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Crisis in the Taiwan


Edited by
James R. Lilley and Chuck Downs

National Defense University Press June 1997

ISBN 1579060005
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This volume consists of an introduction and eleven essays on the military

confrontation in the Taiwan Strait in 1996. The essays discuss the historical roots
of the crisis, Chinese military objectives, the military balance between the
mainland and Taiwan, the positions taken by other regional powers, and policies
that might avert future crises.

James R. Lilley is a resident fellow at AEI. He served as U.S. ambassador to the

People’s Republic of China from 1989 to 1991 and as assistant secretary of
defense for international security affairs from 1991 to 1993. Chuck Downs is
deputy director for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Department of Defense.
This summary is drawn from their introduction.

In March 1996 in the closing days before Taiwan’s first presidential election, the
USS Nimitz carrier battle group, on duty in the Mediterranean, was redirected
through Southeast Asia toward Taiwan. As a military maneuver, the action was
complex but not exceptionally difficult. Yet because of its significance to regional
politics and diplomacy and its long-range implications for the preservation of
stability, the action could well be recorded as a watershed event in American
security policy in Asia.

The first popular election of a chief executive in China’s long history was
accompanied by a display of frustration from Beijing. China test-fired missiles into
areas near Taiwan’s two busiest ports, into commercial shipping and
transportation lanes. Naturally, concerns over the accuracy of Chinese missiles
and questions regarding China’s larger intentions worried Taiwan’s citizens.
Nevertheless, they turned out for the balloting and cast the majority of their votes
for the candidate who had so displeased Beijing, Lee Teng-hui.

An uneasy standoff continues to separate the heirs to competing factions in the

Chinese civil war. The people of Taiwan benefit in some ways from the military
stalemate reached in 1949; their distinct status, for example, has allowed them to
develop democratic institutions that bear little resemblance to the form of
government in Beijing. But they face perils as well. The People’s Republic of
China (PRC) views Taiwan as sovereign Chinese territory that has resisted
central authority for almost fifty years. Beijing seeks reunification by peaceful
means--but through force if necessary. Its behavior during the presidential
election reminded the world that it poses a challenge to Taiwan’s security.

Tensions on both sides of the Taiwan Strait rose as Chinese missile exercises
were staged to intimidate Taiwan’s voters. In Washington, members of the U.S.
Congress, demonstrating sympathy for and solidarity with Taiwan’s emergent
democracy, called on the Clinton administration to take steps to reassure
Taiwan’s citizenry and to reassert American power in the western Pacific. The
administration accomplished this by sending in the Nimitz carrier battle group.
The first carrier on the scene, the USS Independence, and a number of its
reprinted with permission from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
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auxiliary vessels, had already been ordered to waters off Taiwan to monitor the
missile exercises. Permanently stationed in Japan, the Independence would
routinely monitor any major regional military exercise. Sending the second
carrier, however, signaled American concern and resolve. When actions
themselves are clear signals, little needs to be said about intentions. The Nimitz
was redirected toward Taiwan, explained administration spokesmen at the
Pentagon and the White House, "in an effort to maintain peace and stability in the
Taiwan Strait."

International crises like the one in the Taiwan Strait can emerge and recede
without sustained public attention to the issues involved. All too often, the
causes, potential consequences, intense emotions, and estimated risks that are
clear at the time of a crisis fade immediately afterward. Especially in situations
like the crisis in the Taiwan Strait, where the risks to American interests were
high but the level of general knowledge among the American public was low,
crises can pass with little public debate. The absence of debate in turn can mean
that the lessons for policy makers are never learned, the root causes are never
addressed, and the ambiguities are never clarified.

