The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis Revisited

Legacy and Lessons of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis


Amid rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait, an expert in China-Taiwan relations looks back on the events of 1958 and their legacy, identifying lessons for crisis control and conflict avoidance 65 years on.

The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis broke out on August 23, 1958, when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army launched a heavy artillery attack against Kinmen (Quemoy) and Matsu, island groups off the coast of Fujian Province that were under the military control of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government headquartered in Taipei (the Republic of China, or ROC). Beijing’s objectives were unclear , but Chiang Kai-shek was determined to defend the “offshore islands,” which he saw as potential launching pads for a counteroffensive aimed at retaking the mainland from the Communists. He sought the support of the United States, with whom he had concluded a treaty, in defending the islands and, if necessary, launching a counterattack.

Washington wanted to avoid being drawn into a war over the offshore islands, which were remote from the main island of Taiwan and not explicitly covered by the US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty. In the end, however, it decided to intervene with the dual aims of blocking further Communist expansion in the region and preventing a Nationalist counteroffensive from triggering a full-scale war. It assembled a carrier strike group in the surrounding seas to keep the PLA in check. It provided escorts for ROC ships to supply to the forces on the islands, while throwing cold water on Chiang Kai-shek’s request for assistance with a counterattack.

While imposing the blockade, Beijing called on Chiang Kai-shek to withdraw his Nationalist forces from the offshore islands. However, with the United States entering the picture, the blockade of Kinmen began to collapse, and roughly a month after the shelling started, Mao Zedong issued a “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” calling for a peaceful resolution to the Civil War and denying the existence of two Chinas. Beijing then decided that the PLA would fire only on odd-numbered days, an arrangement that persisted for about two decades. With this response, China was able to defuse the crisis. At the same time, with Kinmen and Matsu under Chiang Kai-shek’s control, it had a rationale for refusing to participate in any formal ceasefire negotiations that implied the existence of two Chinas. Washington and Taipei did hold talks, however, as a result of which the Nationalist government was persuaded to renounce the use of force as the primary means of retaking the mainland in return for a reaffirmation of Washington’s commitment to defend Taiwan, including the offshore islands. The agreement was enshrined in an October 24 communiqué issued by US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Chiang Kai-shek.

Continuing Importance of Kinmen and Matsu

China’s every-other-day ritual bombardment of the islands finally ended when Washington and Beijing established formal diplomatic relations in 1979. But for China in the era of “reform and opening up,” Kinmen and Matsu took on even greater significance as the “cords” tying Taiwan to the mainland.

As the normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States was achieved, Beijing explicitly embraced a policy of peaceful reunification with Taiwan and called for the establishment of commercial, transportation, and postal connections, known as the Three Links. But Taipei was cautious about forging such ties, and the reforms proceeded slowly. Throughout the presidency of Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo (1978–88), Kinmen and Matsu remained the ROC’s forwardmost military strongholds, symbolizing what many still regarded as an unfinished civil war. Finally, in 2001, under the Mini Three Links initiative, Kinmen and Matsu were connected to the coastal cities of Xiamen and Fuzhou, respectively, and became the frontline for cross-strait economic exchange. Their role as such was diminished after 2008, with the implementation of a full-fledged Three Links policy connecting Taiwan to the mainland. But the islands are again in the spotlight as the two governments face the challenge of restoring the cross-strait traffic that came to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping, whose reunification campaign appears to have stalled, is eyeing Kinmen and Xiamen as a model for cross-strait “integrated development,” raising expectations that the offshore islands will again assume a pivotal role as a nexus between China and Taiwan.

At the same time, however, military tensions have been rising in the Taiwan Strait. In the past 65 years, China’s military power has grown exponentially. At the time of the 1958 crisis, the bombarding and blockading of Kinmen and Matsui were the most the PLA could manage. It was unable to exert control over the surrounding seas and airspace and had to approach any landing operation with the utmost caution. By contrast, with its current capabilities, the PLA could easily exert maritime and air control over the Taiwan Strait in the absence of US intervention. The missile tests the PLA conducted around Taiwan from 1995 to 1996 (Third Taiwan Strait Crisis) and the large-scale military exercises of 2022 are evidence that the PLA no longer views the offshore islands as key targets. Its focus is on blocking the intervention of US forces as it seizes the main island.

Assessing the Risks to Kinmen and Matsu

Any limited operation to seize control of Taiwan’s offshore islands would most likely be intended either as a show of force, aimed at convincing Taiwan and the international community of the futility of resistance, or as political theater staged by China’s leaders for domestic consumption. Even in such an instance, however, a more likely target would be one of the uninhabited or sparsely inhabited offshore islands, such as Tungsha (Pratas Island). The residents of Kinmen and Matsu, which have long served as a bridge between China and Taiwan, have a stake in ongoing exchange with the mainland and are generally opposed to Taiwanese independence. For this reason, an attack on Kinmen and Matsu would not produce the desired political impact and might even reverse whatever progress Beijing has made on that front. From a military standpoint as well, an attack on Kinmen and Matsu, where Taiwanese forces are still deployed at a certain level, is more likely to trigger a counterattack or invite US military intervention.

