Is Taiwan Part of China?

Chinese leaders might hope that repetition will breed acceptance, but the historical reality is that the “One China” concept is a lie. While American policymakers in pursuit of compromise and détente with the PRC have wavered over the decades in their commitment to Taiwan, the reality is that mainland China’s historical and legal claims to Taiwan do not stand up to scrutiny.

Michael Rubin

That Taiwan is an inalienable part of China remains a sine qua non of Beijing’s diplomacy. Since Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, no Communist Chinese leader has brokered any compromise on the issue.

Speaking to the Supreme State Council in 1958, Mao declared, “Taiwan is ours, and we will never compromise on this issue, which is an issue of internal affairs.”1 He warned the United States that the only way to avoid a catastrophic defeat was to withdraw from the island. Just a year later, when he met Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Mao reiterated, “Taiwan is an internal PRC issue.”2

Across the decades, Chinese Communist policy has been diplomatically, economically, and culturally fluid. The experience of the mainland Chinese under Mao’s rule and during the Cultural Revolution differed wildly from their aspirations under Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping, the current leader, abrogates the social compacts and diplomatic agreements signed by his predecessors. But through it all, the PRC’s position has remained consistent on Taiwan: As the Chinese Foreign Ministry website still declares, “Taiwan is a sacred and inseparable part of China’s territory.”3

Chinese leaders might hope that repetition will breed acceptance, but the historical reality is that the “One China” concept is a lie. While American policymakers in pursuit of compromise and détente with the PRC have wavered over the decades in their commitment to Taiwan, the reality is that mainland China’s historical and legal claims to Taiwan do not stand up to scrutiny.

What’s in a Name?

Taiwan lies approximately 100 miles off the coast of mainland China, but for much of Chinese history, it might as well have been 1,000 miles away. Before the early 17th century, there was no appreciable Chinese control of—let alone interest in—Taiwan. Theories regarding the island’s very name reflect this

There is no consensus about the roots of the name “Taiwan.” In 1937, the Japanese scholar Akiyoshi Abe, of the Aboriginal Languages Research Institute of Taihoku, speculated the word to be a bastardization of the Taiwanese aboriginal words taian and tayoan, which meant “foreigners” or “aliens” and likely referred to Chinese settlers.4 The Dutch may have been pragmatic and simply adopted the name after Tayouan island, where the Dutch built Fort Zeelandia in what is now the Anping District of Tainan.5

Another theory is that the name derives from the Chinese for a “bent dais rising from the river,” but this ignores that the resulting Chinese word would then be wan-tai rather than tai-wan. Likewise, the notion that “Taiwan” comes from the Chinese for “terraced bay” falls flat, as there is no obvious candidate for such a feature on the island.6

Others speculate that the word is a bastardization of the Chinese tung hwan, or “eastern barbarians.” Indeed, from the perspective of mainland Chinese, Taiwan was always the “other.” A Chinese chronicle from the third century BC refers to Taiwan as “I Chou,” “a barbarous region to the East.”7 Until the seventh century AD, many Chinese cartographers confused the island with Okinawa (which is part of present-day Japan), hardly a sign of its historical centrality.8

Historically, other names stuck. The name “Formosa” was an invention of 16th-century Portuguese traders who, struck by the island’s beauty, christened it “Ilha Formosa”—“beautiful island.”9 Spaniards who briefly colonized the northern coast simply used the Spanish equivalent, “Isla Hermosa.” Aborigines in the south of the island, meanwhile, often called their home “Pekan,” a word that means a “haven gained after long wandering.” This, in turn, highlights the divergent origins of those who call Taiwan home and came to the island far earlier and from greater distances than did Han settlers coming from across the Taiwan Strait.10

Are Taiwanese Chinese?

In 1978, a debate about what constituted native literature transcended Taiwanese academe and sparked a broader debate in Taiwan about whether Taiwanese and Chinese identities were mutually exclusive.11 The issue remains a cultural and political fault line in Taiwan today, surfacing in nearly every presidential election.

