Brinkmanship in the Straits: The 1995–1996 China–Taiwan Missile Crisis — Hsueh-Ting Wu


The 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits Missile Crisis occurred at the height of escalating tensions between the United States and China. The confrontation began when Washington granted Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui a visa to visit his alma mater, Cornell University. The People’s Republic of China, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province, opposed the visit, arguing that trips to the U.S. by Taiwanese leaders were a display of independence-minded sentiments and a threat to stability in East Asia. Angered by Washington’s actions, Beijing conducted missile tests in the Taiwan Straits in the fall of 1995 and again in early 1996—the second round being prompted by the first direct presidential election in Taiwan. Despite high tensions, the situation eventually dissipated peacefully, although the relationship between Beijing and Washington suffered a long-lasting setback.

The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, which governed the majority of U.S.–Taiwan policy at the time of the crisis, provided ambiguous strategic guidance at best. The TRA lacked a coherent and integrated plan for responding to crises involving Taiwan, and represented an attempt by the U.S. government to balance interests in Taiwan and mainland China. In addition, prior to 1995, the Clinton administration failed to define clear foreign policy objectives regarding China and Taiwan. These deficiencies resulted in a reactive and inconsistent response to the first missile crisis. In the wake of the 1995 conflict, the U.S. government developed an effective China-Taiwan strategy based on demonstrating American commitment to regional stability. While this enabled a unified and stronger response to the 1996 crisis, faults persisted.

The U.S. government departments and agencies responsible for devising the China and Taiwan strategy did not collaborate to create or implement a cohesive policy. In 1995, the administration was poised to reject any possibility of Lee’s visit to the United States. Differing organizational agendas, lack of leadership, and opposing departmental cultures, however, prevented the U.S. government from maintaining this policy. Once the 1995 crisis began, these dynamics complicated a unified federal response. With the National Security Advisor in the lead, the 1996 missile crisis saw improved consensus between agencies and departments in the U.S. response to China’s missile testing. Thus, strategy implementation displayed notable unity of effort.

The weak response to the 1995 crisis was the result of ad hoc policy, congressional and executive disagreement, a lack of interagency consensus on objectives, and the absence of leadership across the interagency. America’s unique relationship with Taiwan resulted in an intentionally ambiguous policy that sought flexibility but instead provided no real policy guidance and appeared weak. Disinterest by agency and departmental leaders, lack of regional expertise, and concerns about interfering with other departments’ “turf” contributed to the absence of a cohesive policy. The setting of integrated goals and centralization of China policy under the NSC significantly strengthened the American response to renewed Chinese missile tests in 1996. Consensus among the Departments of Defense and State, as well as the White House, and Congress during this period allowed for a timely and highly publicized operation.

Authors generally perceive the 1995 crisis as an American policy failure which resulted in the U.S. government appearing weak in the eyes of Chinese leaders and the American public. There is agreement among most authors that the Clinton Administration’s response to the 1996 missile crisis during Taiwan’s presidential election was more effective, particularly in its demonstration of military power. Nevertheless, the national security process failed to create a coherent China policy that demonstrated a commitment to Taiwan while simultaneously sustaining good relations with the Beijing.

Poor strategy development and fragmentation of objectives among U.S. national security/foreign policy agencies contributed to the inconsistent Sino-American relationship during the 1990s. Despite this, a newfound unity of objectives and consensus among different branches of the Clinton administration allowed for a successful integration and implementation of strategy in 1996. As Taiwan continues to be a key issue between Beijing and Washington, the 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits crisis illustrates the importance of ensuring coordination in both policy strategy and implementation between the different branches of the government.