Interesting Times: The Strategic Significance of Taiwan to the United States: An Historical Appreciation

This text is a supplement to Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige, by Chas W. Freeman, Jr., published by Just World Books in January 2013. Other texts offered in this series can be accessed here.

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Chas Freeman writes:

As I began my study of Chinese in 1969, I wrote a short paper on historical views of Taiwan’s strategic importance. I believe it remains useful background reading on the subject. I caution the reader, however, that in 1969, despite the hints of a thaw in U.S. relations with the China mainland that are discussed in detail in Chapter II of this book, no one wanted to admit that this would require adjustments in the U.S. relationship with Taiwan. Memories of the McCarthy witch hunt over “who lost China” and the hammerlock of the “China Lobby” on U.S. policy were powerful inhibitions on anyone who was inclined to discuss this. The logic of a turn to the People’s Republic of China (then called “Red China”) seemed obvious to me. My perception of it had played a large role in my decision to enter the Foreign Service. Still, I thought the question of Taiwan’s geostrategic status was relevant to possible changes in United States China policy and decided to devote my research to it. The result of that effort is this essay: “The Strategic Significance of Taiwan to the United States: An Historical Appreciation.” This is its first appearance in print.


The Strategic Significance of Taiwan to the United States: An Historical Appreciation

April 1969


Today, as never in the recent past, the policies of the United States in the Western Pacific and East Asian area are being questioned. Much of the controversy centers on American policy toward the Communist mainland of China.

It has become fashionable to advocate a degree of rapprochement with the mainland Chinese regime. Most proposals for accomplishing this make scant mention of that other China on the island of Taiwan to which the United States stands committed by treaty, friendship, and a tradition of years of diplomatic cooperation.

Yet the attitudes of both Communist and Nationalist Chinese, and the repeated statements of our own government, testify to the central importance of Taiwan in any discussion of American relations with the mainland of China.

Nevertheless, perhaps because American China scholars are relatively few and the study of a rump government on a small island is less attractive than that of a hostile revolutionary regime governing a territory of continental proportions, American scholarship on Taiwan is slight.

What has been written on Taiwan, or Formosa, as it is often called, has tended to follow a long established pattern:

Formosa is often considered to be a doubtful military asset and a definite political liability. It is academic, however, to discuss the desirability of Formosa as a military outpost of the free world.

The decision to include Formosa in the United States defense system has already been taken and we are committed.[1]

Yet to beg the question of defining American security interests in Taiwan is to ignore a fundamental issue in American policy in East Asia. If it is desirable to adjust our relations with mainland China, it follows that we must accept adjustments in our relations with the Chinese government on Taiwan.

Any change in these relations will inevitably alter the American posture in the area on many levels, not the least of which is the strategic. This is particularly true in light of the imminent reversion of Okinawa to Japan.

This paper is an attempt to explore the way in which the United States and its predecessors in the Western Pacific have regarded the strategic significance of Taiwan.

The terms “strategic” and “strategic interests” are susceptible to varying definitions. Strategic interests may be essentially political in nature; the United States may well have such interests in the Chinese government on Taiwan.

For instance, the Nationalist government, to the extent it can attract the loyalty of overseas Chinese or encourage them to withhold their loyalty from Communist China, weakens Peking’s[2] influence among overseas Chinese and tends to disarm a potential Communist fifth column in the important countries of Southeast Asia.

It thus serves a strategic interest of the United States. However, this paper is not intended to deal with such primarily political considerations, which have already received most attention in American commentary, but rather to separate and concentrate on the military implications for the United States of Taiwan’s strategic position and history.

In speaking of “military interests,” it is important to draw a distinction between the contemporary situation of a base in wartime and in times of peace.

The anarchic international relations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Asia have been replaced by more pacific behavior on the part of most nations (though not all, as recent events off the coast of north Korea have clearly shown).[3]

The fact that a country has control of a particular strategic location today does not mean, as it might have three hundred years ago, attempts by that country to disrupt or destroy the commerce of rival nations.

Nor does it necessarily mean attempts to bring neighboring areas under political control. Aside from logistical advantages, strategic advantage is today more likely to be potential than actual. More than ever, its principal use is as a factor of credibility in the diplomatic game, a weapon of threat, bluff, or blackmail, and a deterrent to action by a political opponent.

It is primarily in that sense that I wish to discuss military interests in the island.