The preponderance of evidence suggests Taiwan is not Chinese. Many in Taiwan traditionally differentiated between waishengren, who migrated to Taiwan from China between the end of the Japanese occupation and the 1949 Communist victory on the mainland, and benshengren, or “people of this province.” These could be both Han Chinese whose settlement predated World War II and those from the Minnan or Hakka ethnic groups.12 There is a separate debate about how distinct the Minnan and Hakka are from each other, but there is no argument over whether they are distinct from the Han.13

If the Taiwanese do not share a common origin with the Han Chinese in the premodern period, then where did they come from? Two main theories exist about the population of both Taiwan and the islands of Southeast Asia.

From the 1970s until the 1990s, linguists proposed the “Out of Taiwan” theory, which posited two waves of migration. The first occurred during the Ice Age, around 50,000 years ago, when lower sea levels meant not only that Taiwan was connected to mainland China but also that much of Indonesia was joined by land to the Southeast Asian mainland. The sea level rise that accompanied the end of the Ice Age ultimately cut off these populations. Then, in the late Holocene, between 5,500 and 4,000 years ago, another population wave allegedly left Taiwan for what is now Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, as the population sought new land for rice cultivation, bringing the prototypical forms of the languages now spoken in these locations.

Beginning in 1998, however, multiple genetic studies returned to the question about the origins of Taiwan’s peoples. Their findings question the notion that Taiwan served as a base for the dispersal of people across the region and instead suggest that climate change and the closing of land bridges led to differences in the evolution of various peoples and cultures.14

However, when researchers overlay genetic studies with linguistic and cultural traits, a different picture emerges in which there was a common ancestry among Taiwanese aborigines and the peoples of the islands of Southeast Asia, with only minor migrations in the late Holocene from both Southeast Asia and southern China to and through Taiwan.15 These findings undermine the claims of some Chinese nationalists that Taiwan was always just an extension of China.

While scientists, linguists, and anthropologists may debate the timing and direction of migrations, what is beyond dispute is the great interplay over the centuries between Taiwan and the other islands of Southeast Asia and that Taiwan’s native population has significant genetic and linguistic ties to peoples now living in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

In their pursuit of the “One China” policy and Anschluss with Taiwan, Chinese authorities have imposed an ideological and political prism through which Chinese researchers operate. Chinese academics date the colonization of Taiwan to an agricultural revolution among the Han: Over the centuries, a Han lust for new farmland led to a concerted effort to subjugate or force the migration of the Guizhou “barbarians” along their borders. The Guizhou fled south and west to what are now the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan and northern Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. There is broad consensus that this migration marks the origin of the Yue people, who, over subsequent centuries, excelled at navigation and trade

Chinese Communists are not the only ones to emphasize the connection between the Guizhou and some Taiwanese aborigines. In the 1950s, for example, historian Chang Chi-yun, who between 1954 and 1958 served as the Republic of China’s education minister, cited common customs among the Guizhou and northern Taiwan’s Atayal people to suggest that the Guizhou had not stopped on China’s southern coast but instead continued their migration to Taiwan between the eighth and fifth centuries BC.16

Even if this is true, it does not create a basis for contemporary Chinese claims over the island; otherwise, Malaysia could make a similar claim. As India grew militarily and culturally stronger in the first four centuries AD, its commanders and princes traveled across Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and the Indonesian archipelago, often establishing petty kingdoms. This created a ripple effect of migration, as Malays chose to migrate rather than assimilate into the Indian interpolators’ culture as the Indians increasingly demanded land. Ultimately, this led to an ethnic Malay colonization of southern Taiwan.17

Did China Govern Taiwan?

In his 1990 history The Search for Modern China, Jonathan Spence, long a doyen of Chinese studies, suggested that China’s interest in Taiwan was a relatively recent phenomenon. “The integration of Taiwan into China’s history dates from the early seventeenth century,” he observed.18 Most Chinese at the time still avoided the island, writing it off as an inhospitable place blighted by malaria and battered by storms and rough seas. Those who did make it to Taiwan faced aborigines hostile to exploration, let alone settlement and cultivation by mainlanders.

