Sixty years ago, on August 23, 1958, Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army launched over 40,000 rounds of artillery at the island of Kinmen (also known as Quemoy), which was controlled by Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC). This action started the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. The crisis would last until October 6 when a one-week cease fire was announced—though shelling did continue later in the month. During this crisis, over 550,000 shells were fired at the Kinmen islands. The constant barrage of artillery created an artillery blockade of the island.
The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis marked a key point in U.S.-Taiwan relations as well as U.S.-China relations. It also serves as a lesson of American resolve in supporting an ally.
THE CRISIS’ CONNECTION TO THE MIDDLE EAST
Oddly enough, the shelling of Kinmen had its origins in the Middle East. On July 14, 1958, Abdel Karim Kassim launched a coup in Iraq, overthrowing the Hashemite monarchy and establishing a republic. In response, the United States and Great Britain sent troops into Lebanon and Jordan to prevent the disarray from spreading into these areas. The new government was seen as favorable to the socialist bloc, so the U.S. could not allow other governments to fall.
Mao Zedong viewed the U.S. intervention in the Middle East as a part of a larger action to prevent the spread of communism. If the U.S. would intervene in Lebanon, then what would stop it from doing more in Asia against the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? Words were not enough for Mao. He needed to show his compatriots in the Middle East that China would back up word with action. American imperialist actions would have to be addressed in every corner of the globe. On July 17, Mao ordered the Chinese air force to move into the Fujian Province, which borders the Taiwan Strait and surrounds the Kinmen archipelago, and artillery should prepare to shell the islands.
Also, Mao met with Nikita Khrushchev in early August, and at the end of the summit, the two leaders demanded the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East. The shelling did not begin until August 23. By this time, the U.S. had recognized the new government in Iraq and troops began to leave Lebanon and Jordan, so the initial connection to the struggle in the Middle East was lost. But Chinese leadership continued to make the connection in public statements throughout the crisis.
On September 6, over a week after the shelling of Kinmen began, Zhou Enlai, the PRC’s Premier, said, “Recently, since the United States launched armed intervention against the Arab states, the harassing and disruptive activities of the Chiang Kai-shek clique against the Chinese mainland have become more unbridled.”
MAO TESTS THE WATERS
While one of the main reasons Mao decided to increase tension in the Taiwan Strait began in the Middle East, it was not the only reason that Mao unilaterally decided to start the crisis. He also needed to find a way to galvanize the public into supporting the next step in his revolutionary plan, and he wanted to test the will and resolve of the United States in its defense of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime.
At the beginning of 1958, Mao revealed his latest initiative to bring socialism to China: the Great Leap Forward. However, as Chen Jian wrote in his book, Mao’s China and the Cold War, before he could introduce the most radical aspect of the plan—the communization of the people and the militarization of the workforce—he needed greater support from the people to fully mobilize.
Mao tellingly explained his need for tension on August 17, “In our propaganda, we say that we oppose tension and strive for détente, as if détente is too our advantage [and] tension is to [the West’s] advantage. [But] can we or can’t we look at [the situation] the other way around: is tension to our comparative advantage [and] to the West’s disadvantage? . . . To have an enemy in front of us, to have tension, is to our advantage.”
Time and time again Mao acknowledged the positive aspects of international tension and its effect on the population. The shelling of Kinmen and the U.S. response would help to awaken the people to fight in the socialist revolution.
On August 25, two days after the shelling began, Mao expressed his feelings about the U.S. involvement and yet another reason for orchestrating the crisis:
“From [Washington’s] reaction in recent days, the Americans are very afraid that we are going not only to land on [Kinmen] and [Matsu] but also liberate Taiwan. In fact, we fired tens of thousands [of] shells on [Kinmen], [but that] is only a probing action by guns. We won’t say that we are going to land; we won’t say we are not going to land either. . . . Our main purpose in shelling is not to gauge the GMD’s defenses but to gauge the Americans’ resolve, to test the Americans’ determination.”
Mao wanted to see what the United States would do to protect the “outlying islands,” the term used for the island groups of Kinmen and Matsu, where China was focusing its shelling. Defending Chiang on Taiwan was a guarantee, but that was not the case for Kinmen and Matsu.
