The Taiwan Straits Crisis – Leadership Makes a Difference

In 1979, President Carter recognized Beijing. While many viewed this change in foreign

Taiwan welcomes U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960 (Wikipedia)

Taiwan welcomes U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960 (Wikipedia)

policy as a victory, Taiwan did not. Along with the South China Sea, parts of Vietnam and other areas in Asia, China believes it owns Taiwan. To make political hay on the China deal the U.S. had to forsake Taiwan. To that end, foreign relations with Taiwan was severed. However, moral courage flagged and the U.S., like a codependent partner, adopted the Taiwan Relations Act that formally kept relations with “the people of Taiwan”.  Through this act billions in trade and weapons have been transacted.

A simple ten minute phone call between President-elect Trump and Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president sent shivers through the press and federal government. Oh my, China is upset. Before we jump to the conclusion that the world is about to end, it might benefit us to understand China has something to lose as well. On the other hand, Bob Dole, a lobbyist for the Taiwanese government and deep ties to the military industrial complex allegedly arranged the now-famous ‘telephone’ call. The lobbying swamp in Washington D.C. is indeed deep and wide.  Perhaps it is time to be codependent no more. Of course, non-stop undeclared wars will bankrupt the state financially and morally.  More than once the U.S. and China have come perilously close to blows over Taiwan. Close, but no blows were launched.

Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000) The inventor of spread spectrum technique and frequency hopping. Why we have cell phones and wifi.

Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000) The inventor of spread spectrum technique and frequency hopping. Why we have cell phones and wifi.

Sixty years have come and gone, but the sun has yet to set on the Taiwan Straits Crisis. Stranded on the rocky island of secrecy amid the storms of the Cold War (1947-1991), the mists of time should not be permitted to veil the lessons that must be learned.  In the U.S. during the early 1950s, Eisenhower was in office, China was engaged in a civil war, the Soviets were antsy, and the Air Force longed to hear the words  ‘the pickle is hot’ indicating they were free to unload armaments. The only thing missing from the high-tension plot was a bevy of brilliant beauties unless, of course, you consider Madam Chiang Kai-shek and Hedy Lamar.

Like a fine dining experience, the Taiwan Straits crisis unfolds in courses paired with the appropriate drink. In the late 1920s, China engaged in a great civil war. Following the final gasp of the Qing Dynasty in 1917, China was an unwieldy briar patch. From the political vacuum of swirling cultures and societal chaos coupled with the sheer size of the country, two primary competing forces emerged; Mao Tse-tung who would be at the helm of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) with a Communist agenda and Chiang Kai-Shek (ROC) who would lead the forces that did not want communism.

Both leaders were nasty pieces of work. Each was brutal and inhumane during their respective rule. Mao Tse-tung, wins the prize for the greatest mass murderer the world has ever seen.  According

to the Heritage Foundation’s Lee Edwards, Ph.D., “…an estimated 65 million Chinese died as a result of Mao’s repeated, merciless attempts to create a new “socialist” China. Anyone who got in his way was done away with — by execution, imprisonment or forced famine.”…[1] Chiang Kai-Shek

Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) and Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling) (1897-2003)

Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) and Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling) (1897-2003)

, with about 10 million deaths on his soul, is no piker.[2] The battles between Chiang and Mao raged for a decade between 1927 and 1937. Chiang Kai-shek finally pushed Mao Tse-tung into Shaanxi, a remote rocky, barren site in northeastern China when, in July 1937, Japan invaded China. Chiang Kai-Shek won the first round.  Back in the west, the upsets in China were noted and then fell into obscurity with the burning challenges of the Great Depression, the advent of WWII and the early portents of the Cold War (1947-1991). Course one is served.