The Strategic Location of Taiwan

The strategic position of Taiwan is described by Chiaomin Hsieh as follows:

Taiwan is an island situated off the coast of the Asian continent. To the north it is linked with the Ryukyu Islands, which further connect with the Japan archipelago; to the south it extends to the Philippine archipelago. Thus Taiwan lies at the intersection of these two island arcs, and is part of a festoon of islands running along the Asian coast at the Western rim of the Pacific Ocean.[4] 

Mainland China has seven coastal provinces which face in turn, north to south, the Po Hai [Bohai] Gulf, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. The East China Sea, most important of these waters, is located along the eastern shoreline’s central position, which includes the Yangtze River, one of the richest regions in China. Were a centrally located base along the China coastline to be chosen, the most logical choice would be along the shores of Chekiang [Zhejiang] and Fukien [Fujian] provinces, where communication is shortest between the northern and southern seas.

Taiwan is favorably located near this central point. It lies across the principal communication routes along the China coast.[5] 

This strategic location off the China coast and between Northeast and Southeast Asia has led to Taiwan’s use throughout history for a wide variety of strategic purposes.

The Seventeenth Century and Earlier

In the earliest period Taiwan was a base from which pirates harassed shipping along the China coast and in the sea lanes between Japan and Southeast Asia. Europeans became interested in Taiwan out of motives little different from those of their pirate predecessors. In the early 1620s, the Dutch seized the Pescadores [Penghu Qundao] (islands lying between Formosa and the mainland) and used them as a base from which to raid the China coast and to disrupt commerce between China, Japan, and the Philippines.

Their interference with regular trade had become so serious by 1624 that the Chinese were compelled to offer a treaty that gave the Dutch commercial privileges with China.[6]  In return for this the Dutch agreed to leave the Pescadores [Penghu] for a trading post on Taiwan. They were attracted to Taiwan “not only by its strategic location but also by the commercial opportunities they foresaw.”[7]

Nevertheless, they “valued the island chiefly on account of its strategical position. From Formosa the Spanish commerce between Manila and China, and the Portuguese commerce between Macao and Japan could by constant attacks be made so precarious that much of it would be thrown into the hands of the Dutch, while the latter’s dealings with China and Japan would be subject to no interruptions.”[8] Other colonial and commercial powers were not long in reacting.

“Fearing the loss of the Chinese market and sensing the potential threat to the Philippines,” Spain seized the port of Keelung [Jilong] (in northern Taiwan) in 1626 and established a firm base in the north of the island.[9] In 1628 the Japanese, who were then commercially active in the area, sent an expedition against the Dutch bastion in Tainan, Fort Zeelandia. This expedition was, however, promptly defeated.[10] With the closing of Japan in 1636, the Japanese threat disappeared. Meanwhile, the Dutch made efforts to dislodge the Spaniards. By 1642 the last of them had been expelled and the Dutch ruled supreme in Taiwan.

The Dutch supremacy was brief. On the mainland of China the Manchus overthrew the Ming Dynasty and pressed the defeated Chinese forces ever South. In 1661 a Chinese fleet under the command of the Ming loyalist, Cheng Ch’eng-kung [Zheng Chenggong], known to the West as Koxinga, landed troops on Taiwan.

Koxinga’s confrontation with the Dutch led to the establishment of his control over the island, which he hoped to use as a base for the reconquest of the mainland. Emboldened by his success against the Dutch and infuriated by Spanish treatment of Chinese in the Philippines, he laid plans for the invasion of these neighboring islands. Only his sudden death in 1662 prevented these plans from being carried out.

Koxinga’s son gave up the Philippine expedition as well as plans to recapture the mainland for the Ming; the regime collapsed in 1683 and Taiwan passed under the nominal control of the governor of China’s Fukien [Fujian] province. For the next two hundred years, events on the neglected island took their course without relationship to the world beyond its shores.

The Nineteenth Century

Chinese control over Taiwan was notoriously lax. The Fukien [Fujian] provincial government exercised almost no control over the Chinese settlers on the island and no control whatsoever over the large aboriginal population. The savage treatment of shipwrecked sailors by these aborigines provoked the concern of many governments, including the American.

Among the instructions to Commodore Perry by the Navy was one calling for an investigation of Taiwan.[11] He was to look into the matter of some shipwrecked American seamen and also to form an opinion on Taiwan’s suitability as a coaling station for American ships.[12] 

In 1852 the American commissioner in China urged his government to occupy part of Taiwan. Commissioner Parker’s plan had the sympathy and support of many Americans in East Asia at that time. In the words of an American merchant: “Formosa’s eastern shore and southern point lie in the direct route of commerce between China and California and Japan, [and] should be protected by the United States of America.” [13] 

Commodore Perry’s investigations led him to support these schemes. His reasoning, as it represents the first official American consideration of Taiwan’s strategic potential, is worth quoting in some detail. He began by reviewing the position of American commerce in the Pacific in comparison with that of its greatest rival, England.

