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2.2  Taiwan Straits Crises under Eisenhower & Mao (1953 – 61)

1 January 2017

Mao’s Combative Coexistence & the Taiwan Strait Crises (1954 – 1958)

One legacy of the Korean War is that it changed the fate of Taiwan.


The civil war of China ended with Beijing and Taipei each proclaiming itself as the legitimate government of the Chinese state and the embodiment of Chinese national identity. Despite their competing claims, however, both sides agreed that Taiwan was not an independent state and was part of the same political entity as that of the mainland. The only disagreement was about which Chinese government was the rightful ruler.


In Beijing’s conception, Taiwan was a renegade province whose separation from the mainland and alliance with foreign powers represented the last vestige of China’s “century of humiliation”. The Nationalist or the Kuomintang (KMT), on the other hand, viewed itself as a government-in-exile waiting for the opportune moment to reclaim its rightful place on the mainland.


Originally, Harry Truman subscribed to the policy of non-intervention militarily. That policy, which effectively opened Taiwan to the spectre of full-scale invasion by PRC, changed with the advent of the Korean War. After declaring that the "neutralization of the Straits of Formosa" was in the best interest of the US, Truman sent the US Navy's Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to prevent any conflict between the Taiwan and the PRC, effectively putting Taiwan under American protection and forcing Mao to postpone the planned invasion of Taiwan indefinitely.[1]


Initially, the Truman administration also floated the idea of a two China solution that entailed recognizing the ROC and the PRC as separate states. However, both Chinese sides vociferously rejected this proposal on the ground that it would prevent them from fulfilling a sacred national obligation to liberate the other. In the end, Washington affirmed Taipei’s stance that the ROC was the “real” Chinese government and was entitled to China’s seat in the United Nations and other international institutions. After assuming the presidency, Dwight Eisenhower (served 1953 – 1961) continued with Truman's policy of recognizing the Taiwan as the legitimate government of China but announced an end to the Seventh Fleet’s patrol in the Taiwan Strait.


In August 1954, with the Korean War behind their back and the Seventh Fleet out of the way, Mao ordered the heavy shelling of Taiwan’s island strongholds, Kinmen and Matsu Islands, setting off the First Taiwan Strait Crisis. In response, the Eisenhower administration deployed three US carrier battle groups to the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait and consented to retaliatory artillery and aircraft strikes by Nationalist forces against the mainland. Meanwhile, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff began developing plans for the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in case the crisis escalate. By January 1955, Eisenhower won congressional approval of the Formosa Resolution which established an American commitment to defend Formosa (Taiwan) against an invasion by mainland China.[2] In March 1955, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced that the United States was prepared to meet any major new Communist offensive with tactical nuclear weapons, which China did not have. Confirming Dulles’ threat, Eisenhower asserted that so long as civilians were not in harm’s way, US was prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons “just exactly as you would use a bullet”. By April 1955, Mao instructed Premier Zhou to extend the olive branch declaring the Chinese government’s willingness to negotiate with the US government the question of relaxing tension in the Far East, particularly the Taiwan area.


For Mao, the massive shelling of Quemoy (Kinmen) and Matsu was a warning to Taiwan’s increasing autonomy and a test of Washington’s commitment to multilateral defence of Asia. Far from seeking to occupy the offshore islands, he told Khrushchev that the shelling campaign was an exercise to reaffirm its claim to “one China” without threatening Taiwan directly to eliciting a military response from the US. In short, Mao wanted “combative coexistence”, not war with the US.


In addition, Mao also used the crisis to demonstrate China’s imperviousness to the threat of nuclear war. Ironically, Mao’s rhetoric had a greater impact on his Soviet allies than on the US. For it confronted Khrushchev with the dilemma of supporting his ally for a cause that reflected no Russian strategic interest but involved risks of nuclear war. Khrushchev found it incomprehensible and unacceptable that a leader might go to the brink of nuclear war to make a largely symbolic point.[3]


By August 1958, the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis again erupted when the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) resumed intensive bombing of Kinmen and Matsu Islands, supposedly “to teach the Americans a lesson” for intruding in China’s affairs with Taiwan and to show his independence of the USSR.[4] During the crisis, Mao again carefully avoided any direct confrontation with the United States while consolidating his power at home as he unleashed the Great Leap Forward for the “socialist transformation” of the Chinese society.


