Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Taiwan Strait Crisis, Second (1958)

Artillery bombardment of the offshore islands in the Taiwan Strait from 23 August to 25 October 1958, initiated by the People's Republic of China (PRC). Unlike the First Taiwan Strait Crisis (1954–1955), the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis may be attributed to PRC Chairman Mao Zedong's desire to enhance his country's international standing in view of its growing diplomatic isolation. This isolation was chiefly a result of poor relations with the United States and a deteriorating rapport with its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union. Sino-American ambassadorial talks following the Bandung Conference and the First Taiwan Strait Crisis had been suspended in late 1957 because of irreconcilable positions over Taiwan. By mid-1958, after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's Beijing visit and his advocacy of peaceful coexistence with the West, Mao realized that the Soviet Union could not be counted on to lead the communist bloc. Mao was thus emboldened to pursue his own independent course in hopes of establishing himself as the true leader of the socialist world.

International events during July 1958 provided Mao with the perfect opportunity to test his mettle. The United States sent troops to intervene in Lebanon's civil disorder, and Britain deployed troops to quell uprisings in Jordan. Meanwhile, Taiwanese President Jiang Jieshi ordered his military on alert, which the PRC perceived as provocation. In response, on 23 August 1958 Mao ordered the shelling of Jinmen and Mazu, known to Westerners as Quemoy and Matsu, two island groupings 8 miles off Mainland China's southeastern coast. Mao rationalized his actions as providing moral support to the Middle East's "anti-imperialist struggles." Several days after the bombing began, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed a resolution requesting the withdrawal of Anglo-American troops from the Middle East. Mao played this up by publicly denouncing "continuing U.S. imperialism" in the Taiwan Strait. He also restated the PRC's claim of sovereignty over Taiwan and its offshore islands. At the same time, he momentarily drew closer to the Soviet Union when Khrushchev gave his full support to the PRC's claims over the offshore islands.

Soviet support, as it turned out, was halfhearted. Disturbed by Mao's seemingly irrational and independent conduct, Khrushchev decided to rescind his earlier promise of sharing nuclear secrets with the PRC. Unlike in the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, the United States was fully prepared to defend Taiwan and the offshore islands. In a show of force, the United States deployed additional air and naval forces to protect the Taiwan Strait, and as a result, American and Chinese forces exchanged fire. The United States and the PRC appeared to be headed for a full-fledged conflict, which was not what Mao had intended. He had only wanted to keep the Taiwan question in play by applying what he called his noose strategy. He viewed the Jinmen as nooses constraining the United States, with Taiwan as another more distant noose. He reasoned that America, by committing itself to the defense of these three areas, had put a rope around its neck by trapping itself in the Taiwan Strait. This, he thought, would not only stretch U.S. resources but would also provide the PRC with the upper hand in the region.

Having successfully hooked the U.S. on the nooses, Mao decided to ease tensions in the Taiwan Strait. On 6 September 1958, the PRC proposed the resumption of the Sino-American Ambassadorial Talks, which finally reconvened at year's end. On 5 October 1958, the PRC issued the "Message to the Compatriots in Taiwan," restating the PRC's claim to sovereignty over the Taiwan Strait and its willingness to settle the crisis by peaceful means. On 25 October 1958, the PRC issued the "Second Message to the Compatriots in Taiwan," announcing that the shelling of the Jinmen would be restricted to odd-numbered days and would be limited by certain conditions, which helped defuse the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. Periodic bombardment continued until 9 January 1959, when Mao lifted the shelling orders.

Law Yuk-fun


Further Reading
Garver, John W. The Sino-American Alliance: Nationalist China and the American Cold War Strategy in China. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1997.; Li, Xiaobing, and Hongshan Li, eds. China and the United States: A New Cold War History. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998.; Soman, Appu K. Double-Edged Sword: Nuclear Diplomacy in Unequal Conflicts; The United States and China, 1950–1958. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.; Stolper, Thomas E. China, Taiwan, and the Offshore Islands. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1985.; Tucker, Nancy Bernkopf, ed. Dangerous Strait: The U.S.-Taiwan-China Crisis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
 

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