This month marks the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, sometimes called the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis or Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. At the time the lowest point in US-China relations since the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the events of 1996 seemed less likely to lead to a fundamental break than did the Tiananmen atrocities. Paradoxically, however, the 1996 Crisis represented a greater risk of armed hostilities than did the events of 1989. With the United States and China now in the early stages of what will likely be a long-term strategic rivalry and with cross-Strait relations at their lowest point in years, it is worth looking back to March 1996, when a year-long row culminated in Chinese and American shows of force near Taiwan.
In May 1995, President Bill Clinton granted Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), president of the Republic of China (Taiwan), a visa to visit the United States so that he could attend a reunion at Cornell University. Beijing was livid. The Clinton Administration had previously assured Beijing that no visa would be forthcoming, but congressional pressure led the president to reverse course. A year earlier, the Clinton Administration had revised its Taiwan engagement protocols to allow for higher-level meetings; and in 1992, the Bush Administration had agreed to sell 150 new F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan. Beijing saw a pattern, and worried the United States was moving away from the “One-China Policy” that had guided it since normalization in 1979—and that Washington was, in turn, encouraging Taiwan to pursue formal independence. American policy decisions were also viewed in the context of shifts taking place in Taiwan, which was democratizing under the leadership of a native-born Taiwanese president. China responded by recalling its ambassador to the United States for consultation, canceling a defense minister meeting, and test-firing six missiles into waters about 100 miles from Taiwan. (Robert S. Ross has a good overview of events here, though his framing of Taiwan’s policy choices is problematic.)
Tensions continued throughout 1995. Lee Teng-hui remained intent on pursuing participation in the United Nations, Taiwan tested its own missiles and held exercises aimed at fending off an invasion, and Lee sought an invitation to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Japan. Beijing, for its part, futilely pressed Washington for new commitments vis-à-vis Taiwan and held even larger military exercises ahead of Taiwan’s December legislative elections. As December turned to January, China’s relations with Taiwan and the United States only grew colder. Campaigning ahead of Taiwan’s first popular presidential election (scheduled for March 23) saw some candidates, including Lee, adopt tough-on-China rhetoric. In response, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mobilized 100,000 troops in Fujian Province, leading Washington to repeatedly warn Beijing against engaging in military intimidation.
Beijing ignored the warnings. It carried out military exercises throughout the month of March, which included firing missiles into waters just 20 miles from Taiwan’s coast. It was later revealed that one of the missiles passed over Taipei. In the months leading up to Taiwan’s presidential election, Beijing resorted to nuclear signaling as well.
The United States responded with its own significant show of force. On March 10, the Clinton Administration decided to order two aircraft carriers to East Asian waters: the USS Independence proceeded from Japan to Taiwan-adjacent waters, while the USS Nimitz departed the Persian Gulf and sailed for the Philippine Sea. China conducted a fourth and final missile test on March 13 and a joint ground, air, and naval exercise a few days later. Taiwan’s election went forward as planned, Lee Teng-hui became Taiwan’s first popularly elected president, and the crisis came to a close.
25 Years Later: What Hasn’t Changed
Today, some of the conditions that led to the 1996 crisis persist. First, fundamental Chinese, American, and Taiwanese interests have not significantly changed during the past 25 years. Beijing remains intent on eventual unification with Taiwan and, as a result, seeks to restrain supposedly “pro-independence” Taiwanese inclinations and to encourage the United States to stick to a strict interpretation of the “One-China Policy.” It also prefers to achieve its goals without resorting to armed conflict.
As in 1996, the United States wants to maintain a regional security order centered on its bilateral alliance relationships and other security partnerships, to ensure Taiwan’s continued de facto independence as long as that status accords with the wishes of Taiwan’s people, and to avoid hostilities. Taiwan also wishes to avoid conflict while securing its independent existence, maintaining a robust relationship with the United States, and deepening its international engagement.
Much as in 1996, Beijing continues to worry about Taiwan drifting away from the supposed motherland, and with good reason. Since the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University began public polling on the question in 1994, support for unification has shrunk, support for independence has grown, and there has been consistent, widespread support for maintaining the status quo over the long haul. Polling on identity, moreover, has shown a long-term trend since 1992 of increasing identification as “Taiwanese” and decreasing identification as “Chinese” or as “both Taiwanese and Chinese.” Those changes have occurred as Taiwan consolidated its democracy, making it one of the world’s freest countries (as measured by Freedom House). Put another way, it has become far harder for Beijing to believe—or credibly claim—that Taiwan is not a polity that is separate and fundamentally different from the PRC. The concerns Beijing had in 1996 have only grown more acute in the years since.
25 Years Later: What Has Changed
Much has changed over the past 25 years, of course, but three shifts are worth highlighting in particular as we reflect on the last Taiwan Strait crisis. First, China is not economically dependent on the United States to the extent that it was in 1996. At that time, Beijing’s accession to the World Trade Organization was still five years away and American support would be crucial to ensure that eventual outcome. Today, China is a central node in the global economy. And although it still needs access to the American market, investment, and technology, it is no longer dependent on Washington to facilitate its linkages with international trade and financial networks. To be sure, Washington has significant economic leverage it could operationalize in a crisis, but the rest of the world’s dependency on China may mitigate that leverage’s effectiveness.
Second, the cross-Strait military balance of power has shifted in China’s favor over the intervening two decades. Indeed, it was the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis that spurred a period of near-annual double-digit percentage increases in China’s defense budget. In 2000, the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon convincingly argued that “China cannot invade Taiwan, even under very favorable assumptions about how a conflict would unfold.” By contrast, China now has a modern, well-armed Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force that allow it to pose a multifaceted threat to Taiwan. The ability to carry out a successful amphibious invasion is within reach. Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month, Admiral Phil Davidson, commander of Indo-Pacific Command, noted: “Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before . And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”
Importantly, China is pairing that ability to threaten Taiwan with the ability to complicate any American effort to intervene in a conflict. In 1996, the US Navy could park an aircraft carrier 100 miles off Taiwan’s coast without having to worry much about the ship’s safety. Today, that carrier would sit well within range of China’s expanding air, missile, and naval forces.
Third, in 1996, both China and the United States were eager to return to something resembling the status quo ante in the bilateral relationship. That might not be true following a major crisis in the Taiwan Strait involving all three parties today. Unlike in 1996, the United States and China are now strategic rivals engaged in a competition that may last decades. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it this way: “our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” There is a desire—presumably on both sides—to avoid armed confrontation, but the desire for productive ties is weaker than it once was because both Beijing and Washington see less potential for mutually beneficial outcomes.
Because fundamental Chinese interests on the one hand, and Taiwanese and American interests on the other, are largely as they were in the mid-1990s—in other words, not mutually compatible—the risk remains for a Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis. But it is the things that have changed in the intervening 25 years that make that prospect so concerning. Setting aside for now the question of how such a crisis might come about, there is reason to worry that hostilities would be harder to avoid given a more confident China, a relatively weaker United States, and a bilateral relationship whose best days are far behind it. And even if violence were avoided, a dangerous crisis in the Taiwan Strait could lead to a fundamental break in US-China ties or to significant shifts in each country’s cross-Strait approach. Taiwan, meanwhile, would find itself living in increasingly turbulent waters.
The main point: This month marks the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. Because Chinese, Taiwanese, and American interests are largely as they were in the mid-1990s, the risk remains for a fourth—and far more dangerous—Taiwan Strait crisis.