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Origins of Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan

James W. Pfister
James W. Pfister

The foolish trip of Nancy Pelosi, our speaker of the House of Representatives, to Taiwan recently has raised again the dangerousness of our relationship with the People's Republic of China (herein PRC), a growing nuclear and world power in Asia. My purpose here is to provide a historical description of events that lay at the foundation of the PRC’s right to sovereignty over Taiwan.

Han Chinese started visiting Taiwan during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 A.D.). The first written account of a visit was 1349. By the 16th century, the early European explorers, the Portuguese, had entered the region and named Taiwan Ilha Formosa (“beautiful island”). Also, by the 16th century, more Chinese had come to the island, about 100 miles off the Chinese coast.

By the 17th century, the Dutch had entered the scene. At first, they were driven away by the Ming, but eventually built Fort Zeelandia, on the southwest coast of the island. In 1626, the Spanish built a settlement on the northeast coast. In 1642, the Dutch defeated the Spanish and drove them out.

In 1664, the Ming dynasty was defeated by the Manchu forces. Koxinga was a Ming loyalist. In 1662, after a nine-month siege, Koxinga captured the Dutch fortress Zeelandia. Taiwan then became his base. The Qing (Manchu) dynasty (1644-1911) defeated Koxinga’s progeny in 1683. They ruled part of the island as Taiwan Prefecture. In 1875, the island was divided into two prefectures (north and south). In 1887, Taiwan became the Fokien-Taiwan Province of China. (The above brief history is from Wikipedia, July 30, 2022).

Before the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, 45% of Taiwan was governed by the Qing, while the remainder was “lightly populated” by Aborigines, a barbaric people. In a population of 2.5 million, 2.3 million were Han Chinese, the remainder were members of various indigenous tribes. (Ibid.).

Japan had aggressive motivations toward Taiwan. China lost the Sino-Japanese War. As a result, the Qing transferred sovereignty of Taiwan and Penghi to Japan on April 17, 1895, pursuant to the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

The return of Taiwan to China was a main goal of the Chinese during World War II. The Cairo Declaration issued by China, the United States, and Great Britain on Dec. 1, 1943, stated in part: “…that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa (Taiwan) and the Pescadores (Penghu), shall be restored to China.”

The Potsdam Proclamation signed by China, the United States and Great Britain on July 26, 1945, (subsequently adhered to by the Soviet Union) reiterated: “The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out.”

On Aug. 15, 1945, Japan surrendered. The instrument of surrender stated: "Japan hereby accepts the provisions in the declaration issued by the heads of the Governments of the United States, China and Great Britain on July 26, 1945, at Potsdam, and subsequently adhered to by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

On Oct. 25, 1945, the officer accepting the Japanese surrender in Taiwan on behalf of the Chinese government proclaimed that from this day forward Taiwan and Penghui are part of Chinese sovereignty. (Much of the above is from Taiwan History, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of Latvia, Aug. 5, 2008).

On Oct. 1, 1949, the PRC became the successor government of China. Therefore, the PRC claims sovereignty over all of the Chinese territories, including Taiwan. On Oct. 25, 1971, the United Nations seated the PRC as the government of China, and removed the Republic of China. President Richard Nixon reacted: “This went much further than we had expected: We had thought that our greatest problem would be in convincing Taiwan to stay after the P.R.C. had been granted equal status.” ("RN, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon," 1978). We would recognize the PRC as the sole government of China during the Carter Administration on Jan. 1, 1979.

What is the problem now? Why do we seem to be on the edge of a clash with the PRC? What has the United States done since World War II to interfere with and undermine the PRC’s sovereignty over Taiwan? Next time.

James W. Pfister, J.D. University of Toledo, Ph.D. University of Michigan (political science), retired after 46 years in the Political Science Department at Eastern Michigan University. He lives at Devils Lake and can be reached at

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegram: James Pfister: Origins of Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan