Capt. Bernard D. Cole, USN (Ret.) was a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC. The author of two other books, he was a surface warfare officer in the US Navy for 30 years. Cole’s previous books include “The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century,” which was selected for the Navy Reading Program.
During the past three-quarters of a century, Beijing has employed the full panoply of its instruments of statecraft, from appeals to patriotism, to outright military assault, to pressure on the people of Taiwan to submit to Chinese rule. As the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) once again is conducting exercises to intimidate Taiwan, this article will address how Beijing has used its military to constrain Taiwan’s independence and to push it toward unification.
The revolution in China that began with the downfall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 was a brutal, complex affair that, according to Beijing, remains incomplete. Beijing insists that Chinese unity will be achieved only when Taiwan has been “reunified” with China. This proposition remains—70 years after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was declared in October 1949—an unattractive option for the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan.
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) victory over ROC forces in 1949 was to a significant degree a military win, and Beijing immediately began planning to extend its success to include Taiwan, where the ROC government had relocated. The PLA campaigns in the fall of 1949 and early 1950 to capture ROC-held islands was only partially successful. The PLA’s amphibious assault on Kinmen (金門) was soundly defeated by ROC forces, but Hainan was successfully attacked and occupied. Beijing planned a military assault to capture Taiwan in early 1950, but that effort was delayed at the PLA’s request. The operation to occupy the island was rescheduled initially for the late summer of 1950, but then postponed indefinitely following the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950.
First Taiwan Strait Crisis
Beijing continued seizing some small ROC-occupied islands during the Korean War and it continued to employ major military pressure against Taipei following the 1953 Korean War armistice. The Dachen Islands (大陳群島) were attacked in mid-1954, for instance, and fully occupied by the PLA in February 1955. Kinmen and Matsu (馬祖) were subjected to an intensive artillery attack by China in September 1954, a bombardment that continued intermittently into 1955.
China’s 1954-1955 military attacks on ROC-held islands were partially successful in seizing territory, but failed in at least two aspects. First, Taipei was not forced to the negotiating table by these attacks. Second, a more serious failure of China’s military attacks was how it contributed to the conclusion of the “Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of China,” signed in December 1954. Additionally, the US Congress passed the ‘Formosa Resolution’ the next month, which authorized the President “to employ the Armed Forces of the United States as he deems necessary for the specific purpose of securing and defending Formosa (Taiwan/ROC) and the Pescadores (Penghus) against armed attack.”
Second Taiwan Strait Crisis
In 1958, China launched another significant military campaign against Taiwan that influenced several events. First, it triggered the ROC’s defense treaty with the United States; second, was Chiang Kai-shek’s statements about attacking the “mainland” and massive reinforcement of troops to Kinmen and Matsu; and third, was the US provision of nuclear-capable 8-inch howitzers to the ROC army on Jinmen. Mao Zedong ordered the PLA to conduct a heavy bombardment of Kinmen and Matsu, but forbade the PLA from attacking US forces, which allowed the US Navy to escort ROC ships that resupplied the islands. Washington also provided the ROC Air Force with heat-seeking “Sidewinder” air-to-air missiles, which contributed to a decisive defeat of the PLA Air Force by the ROC Air Force in battles over the Taiwan Strait.
China’s next notable use of military pressure against the ROC occurred in 1962. In this case, Beijing’s transfer of perhaps seven infantry divisions into Fujian Province, opposite Taiwan, likely was in reaction to aggressive military moves by Chiang Kai-shek. The PLA was not employed in notable military operations during this crisis, which was resolved without active conflict.
Third Taiwan Strait Crisis
The PLA certainly was employed to pressure the Taiwan government in 1995 and 1996. China’s military conducted amphibious exercises along the Fujian coast in an obvious attempt to influence the legislative elections conducted in Taiwan in October 1995. This attempt failed to affect the victory of the Kuomintang (KMT) in those elections, but Beijing apparently decided otherwise. Hence, in early 1996, the PLA was tasked with additional, very pointed, military operations, including launching short-range ballistic missiles, which impacted close to Taiwan’s two major ports, Keelung in the north and Kaohsiung in the south. These missiles and other military exercises seemed designed to “scare” Taiwan’s electorate to not vote for Lee Teng-hui, the KMT candidate for president. He won handily. Despite the abrogation of the mutual defense treaty in 1979, President Bill Clinton deployed two carrier strikes groups in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait to stabilize the situation.