That said, there was some interplay. Some late Ming dynasty traders established small trading posts in the southwest, seeking to profit off deer hides and the powdered deer horns that were the Viagra of the day. Some Chinese and Japanese pirates would also seek shelter among the marshes and inlets of the southwestern Taiwanese coast.

Ming rulers were never able to defeat the pirates, but in the early 17th century, they decided to make common cause with them against their enemy, the Dutch settlers in southern Taiwan. The Ming court approached Cheng Chihlung, whom it appointed first commodore of the imperial fleet and then admiral, with responsibility to stamp out (others’) piracy.19 His son, Koxinga, became increasingly important to the Ming as the Manchus captured first Beijing, then Nanjing, and, in 1646, Fuzhou. Both the remaining Ming and Qing courted Koxinga, who maintained his fleet and ruled over an exclave along the southern Chinese coast.

While Koxinga repulsed numerous land attacks and even pressed several successful ones of his own, he understood time was against him and, by 1659, was looking to stage a retreat from his mainland base near Xiamen to Taiwan. Two years later, he launched his invasion, laying siege to Fort Zeelandia, the Dutch trading center on the southwestern coast. Finally, on February 1, 1662, the Dutch surrendered, retreating to Batavia (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia) and ceding Taiwan to Koxinga. To suggest that Koxinga’s victory was Chinese, however, ignores that his mother was Japanese, something many Taiwanese readily point out.

It also ignores what followed: The Kangxi emperor—the Qing dynasty’s third—assumed the throne in 1661, at age 6. He and the regents operating in his name sought to uproot the coastal population of mainland China, but it was not until 1683 that they forced Taiwan into submission. There followed a debate in the Qing court about what to do next. Admiral Shi wanted to fortify Taiwan to prevent a Dutch return. Other courtiers counseled abandoning the island altogether. “Taiwan is nothing but an isolated island on the sea far away from China, it has long since been a hideout of pirates, escaped convicts, deserters and ruffians, therefore, there is nothing to gain from retaining it,” one report read.20 The Qing deployed many of Koxinga’s troops instead to northern China to counter Russian encroachment.

Even after Kangxi incorporated Taiwan as a prefecture of the Fujian province, with an 8,000-man garrison of Qing soldiers, he ordered that Chinese emigration to the island be limited.21 In effect, the Qing quarantined Taiwan.22 Certainly, the debate about Taiwan’s status and Kangxi’s ultimate ambivalence showed the general Chinese ambivalence toward, if not the othering of, Taiwan.

In 1721, Chu Yi-kuei, a native of the Zhangzhou prefecture in Fujian who had settled in Taiwan eight years earlier and until then led a fairly placid life raising ducks, headed a revolt against Qing rule after Wang Chen, the local magistrate, imposed a particularly harsh tax regime. The revolt quickly escalated. Chu and his rebel allies briefly took control of the island, although internal rivalries and a Qing counterattack from the mainland ultimately doomed his two-month rule.23

It was not the last rebellion against the Qing. In December 1731, Taiwan’s aborigines revolted, joined quickly by Han immigrants on the island. This time, it took the Qing eight months to reassert control. The resistance to Chinese rule was so great that, by 1738, the governor restricted farming or settlement of aborigine lands and, the following year, restricted Han immigration to Taiwan.24

Over the next several decades, Han immigration nevertheless increased—much of it illegal. Still, this did not mean Chinese domination, especially as many Chinese continued to pay rent to aborigine landowners.

Nor did it end strife on the island. Communal violence erupted in 1782, and four years later, locals again rebelled against the Qing.