WWII signaled the rise of the United States as a major player on the military stage. China was viewed as a ‘victim’ of the Japanese. The U.S. and Britain were practically giddy over the dream that, after the war, China would become the lynch pin of stability in East Asia and a strong western ally. Beginning in 1941 the U.S. pumped millions of dollars into the region. By 1943, treaties between the U.S., Britain, and China were rewritten, signed and the U.S. had boots on the ground. About then harsh reality settled in as the U.S. tried, without success, to mend the Chinese fences between Mao Tse-tung’s Communist factions and

Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976), President, Peoples Republic of China

Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976), President, Peoples Republic of China

Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist factions.  By the end of WWII, the Marines were told to hold Beiping (Beijing) and the northern city of Tianjin against a possible Soviet incursion. Recently retired General George C. Marshall attempted to negotiate a truce between the PRC and ROC factions in 1946. It quickly fell apart as neither the Communists nor the Nationalists were of a mind to compromise and the U.S. withdrew to deal with the European challenges of reparation. Back in the U.S., the division over whether to intervene on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek or not was beginning to deepen and harden. The second course was served with red wine.

Beginning in 1949, Mao Tse-Tung activated the military plan he had been formulating for years in his virtual prison in Shaanxi. By October 1949, Mao had bowled over Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, which fell like ten pins, and Chiang retreated to Taiwan where he formally established the Republic of China. Meanwhile in the rest of the world; Russia detonated its first nuke…gasp… and, in the U.S., the Republicans and Democrats were at it hammer and tongs over the victory of Mao’s Communists on mainland China and the Nationalists’ fate on Taiwan. Nuclear War became a real specter and the U.S. was anticipating the silly season, election time. Just in case the plate was not full enough, in June 1950, the Communists launched a second offensive with its opening salvo in Korea.

In the debate over what to do about the changed military situation in Korea following the second, and massive, Chinese military intervention in late November 1950, Marshall opposed a cease-fire with the Chinese – it would represent a “great weakness on our part”-and added that the United States could not in “all good conscience” abandon the South Koreans. When British Prime Minister Clement Attlee suggested negotiations with the Chinese, Marshall expressed opposition, arguing that it was almost impossible to negotiate with the Chinese Communists; he also expressed fear of the effects on Japan and the Philippines of concessions to the Communists. At the same time Marshall sought ways to avoid a wider war with China. When many in Congress favored an expanded war, Marshall was among the administration leaders who, in February 1951, stressed the paramount importance to the United States of Western Europe.[3]

 The infighting within the U.S. political and military establishment was intense. General MacArthur,

Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, Commanding General, U.S. Sixth Army (left), General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander, Allied Forces, Southwest Pacific Area, and General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army (right) At a field headquarters in the Southwest Pacific Area, late 1943. (Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Photo #: SC 183951)

Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, Commanding General, U.S. Sixth Army (left), General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander, Allied Forces, Southwest Pacific Area, and General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army (right) At a field headquarters in the Southwest Pacific Area, late 1943. (Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Photo #: SC 183951)

who oversaw the Allied occupation of postwar Japan and led United Nations forces in the Korean War disagreed strongly with the now retired General Marshall on how best to address the Communist aggression in East Asia. MacArthur was in favor of using all available force, including nukes, to back the Chinese Communists and Stalin off. Eventually, the rift grew so deep and open that the popular MacArthur managed to get himself fired by Truman. The Republicans in Congress went nuts and, in January, 1953, Republican President Eisenhower was sworn into office. This course was finally over and it was served with hard liquor.

The fourth course is light by comparison. In 1954, Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC occupied the islands of Taiwan and, further north, the Dachen Islands; these island groupings are very close to mainland China and the waters between them are known as the Taiwan Straits. To this day, both sides of the Chinese Civil War still view the Islands as strategically important because they present a launch platform from which to invade

Taiwan Straits

Taiwan Straits

mainland China. From time-to-time in the early 1950s they bombed each other. The Korean War kept the Chinese warring factions separated through the presence of the U.S. Fleet. The U.S. ‘maybe’ switch of sentiments that would have allowed Mao to retake the islands turned to a definite ‘No’ as a result of Korea. After the Korean War in September 1954, the PRC tried the U.S.resolve when it began bombing the northern islands. The United States signed a Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan, which promised support to the ROC if the PRC engaged in a broader conflict.[4]  Like pieces on a chess board forever advancing and retreating, the confrontations continued throughout 1954. In 1955, Congress passed the ‘Formosa Resolution’, giving President Eisenhower the authority to defend Taiwan and the northern islands. The U.S. let it be known far and wide that Taiwan would be defended against communist attack. A quiet deal on the side was struck with Chiang Kai-shek to defend Jinmen and Mazu, in trade for his exiting Dachen. By 1955, the PRC inexplicably backed down and the pressure was off.

