Keelung Harbor today. The island in the background is part of the collapsed caldera that forms the harbor, and was used as a landmark by the American ships in their 1854 visit.

America, Taiwan, and the Inevitability of History

Taiwan as an American island? A historical possibility courtesy of Commodore Matthew Perry

This week America’s officially unofficial embassy in Taipei opened its new $250 million dollar complex. The event highlighted Taiwan’s excellent relations with the US, and the appearance of dignitaries from days gone by was a reminder of the island’s deep historical links to the United States.

George Henry Preble

One of the first official visits of an American to Taiwan was probably the stopover of the sloop-of-war Macedonian in Keelung in 1854. The ship had been part of the second Perry expedition to Japan, and was then assigned to evaluate the harbor and Keelung’s coal resources. Lt. George Henry Preble aboard the ship wrote of the visit in his diary:

We anchored here at 10 o’clock this morning and found to our surprise the Supply has not arrived before us. We have been regaling ourselves after our long abstinence with pine apples, egg plants, cucumbers, pumpkins, pigs, poultry and eggs, not that anyone of us have eaten through the whole list, but the sight of all these attainable things is refreshing. I was on shore today for a few minutes but saw only a crowded dirty town which reminded me of a dozen similiar dirty Syrian towns in the Mediterranean.

Also aboard was Kidder Randolph Reese, who would go on to fame in the
Civil War. He observed:

The streets of Keelung are a succession of arcades, with, for Chinese, very good ranges of shops on each side, and the pavements in front are covered with a busy throng vending fruits and trinkets of every description — except the best….
…The districts in which vegetables, fish, poultry, and fruit are sold present a very goodly array of the above-mentioned provisions. The pineapples are plentiful, also mangoes of a good quality; the sweet potatos, especially the top ones, large; eggs, principally those of ducks. Bananas are scarce, the country being too hilly for them, the same may be said of coconuts. The watermelons are excellent — not large, but with very thin rinds.
Continued our walk through the town, stopping now and then to examine the contents of the stores, or accepting the often-repeated invitation to walk in and take a pipe and cup of tea, on which occasions we would write in English for them, or draw a rough chart, showing the vessels’ track and destination, with which they were very much pleased, many understanding the position of the countries, represented on the chart, very well.
Commodore Matthew Perry

When Commodore Matthew Perry returned home he presciently recommended that the US establish a presence on Formosa. The Americans had known for five decades that the island was only half-controlled by the Manchus, the other half being left to the aborigines. Perry was one of a group of far-sighted Americans urging that the US step up its game in Asia, or fall behind, a situation similar to the one the US finds itself in today.

In the 1850s the Taiping Rebellion cut off the flow of rice from the ports of south China, and western merchants were looking for stable alternative. Formosa was a natural choice, and in 1855 Townsend Harris, then a businessman but later the US representative in Japan, suggested that the US buy Taiwan. At the same time enterprising US traders had opened trade with southern Taiwan (it had hitherto been focused on the north) and were engaged in a bitter rivalry with British merchants. The American traders welcomed the proposal as a way to cut out the British, and contacted the American commissioner in China, Dr. Peter Parker.

American commissioner in China, Dr. Peter Parker

Parker was enthused by the idea and forwarded the information to his superiors. At the same time, however, he secretly and without orders instructed the local US naval commander to send a ship to Fengshan in southern Taiwan, hoist the US flag, and claim Formosa for “a civilized power” as he put the idea of grabbing Taiwan in his letters to US officials.

However, this scheme was killed by the outgoing Secretary of State of the Pierce Administration. When Buchanan became president, he appointed William Reed to Parker’s place, and instructed him that on no account would the US annex Chinese territory. Thus ended the possibility of Formosa eventually becoming a US state.

Historical might-have-beens like this illustrate how the Chinese claim to Formosa is merely one possibility out of many. In the 19th century Germany and England also toyed with annexing the island, and Japan would actually do so at the end of that turbulent century (but for Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor, Taiwan might well be Japanese territory today). The western powers in the 19th century were well aware that Taiwan had once been a Dutch colony and hosted a Spanish garrison, and saw no particular reason that it could not once again become a European holding.

Manchu language

All of the Powers, including the Manchu empire controlling China, saw territories as malleable and tradeable, not fixed and immutable. Though Beijing and its apologists constantly claim that it is inevitable that Taiwan belongs to China, it is worth noting that in all of Chinese history, no Han emperor ever annexed the island. It was the expanding Manchu empire, not a Han state, that first annexed the island to a government on the Asian mainland. Han Chinese governments were never interested in the ocean as a place for expansion, and for all of its history down to the Qing, the various Chinese states had basically ended at the water’s edge.

Thus, for the roughly half of the last four hundred years of Taiwan’s interaction with the modern era of globalized trade networks, it has been administrated by governments not based on the mainland of Asia. For thousands of years before that, Taiwan had been integrated into trade networks centered on the Austronesian peoples of the coasts of southeast Asia.

Dutch built Fort Zeelandia

China? The “historical” connection is an accident of geography created by the Dutch, who brought over Chinese settlers to develop a tax base for the Dutch colony. The Dutch might have chosen to bring in settlers from any of the settled agricultural peoples of Asia, but the Chinese were conveniently at hand. The Chinese themselves had classed Taiwan as a barbarous and dangerous place, and basically ignored it, except for merchants and pirates who traded with its aboriginal peoples. As a 17th century Qing text observed:

自古荒服之地,不通中國」名曰東番。明天啟中(1621–27)為紅毛荷蘭夷人所據,屬於日本 “[Taiwan is] a land suffering a shortage of clothing since ancient time, the land which is not China. It was called the Eastern Barbarians. In 1621–27, it was seized by the Dutch, and belongs to the Japanese.”

What American involvement with Taiwan teaches is that Taiwan’s current ambiguous status is an accident of history that is recent, contingent, and improbable. It was an American who sparked Japan’s interest in acquiring Taiwan, and in the opening years of Japan’s colonization of the island the island traded massively with the US. When Japan finally gave up sovereignty over the island, it was the Americans who chose to arrange the postwar treaties so that Taiwan’s sovereignty belonged to no one. The US could have chosen to organize a plebiscite on independence, or erected an independent state on the island, or handed it to Beijing as the UK initially wanted. In all these shifting strands of potential tomorrows, with Taiwan annexed to China, returned to Japan, or made independent, the one possibility no one wanted, six decades of ambiguity, was the one history chose.

Think of that next time you hear Beijing making noises about destiny, and remember: China is not an inevitability, it is merely a possibility.


American Citizens for Taiwan articles, the Congressional contact tool, and Congressional/Voter Guide remain free, but take an enormous time each month to research, write and post, and thousands of dollars to sustain each year.

If you find any value in what we do, become a Friend of ACT by supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner, to help American Citizens for Taiwan educate Americans about Taiwan and continue to press our government to strengthen U.S.-Taiwan relations and be fully supportive of Taiwan’s right to self-determination.

MONTHLY DONATION — START NOW

You can also become a Friend of ACT with a single donation in any amount:

ONE-TIME DONATION — GIVE NOW