Military exercises by China have intensified in the Taiwan strait, extending up to the Yellow Sea and encircling Taiwan, owing to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island. While she is the second American Speaker of the House of Representatives after Newt Gingrich to visit the island, the level of Chinese military and economic onslaught is unprecedented.
But, it certainly is not the first time that the Taiwan Strait is facing the heat from Beijing. There have been crises on at least three earlier occasions which have been marked by historians.
Brief history of the Taiwan question
The question of status arose because of the civil war within China between nationalist government forces led by Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.
Taiwan was an island that the Japanese took from the Qing dynasty and held from the late 17th century till their defeat in the Second World War in 1945, when they handed it to China.
In the bloody civil war of 1949, Chiang Kai-shek was defeated and fled to Taiwan where his party, the Kuomintang, ruled for decades till it slowly moved to a democracy.
READ | Amid China-Taiwan tensions, top Taiwanese defence official found dead in hotel room
While China stakes claim on Taiwan, saying that China’s Chiang Kai-shek (once rejected in mainland China) had wished to reclaim the mainland from Mao Zedong and create one whole China under him, Taipei says that Taiwan has never been a part of the People’s Republic of China since its inception in 1949. Therefore, Beijing cannot lay claim on the island.
These arguments and counter-arguments did not stop the flare-ups between the two sides. The three critical moments in Taiwan-China relations are:
First Taiwan Strait crisis
The first Taiwan Strait crisis, also known as the Formosa crisis, marked a critical point in the US involvement in tensions between China and Taiwan.
In 1949, the Chinese civil war ended. In 1950, Republic of China (ROC) president Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (KMT), and 1.3 million anti-Communist Chinese supporters had fled from mainland China to Taiwan and the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) took control of the mainland.
This was the first crisis that Taiwan faced. The ROC established its government in Taiwan and was recognised by the United States as the legitimate government for the whole of China. But, President Truman refused to intervene in the crisis militarily till the Korean War broke out in 1950 with North Korea supported by China and the Soviet Union and South Korea backed by the United Nations, with primary support coming from the US.
That is when America jumped into the crisis in the region and sent its Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to prevent further escalation, effectively putting Taiwan under American protection.
Second Taiwan Strait crisis
Also called the ‘1958 Taiwan Strait crisis’ was a critical juncture in Taiwan-US defence cooperation. The focus of this crisis were the islands of Kinmen (Quemoy) and the Matsu Islands along the east coast of mainland China (in the Taiwan Strait).
The People’s Republic China (PRC) wanted to capture the island in the name of “liberating” it from Chinese Nationalist Party also known as the Kuomintang (KMT)/Republic of China (ROC). They also wanted to see America’s commitment.
ALSO READ | China continues military drills around Taiwan
In January 1955, the US Congress passed the Formosa Resolution which gave President Eisenhower total authority to defend Taiwan and the off-shore islands.
In August 1958, The Chinese Navy began shelling at both Kinmen and some of the nearby Matsu islands. The intent was to cut supplies to Kinmen which they succeeded in doing until the American Naval warships assisted and escorted ROC Naval convoys to reach Kinmen, breaking China’s blockade.
The PRC did not fire at the American warships to refrain from a direct war with the US. On October of the same year, the PRC announced a unilateral ceasefire.
Third Taiwan Strait crisis
By the time the third major crisis came about, the United States had already recognised and accepted ‘One-China’ policy. The United States’ One-China policy was first stated in the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972: The United States acknowledges that Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does not challenge that position.
Also known as the ‘1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis’, tensions rose between Taiwan, China and the US, leading to a series of missile tests by the PRC in waters surrounding Taiwan.
The catalyst for the crisis was the acceptance of an invitation by ROC (Taiwan) President Lee Teng-hui to his alma mater, Cornell university, in the United States, to deliver a speech on “Taiwan’s Democratization Experience.”
China opposed any move to grant him visa as the US would have been in violation of the ‘One China’ policy and there would be consequences to bear.
ALSO READ | China conducts military drills in Yellow Sea amid tension in Taiwan Strait
Despite the US State Department raising the inconsistency in policy, in May 1995, a concurrent resolution was passed in the House and the Senate asking the State Department to allow Lee to visit the US, leading first salvo of missile test in 1995 and 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.
President Clinton responded by staging the biggest display of American military might in Asia since the Vietnam War – additional battleships, two aircraft carriers.
The crisis saw Lee’s numbers in polls rise and he returned to power with a majority, thwarting China’s attempts to create fear among the people of Taiwan.
— ENDS —