By 1958, the U.S. was center stage with its decision to intervene in Lebanon. Mao and the PRC

Nikita S. Khrushchev (1894-1971) First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964

Nikita S. Khrushchev (1894-1971) First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964

took full advantage of the spotlight to resume bombing of Jinmen and Mazu. When Taiwan could not re-supply their military bases on the off-shore islands, the U.S. did so. The U.S. intervention brought an abrupt end to the bombardment and, once again, eased the crisis. “Eventually, the PRC and ROC came to an arrangement in which they shelled each other’s garrisons on alternate days. This continued for twenty years until the PRC and the United States normalized relations.”(See Footnote 4). Dessert has been served.

The snifter of good cognac and a cigar is in recently released documents that illustrate the internal contest Eisenhower fought to control the military. On January 12, 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced that the United States would protect its allies through the “deterrent of massive retaliatory power” during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. This doctrine was a reflection of the deep divide that opened with the perception that the Truman administration was weak on Communism. The Air Force was anxious to proceed with strategic ‘massive retaliation’[5] and had battled the other branches of the military that argued for a more tactical approach.

Two serendipitous events, one on the U.S. side and one in the Soviet Union, kept the world from a headlong dive into the shallow pool of total nuclear annihilation in the 1958 Taiwan Straits Crisis. First President Eisenhower required the Air Force to plan initially to use conventional bombs against Chinese forces if the crisis escalated. Secondly, the Soviet Union’s Khrushchev’s war-like notes to Eisenhower backing the PRC with nuclear threats came on September 6, 1958 only AFTER the Chinese resumed the Sino-American talks and the threat of war was winding down. The timing of the Soviet war noises was not lost on either the Chinese or the Americans.

The U.S. is facing the same choices as it did in the 1950s. This time, however, the hot-to-trot protagonist is the Navy, not the Air Force. Eisenhower was strong enough to understand what was going on and stand the Air Force down, when necessary; Khrushchev was strong enough to delay the saber rattling until the threat was minimized. The Air Sea Battle Plan (ASB) is a current operational concept, not a blueprint for war with China. Having gotten the disclaimer out of the way, the Navy is proceeding to implement it and it is important that the citizens of the world understand it.[6] The lessons from Taiwan include the value of waiting before striking with the mother lode of destruction. The value of choosing leaders wisely becomes crystal clear with a lens that looks back through time.

 

 


[1] The Heritage Foundation; February 2, 2010; Lee Edwards, Ph.D.; The Legacy of Mao Zedong is Mass Murder; http://www.heritage.org/research/commentary/2010/02/the-legacy-of-mao-zedong-is-mass-murder

[2] University of Hawaii; November 1993; R.J. Rummel; HOW MANY DID COMMUNIST REGIMES MURDER?; http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/COM.ART.HTM

[4] U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian; The Taiwan Straits Crises: 1954-55 and 1958; http://history.state.gov/milestones/1953-1960/TaiwanStraitsCrises

[5] George Washington University National Security Archives; The Air Force and Strategic Deterrence 1950-1961; http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nukevault/ebb249/doc09.pdf

[6] Defense News; Apr. 24, 2013; WENDELL MINNICK; Planning the Unthinkable War with China: An Aussie View of AirSea Battle; http://www.defensenews.com/article/20130424/DEFREG03/304240011/Planning-Unthinkable-War-China-An-Aussie-View-AirSea-Battle