The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, also called the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis or the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, was the effect of a series of missile tests conducted by the People’s Republic of China in the waters surrounding Taiwan, including the Taiwan Strait from 21 July 1995 to 23 March 1996.
The first set of missiles fired in mid-to-late 1995 were allegedly intended to send a strong signal to the Republic of China government under Lee Teng-hui, who had been seen as moving its foreign policy away from the One-China policy. The second set of missiles were fired in early 1996, allegedly intending to intimidate the Taiwanese electorate in the run-up to the 1996 presidential election.
Lee’s 1995 Visit to Cornell
The crisis began when President Lee Teng-hui accepted an invitation from his alma mater, Cornell University to deliver a speech on “Taiwan’s Democratization Experience”. Seeking to diplomatically isolate the Republic of China, the PRC opposed such visits by ROC (Taiwanese) leaders. A year earlier, in 1994, when President Lee’s plane had stopped in Honolulu to refuel after a trip to South America, the US government under President Bill Clinton refused Lee’s request for a visa. Lee had been confined to the military airfield where he landed, forcing him to spend a night on his plane. A US State Department official called the situation “embarrassing” and Lee complained that he was being treated as a second-class leader.
After Lee had decided to visit Cornell, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher assured PRC Foreign Minister Qian Qichen that a visa for Lee would be “inconsistent with [the U.S.’s] unofficial relationship [with Taiwan].” However, the humiliation from Lee’s last visit caught the attention of many pro-Taiwan figures in the US and this time, the United States Congress acted on Lee’s behalf. In May 1995, a concurrent resolution asking the State Department to allow Lee to visit the US passed the House 396 to 0 with 38 not voting, and the Senate 97 to 1 with 2 not voting. The State Department relented on 22 May 1995. Lee spent 09-10 June 1995, in the US at a Cornell alumni reunion as the PRC state press branded him a “traitor” attempting to “split China”.
PRC Military Response
The PRC government was furious over the US’s policy reversal. On 07 July 1995, the Xinhua News Agency announced missile tests would be conducted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and argued that this would endanger the peace and safety of the region. At the same time, the PRC mobilised forces in Fujian. In the later part of July and early August numerous commentaries were published by Xinhua and the People’s Daily condemning Lee and his cross-strait policies.
Another set of missile firings, accompanied by live ammunition exercises, occurred from 15 to 25 August 1995. Naval exercises in August were followed by highly publicised amphibious assault exercises in November.
US Military Response
The US government responded by staging the biggest display of American military might in Asia since the Vietnam War. President Clinton ordered additional ships into the region in March 1996. Two aircraft carrier battle groups, Carrier Group Five centred on USS Nimitz, and Carrier Group Seven centred on USS Independence, were present in the region as well as the amphibious assault ship USS Belleau Wood. The Nimitz and her battle group and the Belleau Wood sailed through the Taiwan Strait, while the Independence did not. The crisis forced the Chinese leadership in 1996 to acknowledge its inability to stop US forces from coming to Taiwan’s assistance.
Run-up to the 1996 Election
Beijing intended to send a message to the Taiwanese electorate that voting for Lee Teng-hui in the 1996 presidential election on March 23 meant war. A third set of PLA tests from 08 to 15 March (just before the election), sent missiles within 46 to 65 km (25 to 35 nmi) (just inside the ROC’s territorial waters) off the ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung. Over 70 percent of commercial shipping passed through the targeted ports, which were disrupted by the proximity of the tests. Flights to Japan and trans-Pacific flights were prolonged by ten minutes because airplanes needed to detour away from the flight path. Ships traveling between Kaohsiung and Hong Kong had to take a two-hour detour.
On 08 March 1996, also a presidential election year in the US, the US government under President Clinton announced that it was deploying the USS Independence carrier battle group (CVBG), already stationed in the western Pacific, to international waters near Taiwan. On the following day, the PRC announced live-fire exercises to be conducted near Penghu from 12-20 March. On 11 March, the US dispatched Carrier Group Seven, centred on USS Nimitz, which steamed at high speed from the Persian Gulf. Tensions rose further on 15 March when Beijing announced a simulated amphibious assault planned for 18-25 March.
Sending two carrier battle groups showed not only a symbolic gesture towards the ROC, but a readiness to fight on the part of the US. The ROC government and Democratic Progressive Party welcomed America’s support, but staunch unificationist presidential candidate Lin Yang-kang and the PRC decried “foreign intervention.”
Aware of US Navy carrier battle groups’ credible threat to the PLA Navy, the PRC decided to accelerate its military buildup. Soon the People’s Republic ordered Sovremenny-class destroyers from Russia, a Cold War-era class designed to counter US Navy carrier battle groups, allegedly in mid-December 1996 during the visit to Moscow by Chinese Premier Li Peng. The PRC subsequently ordered modern attack submarines (Kilo class) and warplanes (76 Su-30MKK and 24 Su-30MK2) to counter the US Navy’s carrier groups.
The PRC’s attempts at intimidation were counterproductive. Arousing more anger than fear, it boosted Lee by 5% in the polls, earning him a majority as opposed to a mere plurality. The military tests and exercises also strengthened the argument for further US arms sales to the ROC and led to the strengthening of military ties between the US and Japan, increasing the role Japan would play in defending Taiwan.
During the military exercises in March, there were preoccupations in Taiwan that the PRC would occupy some small islands controlled by Taiwan, causing panic among many citizens. Therefore, many flights from Taiwan to the United States and Canada were full. The most likely target was Wuqiu (Wuchiu), then garrisoned by 500 soldiers. The outlying islands were placed on high alert. The then secretary general of the National Security Council of Taiwan, Ting Mao-shih, flew to New York to meet Samuel Berger, Deputy National Security Advisor of the United States.
According to Sankei Shimbun series “Secret Records on Lee Teng-hui” dated 01 April 2019, Zeng Yong-xian, Lee’s National Policy Adviser, received a message from China in early July 1995; “Our ballistic missiles will be launched toward Taiwan a couple of weeks later, but you don’t have to worry.” This was communicated to Lee soon after. Zeng, as an envoy of Lee, had met President Yang Shangkun in 1992 and had secret connection with Ye Xuanning, Head of the Liaison Department of the PLA.