The world’s largest naval power – how the US navy brought China to its knees, as it seemed to ‘annex’ Taiwan
The world’s largest naval power – how the US navy brought China to its knees, as it seemed to ‘annex’ Taiwan

The world’s largest naval power – how the US navy brought China to its knees, as it seemed to ‘annex’ Taiwan

Amid continuing tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan, the Chinese military has stepped up to merge Taiwan with the mainland and prevent possible US intervention.

The Chinese PLA fleet has proven to be the largest and one of the most powerful fleets in the world; there was a time when Beijing had to kneel before the United States and concede American superiority when it appeared to intimidate the island state.

Twenty-six years ago, in the run-up to Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in March 1996, the United States and China engaged in an unprecedented demonstration of power near Taiwan, marking the lowest point in Sino-US relations since the 1989 suppression of Tiananmen Square.

The ‘third Taiwan Strait crisis’, as the events became known, set the stage for a protracted strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing. The events, which took place between 1995 and 1996, were described by a veteran of Asian affairs from the Clinton administration as “our own Cuban missile crisis.”

File image: China’s nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic missile submarine.

Third Taiwan crisis

Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s president, was the Kuomintang party’s candidate for Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in March 1996. An alumnus of Cornell University, President Lee was invited to the United States to attend a reunion at the university in July 1995.

China strongly protested to Lee’s visit to the United States and the Clinton administration assured Beijing that Lee would not get a visa. However, pressure from American friends of Taiwan, especially in the US Congress, led to President Clinton reversing the decision.

Also a year earlier, the Clinton administration had revised its Taiwan engagement protocols, which allowed for higher-level meetings, and before that, in 1992, the Bush administration had agreed to sell 150 F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan.

Beijing considered all of this together as the United States abandoning a ‘China policy’ that had led to the normalization of US-China ties in 1979.

China missile boat
PLA Navy fast assault missile boats during an exercise in the East China Sea on 22 February 2022.

Chinese military intimidation

Lee was given a visa, and he gave a speech in Ithaca, while Beijing responded by firing missiles across the Taiwan Strait and live-fire drills that closed shipping lanes and disrupted air and maritime trade in Taiwan.

Tensions continued through 1995, and Taiwan conducted its own set of missile tests and conducted exercises aimed at averting an invasion.

Ahead of Taiwan’s legislative elections in December, China held major military exercises, and as December turned into January, China’s relations with Taiwan and the United States deteriorated.

Meanwhile, ahead of Taiwan’s first direct presidential election campaign, some candidates, including Lee, took a hard line against China, prompting the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to gather 100,000 troops in Fujian province, prompting Washington to warn China against military intimidation.

Beijing ignored these warnings and conducted military exercises throughout March, even resorting to nuclear signaling. China fired nuclear M-9 missiles belonging to the PLA Second Artillery Corps, now known as the PLA Rocket Force. One of these missiles passed almost directly over Taiwan’s capitalTaipei before landing 19 miles from the coast.

In fact, before the launch of nuclear-capable missiles in March, top Chinese military officials had already issued an implied nuclear threat to their U.S. counterparts, according to Chas. W. Freeman Jr. was Assistant Secretary of Defense at the time.

“I said you’ll get a military response from the United States” if China attacks Taiwan, Freeman had said while remembering his arguments with Chinese military officials, “and they said, no, you will not. Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, and you do not have the will. ‘ “

Then, according to Freeman, a senior officer added: “In the 1950s, you threatened nuclear attacks on China three times, and you could do it because we could not strike back. Now we can. So you are not going to threaten us again. , because you ultimately like Los Angeles a lot more than Taipei. “

USS Nimitz - Wikipedia
File image: USS Nimitz – Wikipedia

The United States is intervening in the crisis

Amid all the tensions, the United States finally decided to intervene in the crisis, and on March 10, President Clinton deployed two aircraft combat groups to East Asian waters: Carrier Group Five, centered on USS Independence, continued from Japan to Taiwan-adjacent waters. and Carrier Group Seven centered on the USS Nimitz, which departed from the Persian Gulf, plus the amphibious assault ship Belleau Wood.

USS Independence CV-62 March 10, 1996.

The aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz and her battle group, and Belleau Wood sailed through Taiwan Strait, while USS Independence did not.

China conducted a fourth and final missile test on March 13 and a joint ground, air and naval exercise a few days later.

While Taiwan’s elections went as planned, Lee Teng-hui became Taiwan’s first elected president in a great setback for Beijing.

The crisis embarrassed the Chinese leadership as it realized its inability to stop US forces from coming to Taiwan’s aid; however, this also led to a period of near-annual double-digit percentage increases in China’s defense budget.

Chinese military modernization and post-1996 efforts

China has spent more than a decade since the end of the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis modernizing and reforming its navy, air force and missile force in an attempt to pose a multifaceted threat to Taiwan, plus it has developed a number of anti-access / area denial measures to prevent the United States from intervening in a potential future conflict.

More specifically, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, the Chinese military has made efforts to develop the joint operational capacity to improve cooperation between various services in the Chinese Armed Forces.

As reported by EurAsian Times In the past, the PLA has outlined five types of joint operations for the Taiwan Strait emergency response, which include – Joint Firepower Strike Operations, Joint Blockade Operations, Joint Attack Operations, Joint Anti-Air Raid Operations and Joint Border Area Operations.

Of these are the common Anti-Air Raid Operations specifically aimed to prevent or complicate US efforts to help Taiwan through jointly carried out precision attacks by the PLA Navy, Air Force and Rocket Force, targeting US forces in the region – Japan, South Korea and Guam – and also those entering the Pacific from the west coast of America.

Accordingly, China has refined its anti-ship ballistic missile capabilities to hit a wide range of targets, including the large carrier-sized targets for smaller ships and naval bases, according to a series of satellite images reviewed by the US Naval Institute (USNI).

The layouts of these goals line the American aircraft carrier, destroyers and Taiwanese naval bases according to an analysis by various experts.

One of the naval base targets in the Chinese desert for anti-ship ballistic missile tests ((Illustration using Maxar’s satellite image by HI Sutton, USNI News))

Earlier this month, a PLA fleet of aircraft carrier combat groups also conducted combat training on the high seas in the western Pacific. This involved a total of eight PLA Naval ships, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning and the Chinese Navy’s most powerful destroyer, a Type 055 large guided missile destroyer Nanchang.

Incidentally, the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham was also in the Philippines, which means that the two battle groups were close to each other at one point.

So one can safely say that the military balance of power across the strait has changed significantly in China’s favor.

In 1996, the U.S. Navy was able to park an aircraft carrier 100 miles off the coast of Taiwan without having to worry much about the ship’s safety. Today, this carrier would be well within reach of China’s expanding air, missile and naval forces.


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