Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-1996: Lessons Learned for Policy

By: Shirley Kan

Shirley Kan, retired specialist in Asian security affairs who worked for the US Congress at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) and a member of the Advisory Board of GTI.[1]

After the phone call on December 2, 2016, when Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen congratulated President-elect Donald Trump, mainstream media and analysts sounded the alarms and invoked the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-1996 to raise the spectre of tension due to “provocations” from Taipei and Washington that “surprised” Beijing so it had to respond.

There are the typical references to US “mishandling” of the “visa fight” for Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui’s 1995 visit that resulted in that “missile” crisis.  In this conventional narrative, the problematic parties are the US politicians and Taiwan’s president who push to change policy and thus “trigger” a crisis that upsets the “status quo” with China.  A visa supposedly led to ballistic missiles and aircraft carriers.

However, a key lesson learned is that this conventional assumption does not serve US and allied interests in maintaining peace and stability. An informed narrative would dispel dangerous misperceptions and counter China’s political warfare that justifies its threats by blaming the United States or Taiwan (for a visa or call).[2]

According to the conventional assumption, Congressional pressure forced the reversal of President Clinton’s decision that ultimately granted a visa to President Lee to speak at his alma mater, Cornell University. Giving the visa was an adjustment in policy, because, in May 1994, President Clinton allowed Lee to make only a “refuelling stop” for “rest” in Honolulu’s airport but denied him a visa.  Congress then overwhelmingly passed the bipartisan H.Con.Res. 53, but it was non-binding legislation to express the sense of Congress that the President should welcome a visit by Lee to Cornell.

Yet, Beijing did not so-call “respond” to a mishandling of a visa by Washington that was manipulated by Taipei.  China’s rulers already had decided by 1993 on a new Main Strategic Direction(主要戰略方向) to build military capabilities oriented to target Taiwan. As signals of this critical decision, China’s leadership used especially harsh, belligerent language in warnings to Taiwan in 1992 and 1993. Moreover, in January 1993, Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman Jiang Zemin gave a speech that directed the new “Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period” (新時期軍事戰略方針).  The Guidelines apparently oriented the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s Main Strategic Direction to the area off China’s east coast, primarily Taiwan. In 1993, China issued a White Paper on Taiwan that explicitly cited the use of military options.

The PLA’s threat to Taiwan has grown since the early 1990s.  China did not suddenly decide to order PLA exercises in 1995 to intimidate Taiwan as a so-called “response” to Lee’s visit to the United States. Nonetheless, the timing of military exercises in 1995-1996 also served objectives in political warfare against the United States and against voters in Taiwan’s first direct, democratic presidential election.

Also, the PLA did not suddenly get M-9 missiles to threaten Taiwan after Lee visited the US On June 12, 1995, just three days after Lee’s speech at Cornell, there was a warning that the PLA would use missiles. As an important indicator of this provocative move, the Liberation Army Daily published an article on the utility of “conventional” ballistic missiles. On top of high-level orders to the PLA, it had the opportunity of using an inventory of M-9 short-range ballistic missiles after China cancelled a sale of the missiles to Syria due to US diplomatic pressure and sanctions since the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, China promised to abide by the international Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

Thus, the PLA did not plan, deploy units, and execute large-scale exercises with missiles under a new military strategy with multiple phases and reviews by senior-ranking generals in just months after a US visa for Lee. The extensive exercises sought to train for capabilities that the CMC directed by 1993.

Lessons Learned

What were short-term lessons for the Clinton and Bush Administrations in changing policy? First, US military and defence officials needed closer communication and cooperation with Taiwan. After the 1995-1996 crisis, the Defence Department, in 1997, started bilateral talks on national security with Taiwan’s top officials in defence and security, which also have been called the Monterey Talks. Second, the US military also needed to improve its understanding of Taiwan’s military capabilities. Starting in 1997, the Pentagon conducted its own series of assessments of Taiwan’s requirements for self-defence. Third, in 2001, the US restored observations of Taiwan’s Han Kuang exercises (漢光演習) and approved key arms sales.

What are lessons for current consideration as Washington moves forward in crafting policy? First, clear, credible statements and actions are critical. Policymakers need to be clear about consequences and signals. The President needs to restore a clear, credible arms sales process with regular decisions and notifications to Congress of arms sales in compliance with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

Second, US deterrence using shows of force has its limits in dealing with the PLA.  Therefore, Taiwan needs to be stronger in deterrence and self-defence. Taiwan needs to upgrade its military with more urgency and resources in the face of China’s threats of coercion or conflict, understanding that the PLA is operationalising the targeting of Taiwan in peacetime, not just in case of war.

Third, the President’s close consultation with Congress is critical for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Fourth, in case of another crisis, the President should consult with Congress under Section 3(c) of the TRA, which requires the President to inform Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and to determine the US response along with Congress. In March 1996, President Clinton refused to invoke Section 3(c).

Fifth, the United States needs closer communication with both Taiwan and China to dispel misperceptions. Washington needs to deal with dangers of divergence with Taipei. Sixth, American leadership is needed to support the democratic legitimacy of Taiwan with international space. Seventh, the United States and Taiwan should conduct exercises for crisis-management, interoperability, and training. Eighth, Taiwan should seek support from Congress, not only focusing on the President and his officials. Ninth, Taiwan needs to improve strategic communication to gain international support and to counter the PLA’s political warfare in peacetime.

Last but not least, governments and news media need the right record to replace reporting and propaganda that blames Taiwan for “trouble” and “tensions” instead of Beijing’s provocations and belligerence.

The main point:  An accurate narrative dispels the blame on a visa for the Taiwan Strait Crisis. The PLA’s provocative, dangerous military exercises in 1995 and 1996 resulted from decisions made in the early 1990s. The new Trump administration has an opportunity to improve interactions with Taiwan, rather than responding belatedly in case of another crisis (like in 1995-1996) to adjust the approach to policy in order to maintain stability and peace.


1. This brief article draws from the author’s longer presentation at a conference that Project 2049 Institute held on December 13, 2016, in Washington, DC, on the 20th anniversary of that Taiwan Strait Crisis.
2. A classic example of the conventional narrative is found in Paul Godwin and Alice Miller’s study published by the National Defense University in 2013, China’s Forbearance Has Limits.  It states:  “The 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait crisis was triggered by the decision of the Clinton administration— after months of advising Beijing that it would not do so—to grant Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui a visa to visit his alma mater, Cornell University, where he had earned a Ph.D. in 1968 in agricultural economics. … In summary, Beijing deployed its warnings hierarchy at a high, authoritative level in reaction to a US reversal of policy that clearly surprised and embarrassed it. Its warnings were calculated to press Washington to reverse itself, and when that failed, it responded with political steps to express its displeasure, complemented by a prolonged series of military exercises intended to underscore its readiness to defend its sovereignty against further slight.”

For more details, please refer to the original text, Global Taiwan Brief – Volume 2, Issue 1.

Global Taiwan Institute

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