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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: July 2009

8 - Show of Force: The 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis


A private visit to the United States by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui in June 1995 triggered a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. The crisis marked a dramatic escalation in the confrontation between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China on Taiwan. From August 1995 until March 1996, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) conducted a series of war games, live fire exercises, and missile tests in the vicinity of Taiwan. Beijing's rhetoric and activities raised the specter of a military conflict in East Asia over a dispute that had appeared to be at its lowest level of tensions in four decades.

Was China preparing for war in 1995–6, and was the PLA leading the charge? I contend the crisis was a case of coercive diplomacy, the result of a civil-military consensus. An important distinction must be made between the terms bellicose, belligerent, and hawkish; the first refers to temperament, while the latter two refer to degrees of mental readiness to resort to war. A bellicose leader is warlike in mindset – that is, predisposed to resort to war in most situations. A belligerent leader is one who has crossed the mental threshold in a particular instance and is ready and eager for battle. In contrast, a hawkish leader is one who is prepared to use military means short of war – namely, saber-rattling, brinkmanship, and threats of war – to achieve a policy goal – in short, to practice coercive diplomacy.