For Chinese officials today to look at Qing-era rule in Taiwan as proof that Taiwan is Chinese territory is hypocritical on another front: The Qing dynasty that established itself after Manchurian forces defeated the Ming was only the second major Chinese dynasty that the Han did not rule. While the Qing sought to prove themselves as more Chinese than the Ming were in terms of customs and practices during their reign, after Qing rule fractured, the Han Chinese argued that the Qing were really foreign interlopers. Chinese officials’ efforts now to suggest that intermittent mainland rule in the 17th and 18th centuries proves China’s right to incorporate Taiwan fall apart when Han leaders question the legitimacy of the Qing’s pedigree.

Were the Chinese Alone in Influencing Taiwan?

While Beijing may amplify fleeting and incomplete Chinese rule of Taiwan during the Qing dynasty to justify current claims that Taiwan is part of “One China,” such logic also falls flat given the longer duration of foreign rule in Taiwan than the duration of Chinese rule there. Long before Chinese authorities showed any interest in Taiwan, Portuguese sailors did. Their attention, however, was short-lived. Portugal’s motivation was, like that of many other European powers, less conquest for its own sake but rather enrichment. Here, the prize was trade with mainland China. As the Portuguese consolidated control over and ultimately settled in Macao, they lost interest in investment in the more distant Taiwan.

What Portugal ignored, Spain did not. By the mid-16th century, the Spanish had already conquered most of the Philippines. Between 1626 and 1642, Spaniards established a small colony in the northern tip of Taiwan.

For the Dutch, this was unacceptable. The Dutch chartered the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and nine years later established a trading post in Batavia from which the company would ultimately coordinate its operations, which quickly expanded throughout the region. In 1622, after failing to oust the Portuguese from Macao, the Dutch seized the Pescadores Islands, just over 100 miles off the southeast coast of China. Skirmishing ensued between the Dutch, who erected a fort in the Pescadores, and Chinese forces from the mainland coastal province of Fujian.

Finally, in 1624, the Dutch East India Company came to an agreement with Fujian’s governor, Shang Zhouzuo, for the Dutch to leave the Pescadores Islands, with the Ming in exchange recognizing Dutch ownership of Taiwan. The logic of the bargain was telling. Foreign presence in the Pescadores threatened the Ming. Taiwan, however, was too distant and barbarous to be their concern.25 For the next 38 years, the Dutch governed much of southern Taiwan from Fort Zeelandia, expelled other foreigners who sought safe haven on the island, and, even after the 1662 fall of Fort Zeelandia, managed to maintain a presence in the northern town of Keelung until 1668. So while the Spanish presence in Taiwan was never on the scale of the Dutch settlement there, given the Dutch history on Taiwan, the presence of any other foreign power was unacceptable to the Dutch East India Company, and fighting erupted. Dutch troops failed in their first attempts to oust the Spanish from Fort San Domingo, in what is today Taipei, but in 1642, they succeeded. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, other Europeans also ended up on the island, more by accident than design. Often, such encounters did not end well, with aborigines chaining and ultimately executing British sailors or other prisoners who sought refuge after mishaps at sea.

While neither the British nor French sought to colonize Taiwan, they were not indifferent to the island. After Qing officials illegally searched a British-flagged Chinese junk in Guangzhou on October 8, 1856, a diplomatic spat ensued, which escalated quickly. The British first seized Guangzhou and, as the Chinese continued to refuse British terms, eventually marched on Beijing itself before the Qing court accepted the Treaty of Tientsin, under which the Qing agreed to open four Taiwanese ports to foreign traders and allow Christian missionaries to proselytize. This led to the opening of a British consulate in Fort San Domingo.

Taiwan was of interest to not only European powers but Japan as well. Japanese seamen faced the same perils in Taiwan that their European counterparts did: When shipwrecked or forced to flee into a Taiwanese harbor, they often suffered gruesome attacks by aboriginal tribes. After Taiwan’s Botan tribe massacred Japanese shipwreck survivors in December 1871 (ironically, believing the crew of the ill-fated Miyako were Chinese), the Chinese officials disavowed responsibility, stating that Chinese sovereignty on Taiwan itself only extended to the western flatlands and not the rugged and untamed central and eastern portion of the island.26 That sovereignty was tenuous, as the French invasion of Taiwan against the backdrop of the 1884–85 Sino-French War demonstrated.

