The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis Revisited

The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis and Security Treaty Revision in Japan


During the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958, the islands of Kinmen and Matsu were repeatedly shelled, eliciting strong interest even in Japan. These events contributed to Japan’s fear of entrapment in a Sino-Taiwanese conflict and played a major role in controversies surrounding the revision of US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty over the next two years.

The increased likelihood of a “Taiwan contingency” or conflict has garnered increased attention in Japan recently and influenced security discussions and reforms. This is not the first time. During the early Cold War, the Taiwan Strait and in particular Kinmen Island were the focus of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis that in turn influenced debate surrounding the revision of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty during the Kishi Nobusuke administration (1957–60).

The Cold War, “Hot Wars” in Asia, and Japan

War was a constant in East Asia for almost 50 years beginning in the 1930s. After the Japanese military staged the Manchurian Incident in 1931, armed conflict raged on through World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, finishing with the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979. The Cold War in East Asia was in fact characterized by a series of hot wars; only after they ceased did the region as a whole begin to enjoy economic prosperity.

While Japan was responsible for initiating regional conflict in 1930s, following its surrender in 1945, it consciously avoided direct involvement in regional conflicts due to its self-identification as a “peace nation.” Nevertheless, the Japanese people and politicians contemplated the possibility of Japan being involved in one of these hot wars during the Kishi administration. Kishi sought to revise the 1951 US-Japan Security Treaty and replace it with one that gave Japan more independence. This new treaty would increase Japan’s own burden and mutuality with the United States, but precipitated strong opposition and protests in Japan. Along with general antiwar sentiment, it seems that many in Japan were anxious about the nation being “drawn into” or “entrapped” in conflict in East Asia as the consequence of a strengthened US-Japan alliance.

The most serious armed conflict that took place around Japan at the time was the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958. In this “war,” Kinmen Island, controlled by the Republic of China (Taiwan), was constantly shelled by the communist People’s Republic of China. In later stages, the ROC retaliated by bombing the recently opened Xiamen Railway Station in Fujian Province. The Japanese media reported daily on events surrounding Kinmen, and the conflict was widely discussed in the Diet. Occupied by Japan during the Sino-Japanese War, Kinmen had previously attracted little attention. Suddenly it was in the spotlight.

The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis

Kinmen is located within viewing distance right across from Fujian Province’s city of Xiamen. Together with the surrounding islands, Kinmen only covers an area of 150 square kilometers. It was historically known as a gateway for Chinese migrating overseas to Japan and Southeast Asia and produced many officials for the imperial Chinese bureaucracy. During the Chinese Civil War, the Chinese Communists relentlessly pushed the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalists) further and further south. It was at Kinmen, during the Battle of Guningtou in October 1949, that the Kuomintang were finally able to stem the tide of losses.

Having become a “symbol of victory” for the Kuomintang Army, Kinmen Island effectively became the frontline of military confrontation with China during the Cold War. The Chinese Civil War did not end with the establishment of the PRC on October 1, 1949. Conflict over the Taiwan Strait continued, and only after the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis did the confrontation become somewhat stable and “ritualized.”

Military tensions nevertheless remained high even after the withdrawal of American forces from Taiwan in 1979. On May 1, 1991, the Republic of China abandoned its mainland counteroffensive policy by abolishing the “Temporary Provisions against the Communist Rebellion,” which also had the effect of imposing restrictions on civil liberties in Taiwan. Kinmen was now reborn as the front line of cross-strait exchange.

Well before that, however, came the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, when Kinmen was bombarded by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army beginning on August 23, 1958. Over a month and a half, the PLA blanketed the island with up to 500,000 shells. Kinmen became a topic of concern in the Diet and Japanese media commentary. Iwanami Shoten’s widely read Sekai news journal ran a special feature on the events in its November 1958 issue titled “The Taiwan Strait Crisis and Japan.” One commentator argued that, based on the 1951 US-Japan Security Treaty, “If the United States deemed it necessary for the peace and security of the Far East and took military action against China to defend Kinmen—a small island only three miles from the Chinese mainland and over 100 miles from Taiwan—the Treaty would not in the slightest way restrain the use of Japanese bases by the United States.”

Kinmen and Negotiations on the US-Japan Security Treaty

However, it was not until after the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis calmed down in December 1958 that Kinmen became more widely discussed in Japan. This is because, on June 27, 1959, the Yomiuri Shimbun published the negotiated draft of a revised US-Japan Security Treaty. While Japan would take up greater “mutual defense obligations,” Article 6 of the new treaty included a “Far East clause,” much like the old treaty.