When we look at the possessions in the East of our great maritime rival, England, and of the constant and rapid increase of their fortified ports, we should be admonished of the necessity of prompt measures on our part.

By reference to the map of the world it will be seen that Great Britain is already in possession of the most important places in the East India and China Seas; and especially with reference to the China Seas.

Singapore commanding the southwestern, while Hong Kong covers the northeastern entrance, with the island of Labuan on the western coast of Borneo (an intermediate point), she will have the power of shutting up at will, and controlling the enormous trade of those seas.

Fortunately the Japanese and many other islands of the Pacific are still untouched by this gigantic power, and as some of them lay in a route of commerce which is destined to become of great importance to the United States, no time shall be lost in adopting active measures to secure a sufficient number of ports of refuge. . . . Commercial settlements in the China and Pacific seas will be found to be vitally necessary to the continued success of our commerce in these regions. [14] 

Perry therefore supported the schemes to annex Taiwan. His reasons for preferring Taiwan to other locations in the region are very interesting. He said:

The geographical position of Formosa renders it eminently suited as an entrepôt for American trade, from which communications might be established with China, Japan, Lew Chew [Ryukyu], Cochin China, Cambodia, Siam, the Philippines, and all the islands situated in the adjacent seas.

. . . Another recommendation may be found in the advantages of its naval and military position, situated as it is in front of many of the principal commercial ports of China. It covers, and might be made with a sufficient naval force to command, not only those ports, but the northeastern entrance of the China seas, precisely as Cuba, in the hands of a powerful maritime nation, might command the American coast south of Cape Florida and the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico.[15]

Admiral Perry was not alone in his interest in Taiwan at this time. The newly awakened Japanese empire soon resumed its traditional concern with the island. The same problem of the treatment of shipwrecked sailors on the island that had first drawn American attention became a pretext for direct Japanese military intervention two decades later.

The interest of Japan in Taiwan was signaled by the installation of a special Taiwan department in the Tokyo government in January 1874. A military expedition was launched and succeeded in establishing a permanent base in Southern Taiwan, where it remained until Chinese pressure forced its withdrawal.[16] The Japanese “Formosan Expedition” was, however, more related to Japan’s complicated domestic politics than to any grand strategic vision.

It “had been conceived as a diversionary action to placate the expansionists who had wanted to fight Korea,”[17] after the Korean campaign had to be called off. The decision “to substitute a Formosan expedition for the more dangerous Korean campaign was made on an ad hoc basis. Improvisation, which was such an outstanding characteristic of the economic and political growth of the [Japanese] nation in these formative years, was the only consistent element in Japan’s early foreign relations.”[18]However, the withdrawal of the Japanese forces did not mean the end of Japanese interest in the island.

Japanese Colonialism

By the 1890s the Japanese felt able to compete in East Asian political rivalries, and many of their leaders became anxious to find areas for Japan’s expansion as a respectable colonial power. They found a pretext for war with China in 1894. It was a short war of several quick victories for Japan.

When peace was negotiated in 1895, Japan insisted that Taiwan be ceded to it. While China had been in the “last throes of defeat, the possibility of Japan seizing Formosa [Taiwan] and the Pescadores [Penghu] and from these important strategical points carrying on war with the mainland” induced China to offer the island to England, apparently regarded as less dangerous than Japan.[19] But the British refused.

In 1895 the Japanese took control of the island. “Japan embarked on this first colonial venture without having at the outset any very clear idea of what use to make of it.”[20] Standard treatises on Japanese diplomacy of the period, although dealing with the Sino-Japanese war in some detail, do not really delve into Japanese motivations for the acquisition of Taiwan. The war itself was designed to divert Japanese public opinion from domestic to foreign affairs, and was fought on the pretext of events in Korea.[21] 

The decision to seek the cession of Taiwan appears to have been improvised to satisfy the Japanese desire for territorial “indemnity” from China. It was probably influenced by the following considerations:

(1) Taiwan was at that time outside the influence of any European power and thus uncomplicated by entanglement with any third country;

(2) Taiwan, aside from Hainan Island, was the only large piece of Chinese territory geographically separated from the rest and therefore was a logical acquisition;

(3) Taiwan is geographically part of the same island chain as Japan and could be seen as a logical extension of territory in this sense;

(4) Japan had historical associations with the island and had made its power felt there on numerous occasions, most recently only twenty years before.