The French ultimately withdrew, but Japanese interest grew. In 1894, Chinese and Japanese troops faced off in Korea; Japanese forces prevailed. In the resulting Treaty of Shimonoseki, China ceded claims to both Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands “in perpetuity.”27 That Japanese control would continue through World War II, and it continues to imprint itself deeply on Taiwanese culture and society.

Put another way, Taiwan’s separation from China occurred a half century before the dissolution of most of the British and French Empires. From a Taiwanese standpoint, the notion of returning to Beijing’s control would be akin to Australia, which gained its independence in 1901, returning to the direct control of the United Kingdom or Algeria, which gained its independence from France in 1962, again becoming a French department. Every nation that colonized Taiwan left an imprint that, over the years, amplified Taiwan’s differences with mainland Chinese culture, especially as Western powers and Japan sought to modernize the country in ways different from the mainland’s development.

Is China’s Legal Case Valid?

Chiang Kai-shek led the Republic of China from 1928 until his death in 1975. He may have been an American ally, but American officials questioned his competence and trustworthiness. This was a main reason Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration denied Chiang a seat at Yalta or Potsdam, as Allied leaders sought to chart Asia’s future,28 though at the 1943 Cairo Conference, Chiang got what he wanted. The joint declaration concluding that conference declared, “All the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be returned to the Republic of China.”29

Nor can the PRC claim that the UN accepts Beijing’s “One China” interpretation. While Secretary-General Kofi Annan created a UN “One China” policy out of whole cloth, the UN Charter does not give the secretary-general or the broader UN that power. This instead is the realm of international treaties, the last of which was the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. To finalize peace with Japan, it declared, “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to Formosa and the Pescadores.” The treaty did not transfer sovereignty to another state, however.30

Today, Chinese authorities argue that the Cairo Declaration awards them control over Taiwan.31 In effect, however, this is just a legal syllogism based on their insistence that they are the sole representatives of China. While Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin sought to revert Taiwan to China, at the time, they did not envision more than one China. After the victory of Chinese Communists on the mainland and the 1949 declaration of the PRC, the seat of the Republic of China mentioned in both the Cairo Declaration and the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers’ General Order No. 1 was the Republic of China, which had relocated its government to Taiwan.32

Beijing may dispute Taiwan’s sovereignty and the legitimacy of its government, but two facts remain: First, periods in which governance in Taiwan is distinct from the mainland are greater than the time the two have had united authority. And second, the People’s Republic has never had sovereignty in Taiwan. Ironically, on this, the Taiwanese can use Mao’s words against Beijing. In a 1936 interview with journalist and author Edgar Snow, Mao treated Taiwan as distinct from China. “It is the immediate task of China to regain all our lost territories, not merely to defend our sovereignty below the Great Wall,” he said.

We do not, however, include Korea, formerly a Chinese colony, but when we have re-established the independence of the lost territories of China, and if the Koreans wish to break away from the chains of Japanese imperialism, we will extend them our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same thing applies to Formosa.33

Precedent undermines the “One China” concept for other reasons. Ethnic arguments do not support China’s claims. The Arab League has 22 members; both the international community and most Arab leaders rejected former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s concept of Arab nationalism. Both Albania and Kosovo have ethnic Albanian populations, while Romania and Moldova remain separate countries despite their common ethnicity. Few countries recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, notwithstanding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s argument that its population is Russian. Conversely, for Beijing to use ethnicity as the basis for its claim to legitimacy over Taiwan would undermine the logic of its claims to Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang.