Three years earlier, in 1955, the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty came in effect, which guaranteed that the United States would come to the defense of Taiwan if the PRC attacked. However, the status of the outlying islands was grey at best because they were omitted from the treaty: “The terms ‘territorial’ and ‘territories’ shall mean in respect of the Republic of China, Taiwan and the Pescadores.” In December 1954, when the treaty was about to be signed, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles clarified the position of the outlying islands. He noted that the defense of the islands would be determined by the president depending on the nature of the threat. The clarification was not written into law, so the CCP wanted to see if the U.S. would include Kinmen and Matsu as a part of Taiwan.
Quickly after the shelling began, the U.S. State Department noted the importance of the island for the defense of Taiwan. The announcement was preceded by an ominous radio message from China stating that “the landing on Quemoy is imminent.” The American notice sent a signal to Mao that if he played his hand too far it could mean war with the United States—something he did not want.
THE CRISIS ABATES
By September, Mao understood that he needed to work on an exit strategy to end the shelling and avoid escalation. He did not want to go to war with the United States, and ambassadorial talks between the U.S. and China resumed on September 15 in Warsaw—after they stopped when President Dwight Eisenhower reassigned the ambassador in charge of the talks in late 1957. The talks were not particularly productive because the Chinese demanded that the U.S. withdraw its forces from Taiwan. But they provided a necessary platform during a tense situation.
The channel of communication was key to avoid any sort of unnecessary escalation because the U.S. had stationed Matador missiles, which were capable of carrying nuclear weapons, on Taiwan in February 1958 before the crisis began. However, the United States did not desire to expand the conflict beyond the Taiwan Strait, so the military was only allowed to use non-nuclear options to respond to Chinese actions. The army and navy redirected resources and manpower to the Taiwan Strait to demonstrate U.S. resolve in defending Taiwan.
In the end, Mao decided to allow Chiang Kai-shek to keep Kinmen and not invade or demand a withdrawal of forces. He understood the benefit of keeping Nationalist forces close to Chinese fire. “We want to keep him within our reach. Having him [on Kinmen and Matsu] means we can get at him with our shore batteries as well as our air force. If we’d occupied the islands, we would have lost the ability to cause him discomfort any time we want.” At the time, China did not have the offensive capability to attack Taiwan, so its only chance to harass Chiang’s forces was on these islands.
His view of American involvement also changed. In what is called his “noose strategy,” Mao explained the benefits of keeping the United States wrapped up with Taiwan: “Taiwan is an old noose since America has occupied it for several years. Who ties America there? The People’s Republic of China ties it there. 600 million Chinese have a noose in their hands. This is a steel noose and it ties America’s neck. Who tied America? The noose was made by America itself and tied by itself, and it throws the other end of the noose to mainland China, letting us grasp it.”
Allowing the Nationalist forces to remain on Kinmen and Matsu, Mao believed, would not harden the U.S. position there, but it would serve as a gadfly ever-annoying the United States. Keeping the Nationalists—and by default the United States—in reach was more important than definitively “winning” the crisis.
On October 6, 1958, Peng Teh-huai, the PRC Minister of National Defense, announced a cease fire, “Out of humanitarian considerations, I have ordered the bombardment to be suspended on the Fukien front for seven days starting from October 6. Within this period you will be fully free to ship in supplies, on condition that there be no American escort.” The announcement also called for Taiwan and China to engage in talks to end the war and to be wary of the United States because “the American imperialists are our common enemy.” Shelling did continue later in October every other day to allow for Chiang’s forces to be resupplied.
In the end, Mao’s forces never invaded Kinmen, and the islands that once almost caused a war are stilled controlled by Taiwan. Chinese tourists now travel to Kinmen to visit museums dedicated to the “823 Artillery Bombardment” as well as other relevant war sites. However, unfortunately, recently relations between China and Taiwan have soured to low levels reminiscent of the Cold War. The world can only hope that China does not once against decide to escalate tensions and create a fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.
*Thomas J. Shattuck is the Editor of Geopoliticus: The FPRI Blog and a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.