May 15, 2022

Chiang Kai-Shek, who succeeded Sun Yat-sen as head of the Kuomingtang (KMT), the nationalist, anti-communist party behind the Republic of China (ROC), dedicated his life to building a unified and modern China. By 1949, though, he’d lost the long war on the mainland against communism and was forced to retreat with his followers to establish the ROC on Taiwan. From that day forward, Mao Zedong wanted to destroy the ROC. His generals prepared for a Battle of Taiwan, something Xi Jinping apparently still desires. Xi may discover, though, as Mao did, that the ROC and Taiwan aren’t easy to destroy.

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The ROC’s tenure on the Chinese mainland ended on January 14, 1949. For the remainder of 1949, while staying one step ahead of Mao’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Chiang managed multiple trips between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, as he worked to establish a nationalist ROC in exile on the island.

Beginning in August 1949, Chiang began to relocate the Republic of China Air Force to Taiwan. He also sent 26 naval vessels from the nationalist army to Taiwan. Many institutions and universities joined them and were re-established in Taiwan, along with refugees fleeing the PLA.

Mao feared that, if Chiang and the ROC were ensconced on Taiwan, they would try to return to the mainland to resume power. Mao wanted to prevent such a possibility. Therefore, in June 1949, Mao had instructions for the PLA:

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Please begin to study the issue of taking over Taiwan. Is it possible to seize Taiwan in a short period of time? What method will be used? Please proceed to study. And telegraph with preliminary comments.

In response, Mao’s chief advisors told him that an invasion would require a large-scale military operation, for which the PLA wasn’t ready. They urged Mao to embed secret agents in Taiwan and in the surrounding ROC-controlled islands, and then to do the work of expanding and strengthening their spy network.

According to a 1945 assessment by the Strategy Center in Virginia, it would cost China 50,000 troops, along with planes, ships, and materials to attack and hold Taiwan. The young communist nation lacked those resources.

Meanwhile, Mao planned an attack on Taiwan’s first line of defense, the Kinmen and Matsu islands, which were located close to the mainland and 187 km west of Taiwan, and other locations where the KMT had established strong bases.

In October, the PLA shipped 10,000 troops to Kinmen, beginning the Battle of Kinmen. After only three days the KMT’s navy and air force were able to defeat the PLA. Mao had seriously underestimated the KMT’s strength and finally began to share his staff’s reservations about invading Taiwan. Nevertheless, he still claimed Kinmen as part of Fujian Province and would attempt every year to take it from the ROC.

Meanwhile, in Taipei itself, Chiang had made counterintelligence and counterespionage his top priority.