Sat, Feb 02, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Three what-ifs on missile crisis

By Joseph Bosco

There has been much talk about the comments of a Chinese military official issuing a dire warning against the US resisting Chinese aggression in the region.

Chinese Rear Admiral Luo Yuan (羅援) in December said that if the Chinese military sank a US aircraft carrier or two, with the loss of up to 10,000 lives, “we’ll see how frightened America is.”

He was referring specifically to the South China Sea, but Chinese generals have made similar murderous threats about US intervention in a conflict with Taiwan.

On Jan. 19, the Guardian carried an article entitled Chinese President “Xi Jinping (習近平) challenges [US President] Donald Trump over Taiwan,” quoting Chinese officials who saw the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis as the time Beijing decided that the ability to destroy US Navy ships was the key to seizing Taiwan:

“The aim was to ensure that the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] air, land, space, cyber and sea forces acting in unison had the capability to sink two carrier fleets... Once such a capacity got acquired, the generals in Beijing believed that Washington would not dare to intervene on the side of Taipei,” the report said.

US officials also saw the 1995-1996 events as significant — and worrisome. One Asian affairs veteran of then-US president Bill Clinton’s administration called it “our own Cuban missile crisis — we had peered into the abyss.”

It is worth recounting how the situation unfolded.

Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), Taiwan’s appointed president at the time, was the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) candidate for the nation’s first direct presidential election in March 1996.

An alumnus of Cornell University, Lee was invited to attend his alma mater’s reunion in June 1995. China strongly objected to the US visit of such a high-level Taiwanese official and then-US secretary of state Warren Cristopher, sensitive to Chinese concerns, assured Beijing that Lee would not be granted a visa.

However, the uproar from American friends of Taiwan, particularly in the US Congress, caused the Clinton administration to reverse itself, Lee’s visa was granted, he gave his speech in Ithaca and Beijing went ballistic, literally. China fired missiles across the Taiwan Strait and conducted live-fire exercises, closing shipping lanes, disrupting air and maritime commerce, and sending insurance rates soaring.

Unsure how far China would go, Clinton deployed the USS Nimitz aircraft battle group into the Taiwan Strait to deter any Chinese escalation. This was the first time the US Navy had entered the Strait since then-US president Richard Nixon in 1972 pulled the Seventh Fleet out as a goodwill gesture prior to his historic visit to China.

Beijing saw the move as adding insult to injury and protested vehemently to Washington at this violation of what it considered Chinese waters. The Clinton administration quickly offered the Chinese an “explanation” of the transit: Bad weather had caused a diversion of the ships into the Strait.

China took this as an implied admission by the US government that Strait transits could only be made with Beijing’s permission. That gave it reason to question how seriously Washington was committed to defending Taiwan. Was this a one-off, purely symbolic US gesture, unlikely to lead to follow-up action?

So, Chinese officials decided to confront the issue directly with their US counterparts. In a December 1995 meeting with then-US assistant secretary of defense Joseph Nye, they asked him point blank what Washington would do if China outright attacked Taiwan.

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