The Taiwan Strait: A History of Crisis Since 1949


Beijing has reacted furiously to this week’s visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi


Since communist China and Taiwan split at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the waterway that separates them has been a tense geopolitical flashpoint.

Just 130 kilometers (81 miles) wide at its narrowest point, the Taiwan Strait is a major international shipping channel and everything that sits between now democratic, self-ruled Taiwan and its giant authoritarian neighbor.

Beijing has reacted furiously to this week’s visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by making increasingly belligerent threats and announcing a series of military exercises in the waters around the island.

Historians point to three earlier moments when tensions in the Taiwan Strait escalated into an acute crisis.

First Taiwan Strait Crisis

At the end of the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong’s communist forces had successfully expelled Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, who had moved to Taiwan.

On either side of the strait stood two rivals: the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland and the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan.

The first crisis in the Taiwan Strait broke out in August 1954 when the Nationalists deployed thousands of troops on Taiwan-ruled Kinmen and Matsu, two small islands just a few miles from the mainland.

Communist China responded with artillery bombardment of the islands and the successful capture of the Yijiangshan Islands, about 400 kilometers north of Taipei.

The crisis was eventually defused, but nearly brought China and the United States to the brink of direct conflict.

Second Taiwan Strait Crisis

Fighting broke out again in 1958 when Mao’s forces launched an intense bombardment of Kinmen and Matsu in an attempt to drive out the Nationalist forces there again.

Concerned that the loss of those islands could lead to the collapse of the Nationalists and the eventual takeover of Taiwan by Beijing, US President Dwight D Eisenhower ordered his military to escort and supply their Taiwanese allies.

At one point, the US even briefly considered using nuclear weapons against China.

Beijing was unable to take the offshore islands or bomb the Nationalists and declared a ceasefire.

Mao’s forces would still fire on Kinmen intermittently until 1979, but an otherwise tense stalemate began.

Third Taiwan Strait Crisis

It would be another 37 years before the next crisis.

In the intervening decades, both China and Taiwan have changed significantly.

After Mao’s death, China remained in the hands of the Communist Party, but a period of reform and opening up to the world began.

Taiwan, meanwhile, began to shake off the authoritarian years of Chiang Kai-shek and evolve into a progressive democracy, with many embracing a distinctly Taiwanese – not Chinese – identity.

Tensions flared up again in 1995 when China began firing missiles into the waters around Taiwan in protest of a visit by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to his alma mater university in the United States.

Beijing especially disliked Lee because he preferred Taiwan to declare itself an independent state.

A year later, further missile tests were conducted when Taiwan held its first direct presidential elections.

The screen backfired.

The US sent two aircraft carrier groups to force China to withdraw and Lee won the election by a wide margin.

A year later, Newt Gingrich became the first Speaker of the US House of Representatives to visit Taiwan, a precedent Pelosi now follows 25 years later.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)

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