As was the case in the 1950s and in 1962, China’s application of military force to influence the people of Taiwan and pressure the Taipei government in 1995-1996 was countered by US military and diplomatic actions, in support of the strength of the Taiwan people and government. Nonetheless, since 1949, Beijing has pointedly refused to discuss not using military force against Taiwan, should the island’s government cross various “red lines.” These have included a declaration of independence by the ROC government, the development of nuclear weapons by Taiwan, Taipei’s lost of control of law and order, the intercession of foreign troops onto the island, and other conditions.
China’s Military Pressure Post 1995-1996
Beijing’s military threats since 1996 have been more subtle, but just as pointed as those in preceding years. The series of military exercises conducted by the PLA along the Fujian coast has been especially threatening.
China has frequently conducted exercises in close proximity to Taiwan in a manner that clearly replicates a direct military assault on the island. In addition to the 1995-1996 examples, Beijing has continued extensive use of such operations to attempt to influence Taipei’s policies and to limit its options. These have typically taken the form of exercises that mirror-image the cross-Strait environment, with Chinese naval and air forces conducting various operations close to Taiwan. Since the turn of the century, the scenarios for these PLA exercises often feature amphibious operations, clearly designed to impress upon Taipei its susceptibility to a seaborne invasion. These have occurred on a fairly regular basis since at least 1995, and most recently in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.
Beijing has also employed air power to demonstrate its military potential against Taiwan. Examples include the 1996 missile launches, and the continued stationing of thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles able to strike Taiwan’s targets. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has also frequently flown missions through the Taiwan Strait, crossing the hitherto mutually respected center line of that strait. In 2017 and 2018, these operations have expanded to include PLAAF surveillance aircraft and bombers circumnavigating Taiwan. Additionally, Beijing’s surprise declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering the East China Sea impinged on a similar zone long ago declared by Taipei. Finally, Beijing unilaterally established a new commercial airline route through the Taiwan Strait in early 2018, in violation of previous agreements with Taipei.
Beijing has also used its navy to send military “messages” to Taipei. PLA Navy (PLAN) exercises have included (in addition to the aforementioned amphibious drills) mine warfare, anti-submarine warfare, anti-air warfare, and other maritime operations in or in close proximity to the Taiwan Strait. The most recent example of an actual live-fire exercise by the PLA in the strait was just completed in April 2018. Yet another form of naval pressure against Taiwan has been Beijing’s routing of its first aircraft carrier through the strait. The addition of carriers to the PLAN significantly increases China’s ability to threaten Taiwan with air power from the east, thus seriously complicating its air defense posture.
The PLA has also conducted exercises that indicate possible military operations to “decapitate” Taiwan’s government, by assassinating civilian and military leaders. As an example of this threat, a military exercise conducted in far-off inner Mongolia featured what appeared to be a mockup of central Taipei, with central government offices as apparent targets.
A more general signal of Beijing’s display of its modernizing military prowess occurred in April 2018 when the PLAN conducted a “naval parade” of more than 40 ships and 75 aircraft. The demonstration was led by China’s first aircraft carrier and it was personally observed by President Xi Jinping. This exercise’s message to Taiwan of China’s increasing naval power was unmistakable.
Both the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) and KMT governments, and Taiwan’s military leadership have been very much aware of the military threat posed by Beijing. Arguably, neither the DPP, nor the KMT governments have been able to act strongly enough to develop the forces capable of by itself deterring, not to say defeating, a Chinese military attack. Taiwan’s government, however, has maintained a military sufficient—with US assistance—to deter an outright PLA attack. That assistance remains crucial to the island’s defense.
A blatant military threat signal against Taiwan was expressed by a retired PLA General in an article titled “Revealing the Six Wars China Must Fight in the Coming 50 Years.” This bombastic piece listed “the war to unify Taiwan (2020-2025)” at the top of its list. This threat technically is non-official and non-substantive, but emphasizes Beijing’s continued and consistent willingness to emphasize a possible military solution to forcing Taiwan to unify with the People’s Republic of China. While more PLA moves against Taiwan may be expected, all sides should draw from the lessons of the past responses to clear military coercion.
The main point: While more PLA moves against Taiwan may be expected, all sides should draw from the lessons of the past responses to clear military coercion.