The American response included a large naval contingent in the Taiwan Straits as well as the public affirmation of President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles of the US commitment to defend Taiwan. American naval aircraft also helped the Nationalist air force establish control of the region's airspace. Nationalist pilots trained in the US and flying American-made fighters defeated their Communist opponents in a series of air battles that casted doubt on the effectiveness of Communist's pilots and aircraft. As tension mounted between the US and China, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff again developed plans for nuclear strikes at the Chinese cities of Shanghai, Guangzhou and Nanjing. Amidst the forceful American response, the bombardment abated by September 1958 but not before Chinese reiterated their claims of sovereignty over Taiwan and the offshore islands.[5]


The Sino-Soviet Split (1953 – 1966)


By this time, political relations between China and Soviet Union were becoming increasingly strained, particularly after Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Joseph Stalin as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1953 and then as the Premier in 1958. Discords between Mao and Khrushchev began to surface almost immediately.


Khrushchev was frustrated with Mao’s challenge to Moscow’s ideological predominance. As pointed out by Kissinger, Mao, coming from an ideology-based society, regarded the right to define legitimacy as crucial and would therefore never concede intellectual leadership of the Communist world. To Khrushchev, however, China’s claim to a right to define orthodoxy not only threatened the cohesion of Moscow’s empire but also opened the door to other interpretations of Marxism by communists from other countries.[6] Ideologically, the relation between China and Soviet Union was competitive right from the beginning. Even as Mao sought Soviet support as a counterweight to US’ pursuit of hegemony in Asia, he was concurrently trying to organize the non-aligned movement into a safety net against Soviet hegemony when he despatched Premier Zhou to the 1955 Bandung Conference. In fact, both China and Soviet Union were competing for the non-aligned countries to be aligned with her against the other.[7]


More fundamentally, the Soviet Union regarded the Communist world as a single strategic entity whose leadership was in Moscow. The focal point of that empire’s security and political efforts was in Europe, which was of secondary concern to Mao. Hence, Mao refused to join the Warsaw Pact created by the Soviet Union in 1955 as a counterweight to NATO. He was not prepared to subordinate the defence of China’s national interests to a European coalition.[8]


In 1956, the crevice between Mao and Khrushchev further deepened with Khrushchev’s destalinization. To be sure, Mao’s relationship with Stalin was not any much rosier than that with Khrushchev. Besides complaining about Stalin’s condescending behaviour during Mao’s visit to Moscow in the winter of 1949–50, Mao was also unhappy with Stalin’s willingness, during the Second World War, to settle with Chiang Kai-shek at the expense of the Chinese Communist Party and with Stalin’s reluctance in 1949, during Mao’s visit, to conclude a treaty of friendship with China and to annul the old treaty with the KMT. But whatever qualms Mao may have had about Stalin’s conduct as an ally, he formally acknowledged Stalin’s special ideological contribution. Mao thus branded Khrushchev’s attack on Stalinism as a form of “revisionism” representing a shift of the Soviet Union from Communism back toward its bourgeois past.[9]

More broadly, Khrushchev's speech On the Personality Cult and its Consequences had wide implications outside the Soviet Union and in other communist countries. According to Mao, it “opened the lid” on the repressiveness of the Soviet regimes, thereby “making a mess” in ideologically inspiring a wave of destalinization marked by debates throughout the entire Eastern Bloc and massive demonstrations in Poland and Hungary. 


In Poland, for example, popular debates centering on the right to steer a more independent course of "local, national socialism", instead of following the Soviet model down to every little detail, coincided with dissatisfaction over both living and working conditions which had been building up since early 1950s. The rising discontent led to discussions about Polish independence and the efficiency of the state controlled economy. By June 1956, demonstration of workers soon broke out in the city of Poznań . Notably, the protests were driven more by fight for better work conditions, not by anti-communist ideology. It was the government's consistent failure to fulfil the first demand which eventually led to the demands for political change. Even though the protests were crushed by the Polish military a few days later, the events led to the Polish October Revolution during a moderate reformers’ faction rose to power.

