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Preventing a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan


Published June 14, 2023

If China were to make a military invasion of Taiwan, it might begin by targeting the Quemoy or Matsu Islands, much like it did in the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis. The responses from America and Taiwan then reveal that defense treaties act as an effective deterrent. In addition, establishing clear boundaries of engagement can discourage further aggression.

Discussion Questions:

  1. If America were to use defense treaties as a deterrent, would China respond the same way as it did in the past, or differently?
  2. Do you think America can prevent an invasion of Taiwan? Why or why not?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “Guns of August in the Taiwan Strait, 1958,” by Miles Maochun Yu. Available here.
  • Read “Miles Yu on Taiwan: Why Is China So Obsessed with Taiwan?” by Miles Maochan Yu via Taipei Times. Available here.
  • Watch “Why America Must Lead the Fight for Freedom Throughout the World,” with Larry Diamond, on PolicyEd. Available here.
View Transcript

If China decides to use military force in order to regain political control of Taiwan, its invasion might plausibly begin by taking the offshore island groups of Quemoy or Matsu.

After all, China has attacked these very positions many times before.

In 1958, the Chinese Communist military began massive shelling of the Quemoy and Matsu islands to demonstrate their defiance toward American actions in preventing communist infiltration in the Middle East

The way America and Taiwan responded then can teach us how to respond today if China were to proceed with an invasion.

The first lesson is that defense treaties worked as a deterrent. 

The 1954 Sino-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty made it clear that the U.S. would defend Taiwan and the Penghu Islands, but it excluded the Quemoy and Matsu Islands. Thus, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party only attacked them, knowing that attacking other positions would have led to greater American involvement.

The second lesson is that drawing clear lines of scale and engagement deterred further aggression.

During the crisis, the U.S. set three stages of engagement.

In the first stage, if the Chinese army were to bomb the islands but not attempt to capture them, the American military would provide logistical support to the Taiwanese in resupplying the islands.

The second stage would begin if China tried to capture any of the islands. In that case, the U.S. would have assisted the Taiwanese in attacking the Chinese invading forces and their nearby military installations.

The final stage would be activated if Chinese Communist forces attacked Taiwan itself, the Penghu islands, or the international waters surrounding them.

In that case, the U.S. and Taiwan promised to launch air strike missiles against hundreds of Chinese airfields, ground control units, and command headquarters close to coastal military facilities.

The American military made its commitments of defense known, and made it clear that its response would be swift, massive, and methodic. It reinforced these commitments by sending a seismic naval force of super carriers and destroyers, as well as huge fleets of combat aircraft armed with surface-to-air missiles.

As a result, the Chinese Communist Party was forced to restrict its actions to only stage one. 

If America follows the historical guide, making clear defense commitments and drawing clear lines of scale and engagement, it can once again help prevent a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.