It is doubtful, in view of the “improvisation” characteristic of Japanese diplomacy of this period, that true strategic considerations played an important part in the Japanese decision to acquire Taiwan. In that earlier day colonial expansion was not only looked upon as a good in itself, but inasmuch as it allowed Japan to claim the same mission civilisatrice that Western imperialists claimed, it also raised Japan to a level of equality with the white colonial powers, thereby satisfying an important Japanese aspiration.

Whatever their motives for acquiring Taiwan, the Japanese were not long in understanding its strategic potential. Japan’s exploitation of Taiwan falls into two periods: (1) from 1895 to 1936 and (2) from 1976 to 1945.

During the first period the emphasis was on developing Taiwan as a source of food for the home islands. This is reflected in the choice of governors-general, particularly during the last two decades, when they were invariably civilian officials.[22] 

During the second period the Japanese empire turned to preparations for war. In 1936 the island was returned to rule by military governors-general. [23] 

Taiwan was “called upon to increase the measure of its contribution to the Empire. It was permitted to process much material formerly sent for processing in the home islands proper.” [24]  Extensive military facilities were constructed.

During this period,

Taiwan became an outpost of advance—a base for expansion to south China and Southeast Asia. Modern techniques of communication and transport . . . tended to emphasize Taiwan’s position . . . Naval bases built at Kaohsiung [Gaoxiong] and Keelung [Jilong] and the numerous airfields constructed on the Western plain . . . were the jumping off places from which the Japanese launched their attacks on the Philippines and the Dutch Indies in 1941.

During the Second World War, Taiwan was the major supply base and marshaling area for the Japanese armies in Southeast Asia.[25] 

The U. S. Navy commented in 1944 that:

The island of Taiwan (Formosa) dominates the China coast and all coastwise shipping between Japan and Southeastern Asia. Japanese officials refer to it as ‘the nation’s great plane carrier in the South.’

The movement of Japanese troops and supplies throughout the southern theatres of action depends upon the efficiency of the airfields and ports of Taiwan.[26] 

Moreover, they added, “the whole island serves as a screen for Japanese shipping through the Straits of Formosa.”[27] 

It was under these circumstances, which, seemed to bear out Commodore Perry’s forgotten words of ninety years before, that the American military rediscovered an interest in Taiwan.

Summary of Taiwan’s Strategic History to 1945

By this point in its tangled history, Taiwan had indeed been put to a wide variety of strategic uses, among which the most important were:

(1) A base from which to control commerce between Northeast and Southeast Asia and along the China coast. It had been used for this purpose by the Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese in the sense of attempting to exclude the commerce of other nations from the area. It had also been used for this purpose in the sense of providing a screen for the coastal shipping of mainland China (when the mainland was under Japanese control).

(2) A base from which to launch attacks and exert control on the adjacent mainland of China. It had been used for this purpose by Koxinga [Zheng Chenggong] and by the Japanese in World War II.

(3) A base from which to launch attacks on the Philippines and Southeast Asia and from which to supply military operations in these areas. Examples are Koxinga’s [Zheng Chenggong’s] abortive Philippine invasion plans and the Japanese attacks in World War II.

This strategic history is relevant to consideration of American decisions regarding the military uses of Taiwan.

American Consideration of Taiwan in World War II

However, the first authoritative American pronouncement on Taiwan during World War II was made in ignorance of this strategic history. This was the Cairo Declaration of December 1, 1943. The relevant section of the text said:

The Three Great Allies are fighting this war to restrain and punish the aggression of Japan. They covet no gain for themselves and have no thought of territorial expansion. It is their purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be returned to the Republic of China. [28] 

The offhand way in which this important decision regarding Taiwan was made is well described by Herbert Feis:

Though still opposed to all attempts to dispose of European territorial issues, at Cairo the Americans had no qualms about settling those which loaned in the Far East. They took the lead in Cairo in proposing some form of statement which would simultaneously (1) forestall any impulse to bring about a peace with Japan which would allow it to retain the means to resume its efforts to dominate Asia; (2) gratify Chinese desires and thus invigorate its combat effort. It was decided [to record] these intentions in a declaration to be embodied in the public communiqué to be given out right after the conference with the Chinese. This was composed in haste and without known further communication between the statesmen at Cairo and their Foreign Offices in Washington and London.[29] 

No real thought was given to the effects of the Cairo decisions on the postwar balance of power in East Asia and the Western Pacific. In fact, at the time such considerations were anathema. The idea was to win the war at hand in as direct and rapid a way as possible—to thoroughly destroy the power of the current enemy, Japan.