The American Enterprise Institute accordingly asked eleven analysts to write

papers assessing key aspects of the crisis in the Taiwan Strait.



continue to plague the Taipei-Beijing relationship, their

historical bases, and their culmination in the current contest
over international diplomatic recognition. "The present
impasse may be protracted," she concludes, because, "like
skilled chess players, the two sides calculate each move
with an eye toward keeping the opponent in check. The
mainland seeks to counter any Taiwan move that would
strengthen its credentials for sovereignty. Taiwan tries to
block any mainland move that would reduce the island to the
status of a province of the PRC."


that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) "is presently ill-

prepared to storm Taiwan." Nevertheless, because military
commanders believe they may be called on to launch an
attack against Taiwan, "urgent efforts are being made to
rectify glaring weaknesses." Mr. Cheung concludes that the
tools the PLA can exploit to flex its military might against
Taiwan include missile firings, military exercises, and limited
sea and air blockades. "Establishing a credible deterrence to
Taiwan’s independence will be one of the PLA’s top priorities
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for the foreseeable future," he suggests, and accordingly,

"more resources will be devoted to building the capabilities
to mount a successful invasion of Taiwan."


spending on its military, observing that the PRC’s published

figure of approximately US $8.4 billion marks the eighth year
of double-digit growth. But a more accurate estimate of
Chinese military spending, Bitzinger concludes, is in the
range of $28-$50 billion. What China seeks to do with such a
large investment in defense modernization is clearly of
concern to Taiwan. "Improvements in China’s military force
structure could be used to seize Taiwan by force, or, at the
very least, intimidate Taipei politically, economically, and
psychologically into accepting reunification on Beijing’s
terms," Mr. Bitzinger notes. To accomplish that, however,
would require the greater exploitation of foreign technology.


rationalizing its arms production and procurement policy. Mr.

Gill points out that China has the potential to reach higher
levels of operational capability quickly, primarily because of
the assistance of Russian and Israeli suppliers. For the next
ten years, China’s ability to undertake military action against
Taiwan appears to Mr. Gill to be limited "to such activities as
low-level military harassment and possibly stand-off missile

:KDW&KLna might attempt to do with technological

modernization from foreign sources is clearly very important.

Harlan W. Jencks takes an admittedly hypothetical guess at
what Chinese defense planners might dream of doing in the
long range. "By 2010 or so," he posits, "China’s existing
long-range nuclear forces not only may be more numerous,
but their targeting may also have improved sufficiently that
PLA missiles could target American carrier battle groups in
the Western Pacific." The sort of carrier diplomacy carried
out in March 1996 would then become more dangerous.

In addition to reviewing more traditional scenarios involving

missile attacks, invasion, or assaults on Taiwan, Mr. Jencks
raises the specter of a "cyber attack," an electronic assault
"on computers and communications systems using logic
bombs, viruses or other computer-based attacks that deny,
destroy, disrupt, or manipulate defense and economic data."
Taiwan’s modern economy is reliant on high-tech record
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keeping and management systems. It is therefore vulnerable

to "information warfare," which Mr. Jencks points out "could
conceivably change the nature of warfare in the next decade
as fundamentally as did air power or even gunpowder."


ballistic missiles to intimidate Taiwan in July 1995 and March

1996 as "the most intensive use of nuclear-capable missiles
for intimidation by any of the nuclear powers." While political
intimidation was the primary objective for China, the missile
exercises also highlighted an area of the PLA’s competence
and a glaring hole in Taiwan’s defense. Furthermore, the
missile firings illustrated the vulnerabilities of vital air and sea
links surrounding Taiwan.


China’s strong suit, two other branches of the People’s

Liberation Army have a potential role in conflict in the strait.
Retired air force colonel Kenneth W. Allen notes that the
People’s Liberation Army Air Force has become the third
largest air force in the world, but PLAAF pilots do not train
extensively for combat and the maintenance system is
inadequate. Retired admiral Eric McVadon concludes that
the Chinese exercises in the strait were not an invasion
rehearsal, as many people at the time suggested. He
observes that the PRC has not built an amphibious and
logistic force to carry out an invasion of Taiwan and judges
that the exercises in the strait did not employ the kinds of
forces that would be necessary for such an invasion. In his
assessment of the potential for conflict in the strait, Mr.
McVadon’s analysis, like China’s, takes American
capabilities into account. He points out that "PLA naval ships
and aircraft are not able to conduct effective combat
operations against the U.S. Navy." Beijing is fully aware that
American carrier battle groups can "prevent the PLA from
deploying from its naval bases" and from "accomplishing


American strategy of emphasizing the ambiguity of its

response leaves room for worry. Alexander Chieh-cheng
Huang offers insights into the problems that are posed for
Taiwan’s strategic planning. Mr. Huang recognizes Taiwan’s
strategic significance to China as "the key to China’s
maritime defense, its gateway to the high seas, and a
chokepoint of Asia-Pacific sea lanes of communications." He
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describes the comparative strategic depth that the PRC

maintains, compared with the relatively narrow field of
responses Taiwan can pursue. China’s overwhelming
military advantage over Taiwan, Mr. Huang writes, gives
Beijing great freedom of choice in the timing, magnitude, and
location of military actions. Taiwan’s strategy of "defensive
defense," in contrast, rules out provocative or preemptive
military actions against the mainland.

