Was Taiwan Ever Part of China?

The historical relationship is more complicated than Beijing would like to admit

Dr. Gerrit van der Wees

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo caused quite an uproar during a November 2020 radio interview when he said: “Taiwan has not been a part of China, and that was recognized with the work that the Reagan administration did to lay out the policies that the United States has adhered to now for 3½ decades.”

Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government in Beijing has never had any sovereignty over Taiwan. It has always been ruled independently, first by the regime of Chiang Kai-shek, who wanted to “recover the mainland.” Since the early 1990s, Taiwan has been a vibrant democracy that wants to be accepted as a full and equal member in the international family of nations.

Specifically, in one clause in the Six Assurances, promulgated by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in July 1982, he stated that the U.S. “has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan.” 

Reagan was referring to the U.S.’s position that it considered Taiwan’s international status “undetermined,” in accordance with the outcome of the 1951-52 San Francisco Peace Treaty. Under that treaty, Japan formally ceded sovereignty over the island, but it was not decided to whom. Most countries at the 1951 peace conference argued that Taiwan’s status needed to be determined in due time, in accordance with the principle of self-determination enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

Was Taiwan Part of China During the Ming and Qing Dynasties?

What about the PRC argument that Taiwan is a “domestic” issue and has been an inalienable part of China since the Ming and Qing dynasties?

When representatives of the Dutch East India Company arrived in Taiwan in 1624, they found no trace of any administration by the Ming dynasty, which ruled China from 1368 to 1644. In fact, the Dutch — who in 1622 had established a small fortress in the Pescadores Islands in what is now the Taiwan Strait — were told by the Ming Tianqi emperor that  they should “go beyond our territory,”  so the Dutch moved to what was then called Formosa and ruled the island  for 38 years, establishing the first administrative structure on Taiwan. Thus, Taiwan certainly was never part of the Ming dynasty.

Dutch rule ended in 1662 when Ming follower Koxinga — escaping the newly established Qing/Manchu dynasty — sailed from the Fujian coast with 400 ships and 25,000 men and laid siege around the Dutch fortress Zeelandia. After nine months, the Dutch surrendered, and Koxinga established his rule in the southwestern corner of Taiwan. This lasted for 21 years, until the surrender by his grandson to the forces of the Qing dynasty in the Battle of Penghu in 1683. Koxinga and his family ruled Taiwan as the independent Kingdom of Tungning, not as part of the Ming dynasty, which was gone by that time.

The Qing emperor’s aim was to destroy the rebellious Koxinga regime, not to conquer the island. In 1683, the Kangxi emperor said that “Taiwan is outside our empire and of no great consequence” and even offered to have the Dutch buy it back. Perhaps this is an inconvenient truth for the current rulers in Beijing.

That year did, indeed, start a period of 200-plus years when Taiwan was ruled — mainly indirectly as part of the Fujian province — by the Manchu rulers in Beijing. But under Qing rule there were more than 100 recorded rebellions, some requiring more than 50,000 troops to put down. Taiwan historians characterize it as: “Every three years an uprising, every five years a rebellion.” The population considered the Manchu very much as a foreign colonial regime; there was no appetite for being part of China.

In 1887, at the end of the Qing dynasty, the Manchu rulers in Beijing decided to upgrade Taiwan’s status from a subsidiary of Fujian to a formal province of China. This was mainly done to ward off French and Japanese attempts to establish a colony on Taiwan, but the governor appointed by Beijing, Liu Mingchuan, did a lot to develop the island, introducing electricity, starting a railway from Keelung to the south and setting up a telegraph cable network. However, the modernization process lasted only eight years.

An Independent Formosan Republic

The next episode is probably even more telling. When Japan won the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese war, the Qing government in Beijing agreed under the Treaty of Shimonoseki that Taiwan would be ceded to Japan in perpetuity. The elites in Taiwan, including Gov. Tang Jingsong, sided with the local gentry and declared an independent Formosa Republic to forestall becoming part of Japan.

The republic was short-lived because of the overwhelming force of the Japanese, but it did mount major resistance, particularly by the local militia in central and southern Taiwan. The leader of the regular army was the famous “Black Flag” commander, Liu Yongfu, who led 100,000 soldiers.

Taiwan Soldiers participate in a military exercise in Hsinchu County, northern Taiwan, in January 2021. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

A Model Colony of Japan

Taiwan became a Japanese colony in 1895, and over the next 20 years or so, there were many rebellions and uprisings against Japanese rule by the local Hoklo, Hakka and Indigenous populations. But the Japanese did much to improve infrastructure, building roads, railroads, harbors, hospitals and schools. By the 1920s the island had become a prosperous model colony with a good educational system and health care, but with strict governance.

During the 1920s and 1930s, when Chiang and Mao Zedong were fighting for supremacy in China, neither the nationalists nor communists cared very much for Taiwan. In fact, both Chiang and Mao are reported to have expressed their support for Taiwan independence — from Japan, of course.

Their respective positions began changing in 1942-43, when in the runup to the November 1943 Cairo Conference, Chiang started to claim that Taiwan should be “returned to China.” Not to be left behind, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders made similar statements. Taiwan, thus, became a pawn in the competing narratives of the Chinese Nationalists, or Kuomintang (KMT), and the CCP.

Status To Be Determined

Taiwan’s formal status became nebulous after the Japanese surrender in August 1945. Through 1949, Taiwan was officially considered occupied by the Republic of China (ROC) on behalf of the Allied forces. Its status was to be determined later, via the formal treaty that would end World War II, which eventually became the San Francisco Peace Treaty. The U.S. government did not formally consider Taiwan to be “part of China,” but it was obviously administered — albeit with some challenges — by Chiang’s KMT forces and the ROC.

Of course, the KMT government itself took the position that Taiwan had been “returned” to China on Retrocession Day on October 25, 1945. But the U.S. government never recognized that position. Some in the U.S., such as Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, continued to push for a referendum under the auspices of the U.N., but after MacArthur’s falling-out with U.S. President Harry S. Truman, his advice was not followed. However, the debate showed that the U.S. had not taken the position that during the period in question “Taiwan was part of China.”

Statues of Chiang Kai-shek, the late Chinese Nationalist Party leader, dot a mountainside park in Tashi, northeastern Taiwan. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

1949 to Present: Separate Existence

Clearly, the claim “Taiwan has always been part of China” is dubious at best. It was always at, or primarily outside, the periphery of the Chinese empire.

From recent history, it is also clear that the PRC — established in 1949 — and the ROC/Taiwan have gone very different ways. The PRC has undoubtedly become powerful and influential, but it is still ruled by a repressive, authoritarian regime under CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping.

Taiwan, on the other hand, has morphed from a repressive, authoritarian regime under Chiang and the KMT into a vibrant democracy, with the once-opposition Democratic Progressive Party now holding both the presidency and legislature. The country has its own proud history, has developed its own identity as Taiwan and is eager to play its role as a full and equal member in the international community — a role it has been denied due to the competing narratives of the Chinese Nationalists and the CCP. In that sense, Pompeo deserves thanks for countering those narratives and for looking at Taiwan in its own right and its own light.  

This article was originally published in the December 1, 2020, edition of the online news magazine The Diplomat. It has been edited to fit FORUM’s format.

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