The sage advice of the U.S. ambassador to China, Clarence E. Gauss, was ignored. He had written on the outbreak of the war that “it is important that we bear in mind that the defeat of Japanese aggression does not necessarily entail . . . our crushing Japan militarily. The complete elimination of Japan as a force in the Far East would not be conducive either to order or prosperity in this area.” So was the similar advice of Gauss’s colleague in Tokyo, Ambassador Grew. [30] 

Taiwan’s possible strategic significance in postwar East Asia was never assessed because Americans had no conception of postwar East Asia. Harry Hopkins (the apparent drafter of the Cairo declaration) makes a casual mention in his notes on the Tehran summit meeting of a possible American interest in bases in the Pacific islands as part of a general postwar peacekeeping arrangement. [31] 

But that offhand remark is unique. Meanwhile, as Japanese power crumbled more rapidly than had been expected, American plans to occupy Taiwan and use it in the advance on the Japanese home islands were abandoned. Taiwan was bypassed.

Nevertheless, the strategic use of Taiwan by the Japanese continued to make an impression on some American officials. On the eve of Japan’s surrender, the State Department published a note on Taiwan which remarked:

Strategic factors greatly influence the problem of Formosa. With the exception of Singapore no location in the Far East occupies such a controlling position.

Formosa is separated from the continent of Asia by 100 miles, from the main island of the Philippines by 200 miles, and from Kyushu, the nearest home island of Japan, by 700 miles. Flying distance from military airports in Formosa is 559 miles to Canton, 438 miles to Shanghai, 1,290 miles to Tokyo.

Formosa, larger than the State of Maryland, stands in a strategic relation to the China coast comparable for the United States to an imaginary island of such size 100 miles off the coast of North Carolina, 400 miles from New York City. Every point off the entire coast of China falls within a radius of 1,100 miles. A radius of 2,000 miles includes Burma, Singapore, Borneo, Guam, and Japan, including Hokkaido.[32] 

But such thoughtful regard for East Asian strategic relationships was uncommon in the frenzy to win the war. It does not appear to have influenced American policy during the conflict. Only after the defeat of Japan and the rise of a powerful regime on the mainland of China did American policy seriously concern itself with such matters.

A Period of Debate

Following the defeat of Japan, the United States speedily implemented the pledge of the Cairo declaration to return Taiwan to China. The Japanese nationals on the island were repatriated and the Nationalist Chinese government assumed the duties of administration. For the next few years Taiwan was briefly united with the Chinese mainland. However, as the Chinese civil war continued, the Nationalists were driven off the continent.

They remained in control of Taiwan and its surrounding islands alone. Taiwan was once more politically and militarily separate from the rest of China. Anticipating the fall of Taiwan to the Communist Chinese, at the end of 1949, the State Department issued a circular to all its diplomatic posts instructing American diplomats to take the position that, as Taiwan had no strategic significance, its loss would have no effect on the general situation of the United States in the Western Pacific. [33] 

The commander of American forces in Japan, General MacArthur, did not agree with this view, which was after all contradicted by many of the State Department’s previous public statements. Toward the end of December it was reported that he was exerting considerable pressure to have Taiwan regarded as of vital strategic interest to the United States.[34] This was scarcely a strange position for the custodian of Japan to take. By the total destruction of Japanese military power the United States had created a strategic vacuum in the Western Pacific.

By simultaneously disarming Japan and occupying it and its former colonies with our own forces, Americans had undertaken to fill the vacuum. The rise of a strong regime on the mainland of China brought the American governor of Japan to a realization of the scope of this responsibility. General MacArthur’s views were supported by many Republican members of Congress.

However, in his statement of January 5, 1950, on the subject, President Truman made it plain that, despite Republican pressure, he had no intention of bolstering the position of the Nationalists on Formosa by the provision of aid, advice, or American forces.[35] 

Nevertheless, the debate between the military and the diplomats continued.[36] Finally, the State and Defense Departments worked out a compromise view,changing the theoretical justification for withholding aid but leaving the policy itself intact.[37] This compromise was later outlined by Secretary of State Acheson:

(1) The United States recognized that Formosa had a strategic importance for the United States;

(2) this importance called for keeping Formosa out of the hands of an unfriendly power and not for the occupation or use of Formosa by the United States;

(3) with the existing strength of the United States armed forces at that time it was not possible to commit any forces whatever to the defense of Formosa; and

(4) the State Department should do its best by diplomatic and economic means to keep Formosa from falling into hostile hands.[38]

That is to say, inasmuch as diplomatic and economic methods were not expected by anyone to be able to halt Chinese Communist occupation of the island, the United States officially recognized American strategic interests in Taiwan but was not prepared to act to safeguard them. This compromise was soon to be upset by events.