In contrast, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was more dramatic an widespread. It began as a student protest but evolved into a nationwide revolution against the government and its Soviet-imposed policies lasting from 23 October to 10 November. It was the first major threat to Soviet control since the end of WWII. On 4 November, Moscow responded by sending a large Soviet force into Budapest and other regions of the country. The Hungarian resistance continued until 10 November. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. These Soviet actions helped to strengthen its control over the Eastern Bloc but alienated many Western Marxists.

It was Mao’s central belief that in an ultimately power-centralized Communist order, it would be left to the strongest “fraternal socialist country” to naturally play the leading role in setting up the principles and guiding other members’ behaviors. By this point, Mao saw China’s future potential as the most powerful Communist regime and recognized the events in Poland and Hungary as a rare good chance to manipulate the weakening Soviets to abdicate the leading position.

On the surface, Mao’s suggestion, in October 1956, for the Soviets to set up a new pattern of inter-Communist state relationship based on the five basic principles of international affairs (i.e. national independence, sovereignty, equality, non-interference in internal affairs, and self-determination to Soviet-satellite relations) was intended to introduce, as an alternative to the old Stalinist formula, a more principled and truly equal state-to-state relationship pattern within the Soviet bloc. In reality, the advocacy of equality and internal autonomy against the Soviet “big power chauvinism” represent Mao’s strategic expedients to weaken the Soviet’s prestige and ultimately accede the leadership of world communism to himself, even though at this point, Mao continued to defer to the Soviets' lead in technology and economics as well as the success of the Soviet model in "building socialism" in quick order. 

The Soviet leadership itself became aware of the danger of abandoning Stalin in symbolic terms and in late 1956 reaffirmed Stalinism and maintained a Stalinist ideological orthodoxy as the ‘glue’ of an international communist movement. The rift between Khrushchev and Mao, however, failed to mend.

From then on, China and Russia had progressively disagreed and diverged not only about orthodox interpretation of Marxist ideology but also about how the communist world should evolve vis-à-vis the capitalist and imperialist West. While Mao wanted a more militant policy toward the West, Khrushchev’s preferred a more conciliatory approach of peaceful co-existence. Khrushchev was wary that Mao’s ideological radicalism and talk of nuclear Armageddon could destabilize the politics of peaceful coexistence he sought with the West. He was unhappy with Mao’s failure to inform him beforehand of the attack against Taiwan in 1958, especially because the US threatened nuclear war if the PRC invaded Taiwan. The Chinese bombardment of the islands risked pushing the USSR's into a Sino–American nuclear war over Taiwan.


In the aftermath of the Second Taiwan Strait crisis, Soviet suspended nuclear cooperation with China, and in June of 1959 withdrew its commitment to provide China with a model atomic bomb. By 1960, after Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958 – 1960) policies to catch up with the West, Khrushchev withdrew Russian technicians from China and cancelled some 200 scientific joint projects intended to foster cooperation between Russia and China. By 1961, the intractable differences of philosophy provoked the CCP to formally denounce Soviet communism as the product of "Revisionist Traitors".

PREVIOUS : 2.1  Korean War under Truman & Mao (1950 - 1953)

NEXT 2.3  Vietnam War and Deterioration of Sino-Soviet Relations Under Kennedy-Johnson & Mao (1961 – 1969)



[1] See Han Cheung. (2016). “Neutralizing the Taiwan Strait.” Taipei Times. January 24, 2016; See Kissinger (2011). Pg. 221.

[2] See Shannon Tiezzi. (2015). “How Eisenhower Saved Taiwan.” The Diplomat. July 29, 2015.

[3] See Kissinger. (2011). Pg 219 - 228.

[4] See Cold War Museum. “Taiwan Crisis”; “Second Taiwan Strait Crisis.”  

[5] See “Second Taiwan Strait Crisis.”  

[6] See Kissinger, (2011). Pg. 237.

[7] See A.D. Hassan. (1976). “China and Non-alignment.” India International Centre Quarterly. Vol. 3, No. 3, Role of Non-alignment in a Changing World (July 1976). Pg. 65-67.

[8] See Henry Kissinger. (2011). “On China.” Penguin Press. Pg. 234 – 235.

[9] See Henry Kissinger. (2011). “On China.” Penguin Press. Pg. 239

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