local time. Her visit prompted warnings from mainland China and raised the possibility of a fourth crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

The travel by Pelosi, the highest-ranking elected American politician to visit the island since House Speaker Newt Gingrich did so 25 years ago, is seen as a violation of China’s sovereignty because Taiwan is considered to be a part of its territory. Additionally, Beijing views it as a violation of Washington’s “one-China policy,” which recognizes Beijing as the only legitimate government in China.

Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China, lashed out at Washington in an statement on Tuesday, claiming that it was “bankrupting its national reputation” by betraying China “on the Taiwan issue.” Prior to Pelosi’s arrival, China’s Eastern Theater Command starting launched joint air and sea operations in all directions near Taiwan. The U.S. and China have both increased military action in the area.

It’s still unclear how a crisis would develop, but it wouldn’t be very unusual. After comparable events in 1954, 1958, and the middle of the 1990s, it would actually be the fourth Taiwan Strait crisis.

Outside the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel in Honolulu, protesters carry flags and banners in opposition to the 1997 luncheon that Chinese President Jiang Zemin and the mayor of the city held there. “Taiwan Yes, China No,” the protesters yelled as the presidential convoy drove by. Getty Images / George F. Lee remove caption

switch to caption Getty Images / George F. Lee

Outside the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel in Honolulu, protesters carry flags and banners in opposition to the 1997 luncheon that Chinese President Jiang Zemin and the mayor of the city held there. “Taiwan Yes, China No,” the protesters yelled as the presidential convoy drove by.

Getty Images / George F. Lee The same individuals are involved in previous crises, but the concerns are somewhat different, according to political scientist Ian Chong from the National University of Singapore.

Beijing attempted to prevent the Eisenhower administration from signing a mutual defense treaty with Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalist Party, who had fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists, in the first conflict, which took place shortly after the end of the Korean War. The defense pact was signed by the US and Taiwan in 1954.

Meanwhile, China pounded the Taiwanese-controlled islands of Kinmen and Matsu with artillery while the U.S. attempted to prevent communist forces from capturing them.
They also sought to prevent Chiang Kai-shek from launching a counterattack in an effort to regain the mainland, according to Chong.

In 1958, the islands were shelled more often due to a second conflict. President Dwight Eisenhower rejected the proposal of using nuclear weapons against China to stop the mainland from annexing the islands of Kinmen and Matsu, which are now controlled by Taiwan.

The two settled eventually came to a tense standoff during which communists and nationalists alternated days of shelling each other. This face-saving routine persisted sporadically for about twenty years. The alternate-day bombardment was described by the secretary of state at the time, John Foster Dulles, as “psychological and intended to create the impression they {China} are the masters.”

In 1958, young militiamen from Fengtai, a collectivist commune in China, demonstrated against the United States providing military assistance to Taiwan. Getty Images, Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone remove caption

switch to caption Getty Images, Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone

In 1958, young militiamen from Fengtai, a collectivist commune in China, demonstrated against the United States providing military assistance to Taiwan.

Getty Images, Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone The third crisis started in 1995 when Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s visited Cornell University, his alma mater. Following a Congressional resolution in favor of the visit, the Clinton administration was obliged to change its mind after first opposing the notion.

In retaliation, China conducted many military drills over several months, including firing missiles into the waters near Taiwan and practicing amphibious invasions on the island. Lee’s trip to the US was viewed in Beijing as another another breach of Washington’s adherence to the “one-China policy.”

Newt Gingrich 0 Newt Gingrich 1, a Taipei-based military commentator and author of a book on the third Taiwan Strait crisis, claims that regarding Pelosi’s current visit to Taiwan, “Beijing believes that the U.S. is gradually hollowing out the one-China policy” and is attempting to draw a line in the sand to deter Washington.

Beijing’s military showdowns were also intended to dissuade Taiwanese citizens from supporting Lee during the 1996 presidential elections.

The plan failed. Two carrier combat groups were dispatched by the US to the waters close to Taiwan. In Taiwan’s first-ever direct presidential elections, people chose Lee with a 54 percent majority.

According to Susan Shirk, who later served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, “the two sides, I think, were profoundly chastened and sobered by how near they were to a big military clash.” After that, “both sides really worked hard to lay a foundation beneath the relationship to keep that from happening again.”

“If China hadn’t de-escalated, if they had responded, let’s say, by striking or harassing the carrier battle group, that would have been very hazardous,” continues Shirk, the author of Newt Gingrich 2 on U.S.-China relations.

With the end, relations between the U.S. and China were restored, culminating in Jiang Zemin, the then-President of China, visiting the United States in 1997. But there was a big chance that the US, China, and Taiwan would get into a fight.

Relations between Washington and Beijing are far more tense now than they were in 1996, 25 years later, as the U.S. and China are at odds once more on Taiwan.

According to Newt Gingrich 3, head of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, “you’ve got this kind of mutually reinforcing dynamic going on between the two sides where they presume the worst of the other and they don’t believe what they’re saying.” It’s a competitive strategy that can quickly spiral out of control.

Chong adds that the ruler of China is still another difference this time. The goal of Xi Jinping, according to him, is to bring about the “rejuvenation of the Chinese country,” which includes reunification with Taiwan.

Xi is “more personally invested than his predecessors in Taiwan policy. Therefore, everything that isn’t going the way he wants it to could have an impact on his reputation, if not his status “Chong claims.

And Xi is in charge of a military that is more stronger than China’s was during any of the previous crises. Three of those are Newt Gingrich 4. It’s difficult to say whether China would use them given that there are many American warships already Newt Gingrich 5 in the area. According to analysts, Beijing is attempting to project military power while still preventing military escalation.

According to Newt Gingrich 6, a political science professor at the Australian National University, “If China lets Pelosi happen and does nothing, China risks looking weak, but at the same time, Xi really needs stability at the moment, and that’s why he doesn’t really have a going to war option as well, because war will be the biggest risk to stability.” He appears to be in a Catch-22 situation.

And if anyone has learnt from previous crises in the Taiwan Strait, it is the Taiwanese people, who “seem fairly nonplussed” by the most recent hostility, according to Chong.

Therefore, Beijing “must keep stepping up its threat every time, until it has to really carry out that threat, or have its bluff called,” according to Chong, if Beijing “wants to send a message” to an island that is becoming less susceptible to coercion.