Post-Korean Evolution

On June 25, 1950, north Korean Communist forces invaded south Korea. Two days later, President Truman issued a statement that heralded a significant shift in American policy. The part of the statement that bore on Taiwan reads as follows:

The attack upon Korea makes it plain beyond all doubt that Communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use invasion and war. It has defied the orders of the Security Council of the United Nations issued to preserve international peace and security.

In these circumstances the occupation of Formosa by Communist forces would be a direct threat to the security of the Pacific area and to the United States forces performing their lawful and necessary functions in that area.

Accordingly I have ordered the Seventh Fleet to prevent any attack on Formosa. As a corollary of this action I am calling upon the Chinese government on Formosa to cease all air and sea actions against the mainland. The Seventh Fleet will see that this is done.[39] 

By this act the United States in effect abandoned the last two points in Secretary Acheson’s summary of policy (relating to means of safeguarding our interests) and committed itself to use force to prevent Taiwan from falling into hostile hands. President Truman’s decision remains the basis of American policy. The decision was apparently reached during Truman’s first conference with his cabinet officers on the Korean situation (June 25, 1950). General MacArthur’s views were apparently of great importance in its making. As MacArthur later put it with characteristic overstatement:

My views on Formosa are pretty well known. I believe if you lose Formosa, you lose the key to our littoral line of defense and encompass Truk. I believe the Philippines and Japan both would be untenable from our military point of view.

I believe that from our standpoint we practically lose the Pacific Ocean if we give up or lose Formosa. . . . We do not need Formosa for bases or anything else. But Formosa should not be allowed to fall into red hands.

If the enemy secured Formosa and secured thereby the Pacific Ocean, that would immeasurably increase the dangers of that ocean being used as an avenue of advance by any potential enemy. [40] 

MacArthur’s views were represented at the conference by Secretary of Defense Johnson, who read out “a memorandum containing General MacArthur’s view on the strategic importance of Formosa which he and General Bradley had just brought back from Tokyo. He considered the General’s presentation on the subject to be both ‘brilliant and to the point.’ Strictly in terms of military security the Secretary had long considered Formosa to be more important than Korea.” [41] 

In cold print, MacArthur had probably taken a position more like that in his famous letter to the Veterans of Foreign Wars:

The geographic location of Formosa is such that in the hands of a power unfriendly to the United States it constitutes an enemy salient in the very center of our defensive perimeter, 100 to 150 miles closer to the adjacent friendly segments—Okinawa and the Philippines—than any point in continental Asia.[42] This more moderate view was shared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as General Bradley later testified:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff do not believe that the mere loss of Formosa would jeopardize our whole Pacific position and force us back to the coast of California. . . . We think from a military point of view that if it were in the hands of an enemy, a power which was at war with us, it would be a threat to our communications between the Philippines and Okinawa and make it necessary to bypass or go a considerable distance out to avoid being hit from Formosa. [43] 

In accord with these views, Secretary Acheson advanced the suggestion that the Seventh Fleet be used to prevent a Chinese Communist invasion of the island as well as to prevent Nationalist operations against the mainland.[44] The Secretary’s main aim seems to have been to limit the Korean conflict and prevent the simultaneous loss of both Korea and Taiwan.[45] 

During the conference, “one of the Presidential advisers mentioned that the island of Formosa might serve as a staging area for American military operations in Korea. The use of Formosa would be especially convenient when transferring air-units. Another conferee regarded its defense as ‘flank protection’ for American efforts to repel the North Korean invaders.” [46] 

President Truman’s willingness to listen to this advice must have been the greater for the domestic American political situation of that period. In the minds of Congressional leaders, the issues of Taiwan and Korea were linked through the “monolithic Communist conspiracy” to overrun Asia. Indeed months before the Korean conflict broke out, Senator Tom Connally, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had remarked that “whenever” the Communists “take a notion” they “can overrun Korea just like [they] will probably overrun Formosa.” [47] 

