Dire Strait: Taiwan in the 1950s and Today

Taiwan has long been an epicenter of great power tension, perhaps most dangerously so during the early 1950s. Following his defeat by Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang supporters withdrew to Taiwan, planning to regroup and return to the mainland in force. With the U.S. Navy lying athwart the rival regimes across the Taiwan Strait, the situation was at first tense but stable. However, in 1953, President Eisenhower withdrew the American fleet. This enabled the Kuomintang to occupy a range of isles in the Strait, from which they harassed shipping bound for mainland ports. The PLA retaliated by shelling Kuomintang forces on the isles, incidentally killing two American military advisers stationed there. As PLA attacks worsened, the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised Eisenhower to intervene militarily against the PLA, and even to consider deploying nuclear weapons against mainland China. Instead, in 1954, Eisenhower negotiated a mutual defense treaty with the Kuomintang’s Republic of China and evacuated Kuomintang troops from some of the contested isles. While hostilities flared again later that decade, the PLA did not invade Taiwan, and the U.S. avoided serious conflict over the island. Eisenhower’s combination of deterrence and diplomacy appeared to have defused the crisis, but the underlying source of conflict remained and remains unresolved. 

With Sino-American rivalry becoming the dominant theme of geopolitics, Taiwan is once again the site of great power confrontation. In the last five years, Beijing has intensified its deployment of military aircraft over and around Taiwan, dispatched warships into Taiwanese waters, launched waves of cyber attacks on Taiwanese public authorities, curtailed economic and cultural ties across the Strait, and interfered in Taiwan’s latest presidential election. The U.S. has simultaneously deepened both military and political bonds with Taiwan. Donald Trump spoke with Taiwan’s President Tsai before his inauguration, and heavily increased arms sales to Taiwan during his presidency. In January, Joe Biden invited Taiwanese officials to his presidential inauguration. Just last week, a group of Senators arrived in

Taiwan to highlight American Covid-19 vaccine distribution on the island. 
Both Washington and Beijing have signaled Taiwan’s importance to their foreign policies. What are the risks of reawakening or even exceeding the Taiwan crises of the 1950s? Aaron Friedberg’s A Contest for Supremacy comprehensively examines how Beijing and Washington define their goals, develop strategies to achieve them, and hazard the risks of an unwanted war by misunderstanding one another’s commitments and resolve to defend them. Applied to Taiwan, Friedberg’s careful argument uncovers the conditions fueling Sino-American tensions, and explains how they could erupt into conflict without careful strategic forethought.


A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia
Aaron Friedberg, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University

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