Local media have recently revisited the story of how People's Liberation Army (PLA) Major General Liu Liankun (
In response to then-president Lee Teng-hui's (
Starting in early 1996, China escalated its military threats against Taiwan. Many Chinese media outlets ran stories saying that, "the Chinese people will not hesitate to spill their blood and sacrifice their lives to protect the nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity." Add to this that a year earlier, a bestselling book in Taiwan called The Intercalary August of 1995 predicted that China would retake Taiwan by military force in 1995. This had people worrying that they were running out of time, and both the stock exchange and currency market took a drubbing.
One could say that China achieved what it wanted with its threats against Taiwan. Liu's information, however, helped the government stiffen its resolve, and view China's actions as psychological warfare, not a prelude to an attack. Taiwan and the US were not the only ones concerned that war might begin at any moment. China was even more cautious, and worried that its exercises would set off a chain of misunderstandings that would lead to a military conflict involving all three countries.
In February 1996, the US embassy in Beijing learned that China was not planning an attack on Taiwan, but never managed to fully verify the information.
In February and March, China sent its vice minister of foreign affairs and later ambassador to the US, Li Zhaoxing (
In these meetings, Chinese officials gave the US solemn promises that the military and missile exercises would be limited in time, scope and geographic location. They made unequivocal guarantees that the PLA would not attack Taiwan, while at the same time urging the US not to interfere in the cross-strait conflict.
According to the spokesperson at the US defense department at the time, Beijing told the US in all official and private talks that China did not plan to attack Taiwan. The PLA field commander even issued strict orders that troops participating in the exercises should avoid anything that might "worsen the situation" and do anything in their power to minimize the risk of anything "unforeseen" occurring.
China's promises to the US were made prior to its missile exercises in March of 1996 and the US' subsequent dispatch of two aircraft carriers to the waters near the Taiwan Strait, and they were aimed at avoiding a misunderstanding on the US side of Beijing's military exercises. The US could of course see clearly from satellite photography that China's military had not fully mobilized its army in preparation for an attack.
To sum up, while China followed a brinkmanship strategy, it also wanted to avoid a misunderstanding that could lead to military conflict. Beijing followed the logic that if Taiwan declared independence, China would be forced to go to war, that military threats would reduce the possibility of Taiwan declaring independence, and, third, that military threats would therefore reduce the possibility of war. Lastly, China wanted to avoid a military conflict with Taiwan.
In this process, Liu's information helped reveal China's brinkmanship strategy and helped prevent a situation where a misunderstanding of Beijing's military exercises by Taiwan could have increased the possibility of military conflict. It also helped Taipei avoid making unnecessary concessions to Beijing.
Tung Chen-yuan is an assistant professor in the Sun Yat-sen Graduate Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities at National Chengchi University.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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