Moreover, President Truman was under tremendous Republican pressure to do something to save Taiwan for Chiang Kai-shek. By linking moves to protect Taiwan with moves in Korea, he could hope to gain greater Republican support for the Korean intervention. Thus both military advice and domestic politics favored a policy of “preventing Taiwan from falling into hostile hands,” in which it could be used as it traditionally had been to threaten adjacent land areas and menace commerce and communications in the region. The essentially defensive nature of the American commitment, which did not rely on Taiwan for positive strategic advantage against mainland China, was underscored by President Eisenhower four and a half years later in his statement recommending ratification of a defense treaty with the Chinese Nationalists on the island:

In unfriendly hands Formosa and the Pescadores would seriously dislocate the existing, even if unstable, balance of moral, economic, and military forces upon which the peace of the Pacific depends. It would create a breach in the island chain of the Western Pacific that constitutes for the United States and other free nations, the geographical backbone of their security structure in that ocean.

In addition, this breach would interrupt north-south communications between other important elements of that barrier, and damage the economic life of countries friendly to us.[48] 

In building this Western Pacific security barrier the United States had signed treaties with the Philippines, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand in 1952, with south Korea in 1953, and with the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954 at Manila. Now the United States moved to formalize its commitment to the Republic of China on Taiwan, emphasizing that it did so to complete this security barrier. [49] The treaty was ratified in 1955.

The Present

It is apparent from this brief history that the United States in recent years has regarded Taiwan as strategically important primarily in the negative sense of its potential threat to American interests should it fall into the hands of the Chinese Communists. Postwar decisions on Taiwan have been taken in large part to forestall this threat.

Because Taiwan is in friendly hands, our communications in the area are easier and more secure and the menace to our allies in Japan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia is less. American policy will probably continue to emphasize the prevention of the union of Taiwan with the strong, hostile power of mainland China.

Nevertheless, this has not been the only strategic importance of Taiwan to American policy. Taiwan has been important to the United States, as it has been to other countries in the past, for a variety of reasons. The presence of a well-trained and equipped Nationalist army of six hundred thousand men off the coast of Communist China has been a sufficiently credible threat to tie down large numbers of Communist troops to defend against the threat from Taiwan.[50]

This has reduced the capacity of Communist China to cause trouble elsewhere. The availability of Taiwan as a supply base and troop-marshaling area has undoubtedly aided us, as it earlier had the Japanese, to sustain a war in Southeast Asia, though it has not been crucial. Our communications in the area have been made easier by the use of bases in Taiwan.

If Taiwan has not already seen greater use as an American base of this kind, it is mostly because of the free availability of bases on Okinawa, a short distance away. Now that Okinawa is to be returned to Japanese control, while the terms of reversion remain uncertain, it is possible that these strategic roles of Taiwan will gain in importance.

Despite certain obvious disadvantages by comparison with Okinawa (for example, it is far closer to mainland China and therefore much more vulnerable to air and missile attack; it is not under American administration) it is likely that some of the functions of bases on Okinawa could be taken over by bases on Taiwan.

If American involvement in Korea and Southeast Asia continues at a high level, Taiwan’s role in American logistics in the Western Pacific could become increasingly significant.[51]


Taiwan has a long history of strategic use by military powers in the Western Pacific. American views of Taiwan’s strategic use have in many important respects fit into the general historical pattern. The United States has in fact made most of its major foreign policy decisions regarding the island since World War II in large part on the basis of military-strategic considerations.

The problems of the American relationship to Taiwan are at least as complex as the connected problems of our relationship to the Chinese Communist regime. Both involve political, economic, and cultural factors in addition to the military-strategic considerations on which this paper has concentrated. Yet it is clear, in the context of traditional conceptions of the island’s strategic value, that on strategic grounds alone the United States has a substantial interest in the maintenance of a friendly Taiwan, free from the control of the mainland Communist regime.

A realization of this strategic value of Taiwan is an essential part of U.S. China policy today. In the current reconsideration of that policy, Taiwan’s strategic importance should not be overlooked.


1. This paper was written in early 1969, when it was considered extremely politically incorrect to suggest that the United States might switch diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing as it did a decade later, in 1979.

2.  “Peking” is how the British heard and spelled the word “Beijing” (北京), which they first encountered it in its southern Chinese pronunciation. Beijing is the way the same two ideograms sound in standard (Mandarin) Chinese. However, it is pronounced, 北京means “northern capital.” Chiang Kai-shek had renamed Beijing as “Beiping” (Pei-p’ing in the orthography of the time). This means “northern peace” and avoids the implication that the city is a national capital. The Department of State rigorously enforced this usage as part of its policy of nonrecognition of Communist China. The modern spelling of “Beijing” was adopted in 1979, when the United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

3. This is a reference to the north Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo on January 23, 1968.

4. Chas Freeman, “The Process of Rapprochement: Achievements and Problems,” in Gene Hsiao and Michael Witunski, eds., Sino-American Normalization and Its Policy Implications (New York: Praeger, 1983).