"How Taiwan maintains a sufficient edge both in hardware

and in the quality of its officer corps is the key to Taiwan’s
deterrence strategy," Mr. Huang points out. Yet Taiwan
faces enormous difficulties in locating and purchasing
weapons systems based on its own defense planning.
Military plans, he asserts, are often altered because of
differences between the desired systems and the systems
Taiwan can obtain. The PRC’s pressure on arms-producing
countries plays a role in determining what weapons systems
will be provided by those countries to Taiwan. Diplomatic
isolation makes Taiwan uncertain about its foreign military
procurement program and possible international reactions to
an armed conflict across the Taiwan Strait.


the Korean academic and defense community that Taiwan,

as a mid-level military power with relatively transparent
defense records, should participate in multilateral regional
security dialogues because it cannot do more than contribute
to regional stability. He recommends that, to help deter and
defuse cross-strait tensions, the United States should
maintain regular and frequent high-level contacts with
Beijing. His chapter assesses the role of other regional
powers, particularly Korea and Japan, in efforts to resolve
tensions in the strait.


return to the carefully drafted, precisely worded American

policies that sought to establish relations with the PRC while
protecting Taiwan’s security. He explains how the PRC and
the United States have both drifted from the original meaning
of the fundamental communiqu s and the Taiwan Relations
Act. The PRC, Mr. Waldron says, is using "salami tactics" to
remove the bits it dislikes, slice by slice, while keeping the
rest. He observes, for example, "that China would like to
maintain the American commitment to Beijing--no official
relations, no military forces protecting Taiwan--while
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discarding the Chinese undertaking--no threat to Taiwan."

For its part, the United States is also muddling the original
terms; many government and foreign policy experts believe
that the basic problems were solved with "normalization" with
the PRC. He identifies a "subterranean political struggle
between those who saw Sino-American normalization as the
beginning of the end for Taiwan, and those who drafted
legislation and took diplomatic initiatives to ensure Taiwan’s
continued survival."

Mr. Waldron observes that Taiwan’s democratization and the

PRC’s turn toward repression since 1989 drive home the
necessity of ensuring Taiwan’s security with every new step
to enhance relations with the PRC. "When the PRC is testing
military rather than peaceful means to deal with Taiwan," he
advises, "it makes no sense for us to reaffirm the August
1982 communiqu or give assurances that arms sales to
Taiwan will be curtailed. Rather, we should tell Beijing
authoritatively that military preparations in the Taiwan area
will unravel the whole PRC-U.S. relationship and that the
use of force will continue to elicit a strong American
response. That, after all, was the deal in the 1970s."


Crisis in the Taiwan Strait attempts to come to grips with all the complex factors
in a troubling situation--essentially the same effort American policy makers have
been making since the time of the Chinese civil war. America has tried to
maintain regional peace and security. Taiwan has been assured of our support
and China of our interest in peace. The United States does not seek a split
between Taipei and Beijing; it seeks to guarantee peace. China will not commit to
reunification through peaceful means alone, and Taiwan will not accept terms it
finds repugnant for reunification. Time may heal this simmering crisis; progress
has clearly been made in the past generation. Yet time is purchased by
deterrence, and deterrence is accomplished by military power at great cost and
considerable risk. Resolve is strong on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and the
depth of commitment to seemingly irreconcilable principles cannot be dismissed
and will not readily be changed.

The events of March 1996 may be repeated, despite the fact that the crisis
probably redounded to the detriment of its instigators. Understanding the
instability of the situation in the strait and the probability of a similar situation
arising in the future, the authors of this book have assessed the critical factors
involved in the crisis. Their essays will inform a debate that is all too likely to be
heard again.
reprinted with permission from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research