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Taiwan Strait
21 July 1995 to 23 March 1996

The "one-China policy" had its origins in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek moved the seat of his defeated Government to Taiwan. Chiang in Taipei, and Mao Zedong in Beijing, both maintained that there was only one legitimate government of China, with authority over both the mainland and Taiwan. When America switched recognition to the it continued to honor the formula, and thus has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The one-China concept has been the cornerstone of normalized relations between Beijing and Washington.

The long-standing United States position is that the issue of reunification be handled by the Chinese people on both sides of the straits, but that policy was founded on the understanding that the question of Taiwan would be resolved peacefully. The leadership in Beijing never renounnced to possible use force against Taiwan, and China has threatened to use force against Taiwan under various scenarios, including Taiwan's construction of nuclear weapons; a revolt on the island; or a declaration of independence, even if that declaration is the outcome of a democratic process such as a plebiscite or democratic elections. Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, any threat to the peace and security of Taiwan is of grave concern to the United States. The act explicitly states that the United States is obliged to make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient defense capability.

Although American naval forces had not been involved in the Taiwan dispute since the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, an encounter in 1974 set the stage for subsequent events in the Taiwan Strait. Beginning on 27 October 1994 the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk was involved in a three-day running encounter with a Chinese Han-class nuclear attack submarine in the Yellow Sea, 100 nautical miles west of Kyushu, Japan. American anti-submarine aircraft spotted the Chinese sub some 450 nautical miles northwest of the Kitty Hawk, and thee Chinese dispatched jet fighters which intercepted the US planes. The encounter continued until the sub came within 21 miles of the Kitty Hawk, and ended when the Chinese submarine broke off contact and returned to base.

The following year Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui concluded a private trip to a Cornell University reunion. President Lee's visit to his alma mater on 9-10 June 1995 marked a bold, symbolic step out of Taiwan's decade and a half of official international isolation. And his repeated use of the terminology "Republic of China on Taiwan" was taken by Beijing as a challenge to the "One China" formulation. In response, the PRC conducted tests of six missiles from July 21 to 26 in an area only 60 kilometers north of Taiwan's Pengchiayu Island. The tests came amid a flurry of mainland Chinese invective denouncing the private visit of President Lee Tang-hui to Cornell University. The missiles were all MTCR class four short range and two intermediate range. All were modern, mobile, nuclear-capable. At the same time, the PLA mobilized forces in coastal Fujian Province and moved a number of Jian-8 aircraft to the coast. The result was predictable--the stock market and the local currency in Taiwan fell precipitously.

The People's Republic of China announced a new series of guided missile tests in the East China Sea between August 15 and 25, 1995. While similar tests are a usual part of the annual training exercises of the Chinese 2d Artillery Corps, these were the only times in many years that the tests have been announced publicly. In conjunction with the tests, Taiwan intelligence reported that the PRC was planning on conducting a joint sea-air military exercise codenamed `Jiu-wu-qi' and that on July 16 the PRC Air Force stationed a number of F-7 or F-8 aircraft at airports located within 250 nautical miles of Taiwan --a highly unusual and provocative move.

As of early 1996 Beijing had redeployed forces from other parts of the country to the coastal areas facing Taiwan and set up new command structures for various kinds of military action against Taiwan. Allegedly, the People's Liberation Army prepared plans for a missile attack against Taiwan consisting of one conventional missile strike a day for 30 days. These strikes were to take place just after the March 1996 Presidential elections.

In early March 1996 China began a week-long series of ballistic missile tests and announced it will conduct an additional set of live fire military maneuvers as well. Together they constituted the fourth set of major military exercises the People's Liberation Army had undertaken in the straits since July 1995. On March 5, 1996, the Xinhua News Agency announced that the People's Republic of China would conduct missile tests from March 8 through March 15, 1996, within 25 to 35 miles of the 2 principal northern and southern ports of Taiwan , Kaohsiung and Keelung. On March 9, China announced plans to conduct live-ammunition war exercises in the Strait of Taiwan until March 20.