During his first meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai, in 1971, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger remarked, “There’s no question that if the Korean war hadn’t occurred . . . Taiwan would probably be today a part of the PRC.”34 That may be true, but it is immaterial to the present day. The histories of Taiwan and mainland China diverged, frankly, centuries before Kissinger’s pursuit of his China diplomacy. Taiwan has an identity, culture, and political history as different from China as most of China’s other neighbors have. The biggest mistake any American leader could make is to buy into what essentially has become Beijing’s big lie: that Taiwan is a part of China.


  1. Mao Zedong, “Speech, Mao Zedong at the Fifteenth Meeting of the Supreme State Council (Excerpt),” Wilson Center, Digital Archive, https://digitalarchive.
  2. Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev et al., “Discussion Between N.S. Khrushchev and Mao Zedong,” Wilson Center, Digital Archive, document/112088.
  3. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “A Policy of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ on Taiwan,” eng/ziliao_665539/3602_665543/3604_665547/t18027.shtml.
  4. Akiyoshi Abe, Taiwan chimei kenkyū [The Study of the Place Names in Taiwan] (Taihoku-shi, Taiwan: Bango Kenkyūkai: Hatsubaijo Sugita Shoten, 1938).
  5. Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, Maritime Taiwan: Historical Encounters with the East and the West (New York: Routledge, 2009), 105.
  6. Taiwan Review, “What’s New in a Name,” March 1, 1971, news.php?unit=20,29,35,45&post=25821.
  7. Jonathan Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 21–22.
  8. Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation, 22.
  9. Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation, 22–23.
  10. Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation, 23.
  11. Feng-yi Chu, “Chinese and Taiwanese Identities in Taiwan as Epistemic Challengers,” International Journal of Taiwan Studies 4, no. 2 (July 2021): 267–68, https://brill. com/view/journals/ijts/4/2/article-p265_265.xml.
  12. Chu, “Chinese and Taiwanese Identities in Taiwan as Epistemic Challengers,” 267.
  13. Lin-yao Chi, “Minnan and Hakka Are the Same,” Taipei Times, May 11, 2001,
  14. Pedro Soares et al., “Climate Change and Postglacial Human Dispersals in Southeast Asia,” Molecular Biology and Evolution 25, no. 6 (June 2008): 1209–18, https://
  15. Pedro A. Soares et al., “Resolving the Ancestry of Austronesian-Speaking Populations,” Human Genetics 135 (2016): 309–26,
  16. Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation, 31–32.
  17. Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation, 32–33.
  18. Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), 53.
  19. Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation, 54.
  20. Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation, 111.
  21. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 56–57.
  22. John R. Shephard, “The Island Frontier of the Ch’ing, 1684–1780,” in Taiwan: A New History, ed. Murray A. Rubinstein (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1999), 112–13.
  23. Shephard, “The Island Frontier of the Ch’ing, 1684–1780,” 114–15.
  24. Shephard, “The Island Frontier of the Ch’ing, 1684–1780,” 117–19.
  25. Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation, 50
  26. Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation, 134–36.
  27. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 223.
  28. John Pomfret, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present (New York: Henry Holt, 2016), 303.
  29. J. P. Jain, “The Legal Status of Formosa: A Study of British, Chinese and Indian Views,” American Journal of International Law 57, no. 1 (January 1963): 25, https://www.
  30. Michael Mazza and Gary J. Schmitt, “Righting a Wrong: Taiwan, the United Nations, and United States Policy,” Project 2049 Institute, October 25, 2021, https://
  31. Xinhua News Agency, “Cairo Declaration Sets Legal Basis for Taiwan as Part of China: Expert,” November 28, 2003,
  32. Jain, “The Legal Status of Formosa,” 25–26.
  33. Mao Zedong, China: The March Toward Unity (New York: Workers Library Publishers, 1937), 40.
  34. National Security Archive, “Memcon, Kissinger and Zhou, 9 July 1971, 4:35–11:20 PM, Top Secret/Sensitive/Exclusively Eyes Only, with Cover Memo by Lord,” July 29, 1971,
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