This immediately raised concern in the Diet. On July 3, Socialist Party member Tokano Satoko questioned the government during a meeting of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee as to the “rough” geographical scope of the Far East clause. Minister for Foreign Affairs Fujiyama Ichirō could only reply, “It is not yet clear.” On July 26, the Asahi Shimbun complained that “the use of the phrase ‘maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East’ in the same way as the current treaty may give the public the impression that Japan is obligated to defend the Far East to the same extent as the United States”. Even some in the governing Liberal Democratic Party were concerned about the vague scope of the “Far East” in Article 6.

Asanuma Inejirō of the Socialist Party made direct reference to prior conflict around Kinmen and Matsu on October 28, when he expressed his concern in the Diet about Japan being compelled to intervene in conflicts in the “Far East” in the name of “peace and security of the region.” During the November 19 Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, Socialist Hoashi Kei similarly raised a hypothetical example of the dangers of alliance entrapment using Kinmen:

Suppose that the United States used Japanese bases to bomb Fujian or Beijing during a battle for Kinmen and Matsu Islands. As the proposed revisions to the security treaty have strengthened and clarified defense mutuality between the United States and Japan, unlike the previous treaty, Japanese bases would naturally be the target of retaliatory bombing. We will automatically and inevitably become entrapped in war.

Following such debate, on February 26, 1960, the Japanese government, issued a unified opinion stating that the “Far East” was “roughly” the area surrounding Japan north of the Philippines, including the areas under control of South Korea and the Republic of China. This effectively meant the Kinmen Island came under the provisions of the Far East clause in the new US-Japan Security Treaty.

Only a couple of weeks earlier, the February 13 evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun ran an article titled, “Today’s Issue: Unrest in the Far East.” The commentary assered:

Nothing is more puzzling these days than the attitude of the government as seen in the Kinmen-Matsu Diet controversy. In the summer and fall of 1958, the region experienced rough seas due to the conflict in the Taiwan Strait focused on Kinmen and Matsu Islands. At that time, Japanese public opinion actually supported negotiations for a revision of the existing Security Treaty, fearing the terrible danger and consequences of conflict between mainland China and Taiwan with the Soviet Union and the United States in the background.

However, the authors questioned whether the revised treaty would make Japan safer, and rather that the continued inclusion of a Far East Clause meant that, “in the eyes of the Japanese people, Kinmen and Matsu Islands are not symbolic of ‘peace and security in the Far East,’ but rather symbols of danger and insecurity.” The article points out that “even the US-ROC Security Treaty does not cover Kinmen and Matsu,” while the Japan-US Security Treaty does. It was therefore “irksome that the fate of Japan is linked to these islands due to the deployment of the US military to Japan. The Japanese people strongly oppose the Far East clause and question the purpose of revising the treaty in the first place.”

Ishihara Yūjirō’s Movie

Whatever the merits of Asahi Shimbun argument, Japanese society was obviously keenly aware of Kinmen at this time. Symbolizing this high level of interest was the November 1962 release of the film Kinmontō ni kakeru hashi (Rainbow over Kinmen), jointly produced by Japan’s Nikkatsu and Taiwan’s Central Motion Picture Corporation. This romance was shot on location both in Taiwan and Kinmen Island.

In the film, Ishihara Yūjirō plays a doctor, Takei Ichirō, who meets a young woman, Yang Li-chun (Hua Hsin), in Tokyo while treating wounded soldiers from the Korean War. Takei is forced out of the hospital due to medical troubles, but three years later reunites with Yang in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. When Takei heads for Kinmen Island, Yang comes after him. Reportedly the ending of the film stimulated much debate in both Japan and Taiwan, but the fact that Kinmen became the subject of a film produced by major companies is significant.

The title is also significant. It is easy to imagine that the Japanese title, literally “A Bridge over Kinmen,” was inspired by the epic war film The Bridge on the River Kwai. Using the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway as the historical setting, the Japanese title of the American-British film—Senjō ni kakeru hashi—can be literally translated as “A Bridge over a Battlefield.” That Kinmen stands in for “battlefield” in the Japanese-Taiwanese production likely reflects the perception of the island as a conflict zone widely held in Japan at the time.

After this peak in interest, Kinmen never reached the same significance in Japanese society. Even when debate over a Taiwan contingency and Japan’s national security ramped up again in the 2010s, Kinmen Island was no longer perceived as the frontline. Today, Japanese strategic perceptions and debate over entrapment emanating from a potential “Taiwan contingency” are now focused on the much larger main island of Taiwan.

(Originally Published in Japanese. Banner photo: A defensive fence that remains on the coast of Kinmen Island to prevent a PLA landing. It is made of railway rails cut into sharp bars. © Pixta.)

China Taiwan military Taiwan Strait Crisis