The missile tests off the shores of Taiwan were the third test series since Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hut visited the United States in June 1995. When China conducted similar missile tests in July and August of 1995, the target areas were 85 and 80 miles north of Taiwan, respectively. By contrast, the target zone for the surface-to-surface missiles fired in March 1996 were only half as far from Taiwan, and far too close to major airline and shipping routes. Of the three missiles launched, two landed near the port of Keelung which is only 23 miles from Taiwan's northern coast and approximately 30 miles from Taipei, Taiwan's capital. The third missile landed in a target zone near the port of Kaohsiun, which is only 35 miles from Taiwan's southern coast. Over 70 percent of commercial shipping enters Taiwan through these two port cities. The proximity of these tests to the ports and the accompanying warnings for ships and aircraft to avoid the test areas resulted in the effective disruption of the ports, and of international shipping and air traffic, for the duration of the tests. The escalation in both scope and nature of the March exercises raised the risk that conflict could start through miscalculation or accident. The People's Republic of China ended the missile tests as scheduled on March 15 and one of its naval exercises on March 20, and the People's Republic of China indicated that it did not plan to attack Taiwan.

These tests, and the military exercises that preceded them last year, were clearly meant to intimidate the people of Taiwan in the run-up to the presidential election. On March 23, 1996, the people of the Republic of China on Taiwan elected Lee Teng-hui as their first directly elected President. President Lee had served as the President of the Republic of China on Taiwan since 1988. Taiwan's electorate demonstrated to Beijing that its bellicose campaign of threats and intimidation was ill-conceived and ineffectual. Rather than diminishing support for President Lee, as Beijing and the PLA had hoped, the People's Republic of China's round of missile tests and live-fire military exercises seemed only to have served to solidify his support; President Lee won with some 54 percent of the vote.

The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act proclaimed American support for the peaceful reunification of Taiwan and the mainland, and commited the United States to help Taiwan defend itself in case of Chinese aggression. On 19 December 1995 the US sent the USS Nimitz from the Eastern Pacific to the Taiwan Straits, the politically treacherous waterway between Taiwan and China. This marked the first time American ships had patrolled the straits since 1976.

The US Seventh Fleet monitored Chinese military live-fire exercises off the coast of Taiwan in March and April 1996. The forward-deployed Independence (CV 62) carrier battle group (CVBG), with embarked Carrier Air Wing Five, responded to rising tensions between China and Taiwan by taking station off the eastern coast of Taiwan. USS Bunker Hill (CG 52), operated south of Taiwan using its SPY-1 Aegis radar and other means to observe the missile tests. Other ships operating with the Independence included USS Hewitt (DD 966), USS O'Brien (DD 975), and USS McClusky (FFG 41). These forces provided a visible sign of US commitment to stability in the region.

The Nimitz (CVN 68) CVBG transited at high speed to arrive in the South China Sea within days, intensifying the signal of US resolve. As of 11 March 1996 Nimitz was participating in Operation Southern Watch in the Arabian Gulf, but a week later the carrier was in the Indian Ocean, en route to South China Sea. Accompanying Nimitz were USS Port Royal (CG 73), USS Callaghan (DD 994), USS Oldendorf (DD 972), USS Ford (FFG 54), USS Willamette (AO 180), USS Shasta (AE 33) and USS Portsmouth (SSN 707). Aircraft from Carrier Air Wing Nine were embarked with Nimitz. The Nimitz and six additional ships arrived near Taiwan before the 23 March presidential election.

Chinese Premier Li Peng warned Washington not to make a show of force by sending the Navy through the Taiwan Strait. Secretary of Defense William Perry responded with a boast that while the Chinese "are a great military power, the premier--the strongest--military power in the Western Pacific is the United States" -- but the US Navy kept away from the strait.

Subsequently, tensions in the Taiwan Strait diminished and relations between U.S. and China improved, with increased high-level exchanges and progress on numerous bilateral issues, including human rights, nonproliferation and trade. Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited the United States in the fall of 1997, the first state visit to the U.S. by a Chinese president since 1985. In connection with that visit, the two sides reached agreement on implementation of their 1985 agreement on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, as well as a number of other issues. President Clinton visited China in June 1998.

As a measure to build up mutual trust, an Agreement between the Ministry of National Defense of the People's Republic of China and the Department of Defense of the United States of America on Establishing a Consultation Mechanism to Strengthen Military Maritime Safety was signed by General Chi Haotian, Minister of National Defense of the People's Republic of China and Mr. William S. Cohen, Secretary of Defense of the United States during the latter's visit to China on 19 January 1998. This was intended to improve the ability to deal with incidents at sea and increase mutual understanding of naval and navigational practices for both ships and aircraft, and to reduce the chances of miscalculation. Under the agreement, DoD and the Chinese defense ministry will meet annually to discuss mutual concerns that relate to activities at sea by their naval and air forces.


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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:35:51 Zulu