Third Taiwan Strait Crisis

The People’s Republic of China conducted a series of missile tests and military maneuvers in the vicinity of Taiwan to force the island to end its quest for independence and to stop apparent American support for Taiwan. American response was measured: The Taiwanese reelected their independence-minded president, but the United States reassured mainland China that it did not support Taiwanese independence. A major deterioration of Sino-American relationships, or even war, was averted.

Summary of Event

Both the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC), on the mainland, and the rival nationalist Republic of China (ROC), on the island of Taiwan, claimed to be the one and only seat of the Chinese government. Taiwan was an ally of the United States, but as U.S.-PRC relations warmed in the 1970’s, the United States downgraded its diplomatic relations with the nationalist government. Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996)
Third Taiwan Strait Crisis
China;Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996)
[kw]Third Taiwan Strait Crisis (July 21, 1995-Mar. 23, 1996)
[kw]Taiwan Strait Crisis, Third (July 21, 1995-Mar. 23, 1996)
[kw]Crisis, Third Taiwan Strait (July 21, 1995-Mar. 23, 1996)
Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996)
Third Taiwan Strait Crisis
China;Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996)
[g]East Asia;July 21, 1995-Mar. 23, 1996: Third Taiwan Strait Crisis[09290]
[g]China;July 21, 1995-Mar. 23, 1996: Third Taiwan Strait Crisis[09290]
[c]Government and politics;July 21, 1995-Mar. 23, 1996: Third Taiwan Strait Crisis[09290]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 21, 1995-Mar. 23, 1996: Third Taiwan Strait Crisis[09290]
Lee Teng-hui
Jiang Zemin
Clinton, Bill
[p]Clinton, Bill;U.S.-China relations[U.S. China relations]
Qian Qichen
Christopher, Warren
Perry, William

Taiwan sought an internationally recognized independence. Mainland China fiercely opposed Taiwanese independence, insisting on the “one China” policy, which the United States also supported. The visit of Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui to Cornell University, his alma mater, on June 9-10, 1995, deeply angered mainland China. It perceived the visit as an attempt to win support for an independent Taiwan.

To teach both Taiwan and the United States a lesson, from July 21 to 26, 1995, Beijing triggered what became known as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. China performed missile tests and joint sea and air military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, the waterway that separates the Chinese mainland from Taiwan. There were two previous, Cold War crises—in 1954-1955 and 1958—in the strait, involving the PRC and Taiwan. In the third crisis, the PRC test-fired four surface-to-surface short-range missiles and two medium-range missiles, all capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The targets were just thirty-eight miles off the Taiwanese island of Pengchiayu and one hundred miles north of Taiwan.

In late July, the ROC launched its own retaliatory missile tests and military exercises. The United States pursued a conciliatory approach. At a meeting on August 1, U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher told PRC foreign minister Qian Qichen that U.S. president Bill Clinton was committed to the one China policy, opposed Taiwanese independence, and did not support a U.N. seat for Taiwan. Clinton insisted that Lee’s U.S. visit should not be overestimated. However, Qian was not satisfied and declared that Washington must act on its policy.

Beijing heightened the pressure by performing a second round of missile tests and joint sea and air and artillery exercises from August 15 to August 25. Guided missiles landed in the sea eighty miles north of Taiwan. The PRC declared that Lee must be punished for his stubbornness and the United States was warned against intervention.

While Taiwan countered with missile tests in September and military defense exercises in October, the United States remained restrained. Washington tried to reassure the PRC of its commitment to the one China policy and its rejection of Taiwanese independence. The PRC countered that it wanted to see concrete U.S. measures.

In spite of the crisis in the Taiwan Strait, a summit meeting between Clinton and PRC president Jiang Zemin was held in New York City on October 24, 1995. However, at the end of October, Jiang attended major military exercises off southern China, facing Taiwan. On November 15, the PRC launched massive military maneuvers, involving land, sea, and air forces, that were publicly announced as directed against Taiwan.

Beijing’s threatening moves appeared to pay off during the December 2, 1995, Taiwanese parliamentary elections. Having just suffered a stock market decline of 33 percent and witnessed the transfer of US$10 million in capital from Taiwan, voters gave Lee’s Kuomintang Party fewer seats and increased the mandate of the pro-mainland Chinese New Party (CNP) to twenty-one seats.

Even though Washington remained conciliatory, the PRC was not satisfied. On December 19, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Nimitz crossed the Taiwan Strait. According to U.S. sources, this happened because of bad weather elsewhere. In January, 1996, however, Taiwan proclaimed this event to be a sign of U.S. support.

