President Tsai Calls for National Unity while Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis
August 23 is remembered in Taiwan for the “August 23 Battle” (八二三戰役) and this year marks the 60th anniversary of the intense artillery shelling campaign launched by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) against the Taiwan-controlled offshore islands of Kinmen (also known as Quemoy) and Matsu. In perhaps one of the closest encounters that the United States and China ever came to a nuclear conflict over Taiwan, beginning in the evening of August 23, 1958 at 6:30pm (GMT+8), the PLA under Mao Zedong’s order began a massive artillery attack that rained down 470,000 plus artillery shells with more than 3,000 shells per square kilometers over the targeted areas.
To memorialize the August 23 Battle’s anniversary, the central government in Taiwan created a short commemorative video. Posted online, the video attempted to highlight the meaning of the battle that occurred 60 years ago for today’s Taiwan. To be sure, for some in Taiwan’s now democratic society the battle still represented the legacy of the country’s authoritarian past. Yet, the message of the video, which featured historical black and white footages of the military and civilian responding to PLA artillery barrages, ostensibly tried to transcend these views and underscore that the defense of Taiwan was then and now remains a national effort.
The video—which is available on President Tsai’s Facebook page (@tsaiingwen)—shifted from the aforementioned old images to bright new modern military hardware. In an online statement that accompanied the video, President Tsai wrote:
After 60 years … I believe that we should see it [the battle] as the determination of the Taiwanese people to protect Taiwan without distinguishing between you and me, who came here first or after, and between ethnicity. This battle to defend Taiwan told the world that no amount of artillery shells can change the determination of Taiwanese people to protect their homeland. This was the case 60 years ago and this will be the case 60 years later.
The significance of the anniversary also highlights an important period in US-Taiwan relations with policy implications for the present. The 1958 crisis, which is commonly referred to in the United States as the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, was essentially an extension of the gradual escalation that occurred following the First Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954-55 and led to the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of China.
According to a declassified US assessment prepared in 1966 with an abridged version published by RAND Corporation in 1975, there were extensive deliberations among American officials and military planners in crafting the appropriate response to Beijing’s military aggression. And despite the limited geographical applications of the defense treaty, which did not cover Kinmen or Matsu, the consensus was that it was necessary to make available the use of nuclear weapons in order to help Taiwan defend Kinmen, because it was seen as both an important military as well as political objective in deterring the Chinese Communists.
As Capt. Bernard D. Cole, USN (ret.), wrote in the Global Taiwan Brief:
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.
Beijing has ramped up a multifaceted campaign to influence, intimidate, and disrupt Taiwan since President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration in May 2016 and refused to endorse the so-called “1992 Consensus.” The influence campaign includes overt messaging and covert methods with a hard-line against the government and a soft approach towards the public.
At an official ceremony held in Kinmen at the Tai Wu Cemetery (太武公墓) on August 23, Taiwan’s Minister of Defense Yen Te-fa (嚴德發) emphasized how the freedom and democracy that the people of Taiwan now enjoys are owed in part to the sacrifices made by the dedicated military and civilian compatriots during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. The defense minister also underscored the principle that “there must be strength for there to be security; you must be able to prepare for war to prevent it” (有實力才有安全，能備戰才能止戰).
The times now stand in stark contrast to the artillery shelling of the 1950s, yet there are still parallels from the past that planners can take into consideration. While 60 years have passed since the crisis, the Taiwan Strait remains in a constant state of perpetual contest. It is clear from the RAND assessment that the United States recognized the importance to make unmistakably clear to the Chinese Communists that Washington was prepared to intervene in order to deter further actions. Indeed, all actions taken by US planners that have helped alleviate the crises, after they had been allowed to escalate, was a US demonstration of determination that deterred the Chinese Communists. If what’s past is prologue, the show of strength and resolve now can help to preserve peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait for the future.
The main point: At the 60th anniversary of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, Taiwan’s leaders are calling for national unity in the facing of mounting pressure from China.