How likely is it, though, that the US would respond to Chinese military action that was limited to Kinmen and Matsu?

The United States has frequently revised its position regarding the defense of Taiwan’s main and offshore islands, but it has been consistent in its fundamental commitment to deterring Chinese aggression while discouraging Taiwan from triggering a conflict.

The Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, which functioned during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, came to an end in January 1980, a year after the normalization of ties between the United States and China (January 1979). In April 1979, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which states that the US government will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means . . . of grave concern to the United States” and “will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services . . . as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.“ Since then, Washington has maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” aimed at deterring both Chinese military aggression and any behavior by Taiwan, such as a declaration of independence, that could provoke such a use of force. During the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, in the 1990s, the United States again dispatched a carrier strike group to the strait. Given Washington’s ongoing policy and its responses to previous crises, there is no denying the possibility that even a limited attack Kinmen and Matsu could impel the United States to intervene.

In short, in view of the political significance of Kinmen and Matsu to cross-strait relations and the possibility of a counterstrike and US intervention, a recurrence of the 1958 crisis, triggered by a Chinese attack on those two islands, seems unlikely. Nonetheless there are lessons to be learned from that chapter in history. When revisiting the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, our focus should be on learning those lessons and applying them to prevent Chinese military aggression or intimidation against the main island of Taiwan.

Importance of Deterrence and Crisis Diplomacy

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis is the importance of deterrence, including the role of nuclear arms.

The Second Taiwan Strait crisis broke out as a result of Mao’s decision to launch an artillery attack on Kinmen. Prior to that decision, Mao spent many a sleepless night fretting over the possibility that the US army would intervene to defend the offshore islands. And while he did order the bombardment in the end, he and his aides carefully monitored the level of US involvement thereafter, and the US response deterred them from taking the next step, a landing operation. It is extremely important that a comparable deterrent function in the Taiwan Strait today. Deterrence is strengthened when the United States communicates its interests in Taiwan’s defense and when the US and Taiwan, or the US and its allies in the region, cooperate on security measures oriented to the Taiwan Strait.

The second lesson is the vital role of diplomacy and international communication during a military crisis. Throughout the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, China’s diplomatic and foreign-policy apparatus was monitoring the reactions and responses of other stakeholder countries and deliberating the best way to establish the international legitimacy of its claims. In the process it came to understand, first, that its military action had alarmed other countries; second, that there was very little support for a Nationalist counteroffensive; and third, that public opinion was mounting in favor of internationally sponsored talks for a ceasefire or broader agreement based on a two-China solution to the Taiwan problem. These observations, taken together, helped convince Beijing to back down and bring the crisis to an end.

Also contributing to that decision was Moscow’s disapproval of Beijing’s aggressive actions at a time when China was under the Soviet Union’s “nuclear umbrella.” Of course, since then, China has developed its own nuclear arsenal, and its international clout is incomparably greater than it was 65 years ago. That said, China’s ties of mutual dependence with the rest of the international community have also deepened, and for this reason, we should not discount the impact of international opinion on Beijing’s policies. It is important, therefore, that we continue sending Beijing the message that the world will not tolerate any unilateral action to alter the status quo, while also clearly drawing the line at support for Taiwanese independence.

One Eye on China’s Domestic Situation

The third lesson of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis is that political developments within China and the Chinese Communist Party can affect Beijing’s policies toward Taiwan. An important factor contributing to the decision to bombard Kinmen in 1958 was the rise of forces within the CPC opposing Mao Zedong’s foreign and defense policies—including his emphasis (beginning in 1954) on “peaceful coexistence” and his Soviet-inspired modernization of the PLA—and sought to assert their own leadership in these areas.

Even today, the decision to undertake an invasion of Taiwan—which would almost certainly lead to US intervention and China’s international isolation—appears to rest primarily with Xi Jinping, who has continued to strengthen his centralized, top-down control over the party. Under the circumstances, while boosting deterrence and stressing the unacceptability of any attempt to alter the status quo by force, we must be aware of how domestic politics, including power relationships within the CPC, could impact decision making at the top.

In the 65 years since the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, China’s relative military strength and international clout have grown by several orders of magnitude. Yet through all those years, a system of deterrence, with China, Taiwan, and the United States as the main actors, has held sway in the Taiwan Strait, and the government of the Republic of China has maintained control over the key islands of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu, its de facto territory. With China increasingly flexing its military muscles in the Taiwan Strait, the time has doubtless come to consider new strategies. But that does not lessen the importance of studying and analyzing events like the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis to understand how deterrence, diplomacy, and other mechanisms have functioned to prevent such situations from developing into full-blown wars.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A defunct artillery base on the island of Kinmen, now open to tourists, photographed in July 2018. © Kyōdo.)

China Taiwan military Taiwan Strait Crisis