Beijing decided on further provocations. Between January and February 1996, it gathered more than one hundred thousand soldiers in Fujian Province, which is opposite Taiwan. Early in March, Jiang and Qian told mainland Communist delegates that Taiwanese independence moves were a recipe for military conflict.

The crisis escalated just prior to Taiwan’s presidential elections in March, 1996. On March 4, the PRC announced that it would hold surface-to-surface missile tests very close to Taiwan from March 8 to March 18. Despite intense U.S. diplomatic efforts to prevent it, on March 7, the PRC fired three missiles into target areas twenty-three miles off the northern Taiwanese harbor of Keelung and thirty-three miles off the southern Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung.

There is debate as to whether these missiles affected Taiwanese shipping and delayed air traffic to Japan, but the threatening nature of the exercise was understood. In the evening of March 7, Christopher and Secretary of Defense William Perry met with PRC vice foreign minister Liu Huaqiu in Washington and stressed American disapproval of the military exercises.

On March 8, Perry acted to prove Washington’s commitment to the protection of Taiwan but decided on the least confrontational show of force. He ordered the battle group of the aircraft carrier USS Independence to sail to Taiwan. Significantly, the Independence was not ordered into the Taiwan Strait but to the other side of Taiwan, facing the Philippine Sea. The Nimitz was ordered to join the Independence, but it was told to sail leisurely, a fact that was conveyed to the PRC.

While the PRC seemed to escalate the crisis on March 9, by announcing live ammunition air and sea exercises in the Taiwan Strait from March 12 to March 20, the American naval response caused a de-escalation. On March 13, Beijing fired its last test missile, supposedly laden with a dummy warhead only. Two further announced firings were canceled.

Even though, on March 15, the PRC declared that further military exercises were to take place from March 18 to March 25, no more missiles were fired. On March 23, the Taiwanese reelected Lee as president, with a surprising 54 percent majority. Although the stock market was still down by 17 percent from precrisis days, the people of Taiwan showed their anger toward Beijing and refusal to be intimidated. After the election, the crisis ended.


The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis had the potential to seriously strain Sino-American relations. However, while the United States demonstrated that it would defend Taiwan and gained international support for its stance, the Clinton administration realized that it had risked a conflict over formal Taiwanese independence, an issue that it did not consider relevant. Soon after the crisis, the United States renewed its diplomatic efforts to show the PRC that it was committed to the one China policy.

The PRC gained from the postcrisis attempt at conciliation made by the United States. When Clinton and Jiang met in Manila in November, 1996, they agreed on mutual state visits to highlight the quality of Sino-American relations. During President Jiang’s visit to Washington, D.C., in October, 1997, he obtained the crucial public declaration that the United States was opposed to Taiwanese independence and the island’s desire for a U.N. seat. In turn, Clinton was warmly welcomed in Beijing in June, 1998.

In the future, whenever Lee pressed the issue of independence, the Clinton administration would call on Taiwan to rein in its rhetoric. Having been on the brink of conflict, the PRC and the U.S. moved closer to a common policy of rejecting Taiwanese independence because of its threat to regional stability. Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996)
Third Taiwan Strait Crisis
China;Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996)

Further Reading

  • Copper, John F. Playing with Fire: The Looming War with China over Taiwan. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2006. Argues that Taiwan’s desire for independence will tangle the United States in war with the PRC. Places event in context of Sino-American relationships up to 2004.
  • Ross, Robert. “The 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Confrontation: Coercion, Credibility, and Use of Force.” International Security 25 (Autumn, 2000): 87-123. Detailed analysis of event; argues that both mainland China and the United States benefited from the crisis, albeit at a price.
  • Sutter, Robert. “Domestic Politics and U.S.-China-Taiwan Triangle: The 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Conflict and Its Aftermath.” In After the Cold War: Domestic Factors and U.S.-China Relations, edited by Robert Ross. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. Analyzes U.S. public opinion of the issue.
  • Swaine, Michael. “Chinese Decision-Making Regarding Taiwan, 1978-2000.” In The Making of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy in the Era of Reform: 1978-2000, edited by David Lampton. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001. Focuses on mainland Chinese hard-liners and their affect on policy making during event.
  • Zhao, Suisheng, ed. Across the Taiwan Strait: Mainland China, Taiwan, and the 1995-1996 Crisis. New York: Routledge, 1999. Collection of essays providing further insight into the PRC’s view of the event and its decision making during the crisis.

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