5. George Taylor, Formosa (Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for International Studies, 1954), 1–2.

6. Chiao-min Hsieh, Taiwan: Ilha Formosa (Washington, D.C.: Butterworths, 1964), 7.

7. Ibid., 4.

8. Stanford University China Project, “Taiwan (Formosa)” (New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files, Inc., 1956), 30–31.

9. Albert Hyma, The Dutch in the Far East (Ann Arbor, MI: George Wahr, 1942), 129–36.

10. J.W. Davidson, The Island of Formosa, Past and Present (London, 1903/Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2010), 13.

11. Stanford University China Project, “Taiwan (Formosa),” 31–32.

12. Shinkichi Eto, “An Outline of Formosan History,” in Formosa Today, Mark Mancall, ed. (New York: Praeger, 1964).

13. Francis L. Hawkes, Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, vol. I (Washington, 1856/Dublin: Nonsuch, 2005), 498.

14.  Ibid.

15. W.G. Goddard, Formosa (London: Caves Books, 1966), 15.

16. Francis L. Hawkes, Narrative, vol II, 179; also in Senate Ex. Doc. No 34 of 33rd Congress, 2nd Session.

17. Ibid., vol. II, 180.

18. Stanford University China Project, “Taiwan (Formosa),” 48–49.

19. Hugh Borton, Japan’s Modern Century (New York: Ronald Press, 1955), 160.

20. Ibid., 158.

21. Davidson, Island of Formosa, 265.

22. George W. Barclay, Colonial Development and Population in Taiwan (Princeton, NJ: Kennikat Press, 1954), 7.

23. E.g., Tatsuji Takeuchi, War and Diplomacy in the Japanese Empire (Chicago, 1935/London: Routledge, 2010), 456; Roy Hidemichi Akagi, Japan’s Foreign Relations (Tokyo, 1936/New York: Praeger, 1979), 153, 158–160.

24. Stanford University China Project, “Taiwan (Formosa),” 57–58.

25. Ibid., 58.

26. Barclay, Colonial Development, 28–29

27. Canadian Dept. of Mines and Geographical Surveys, Taiwan (Formosa): A Geographical Appreciation (Ottawa: Canadian Dept. of Mines and Geographical Surveys, 1952), 7, 42; see also Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Civil Affairs Handbook: Taiwan (Formosa), Economic Supplement (Washington, D.C.: Navy Department, June 1, 1944), xiii.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Herbert Feis, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), 252.

31. Ibid.

32. Akira Iriye, Across the Pacific: An Inner History of American–East Asian Relations (New York: Imprint, 1967), 221.

33. Feis, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, 271.

34. United States Department of State, Bulletin, June 3, 1945, vol. XI1 Ne 310, 1019.

35. United States Senate, “Military Situation in the Far East,” Hearings, Committee on Armed Services and Committee on Foreign Relations, 82nd Congress, 1st Session (1951), 1667–9.

36. “Strategic Importance of Formosa,” World Today, February 1950, vol. V., 52; see also the academic view expressed in Russell H. Fifield, “Formosa Acquires Strategic Value in China Crisis,” Foreign Policy Bulletin, March 4 1949, vol. XXVIII, 180–81.

37. Ibid., 52

38. Senate, “Military Situation in the Far East,” 902.

39. Ibid., 903.

40. John W. Ballantine, Robert D. Calkins, and Leo Pasvolsky, Formosa: A Problem for United States Foreign Policy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1952).

41. United States Department of State, Bulletin, July 3, 1950, vol. XXIII, 5.

42. Senate, “Military Situation in the Far East,” 52–53.

43. Glenn D. Paige, The Korean Decision (New York: MacMillan, 1968), 125.

44. Douglas MacArthur, “Message of General MacArthur to Veterans of Foreign Wars,” New York Times, August 29, 1950.

45. Senate, “Military Situation in the Far East,” 983–84.

46. Paige, Korean Decision, 127.

47. Ibid., 167.

48. Ibid., 168.

49. U.S. News & World Report, May 5 1950, vol. XXVII, 40.

50. United States Senate, “Report of the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Armed Services on S. J. Resolution 28,” Senate Report N9 13, 84th Congress, 1st sess., 1955.

51. See “Report of the Committee on Foreign Relations on Executive A,” 84th Congress, 1st Session regarding the Mutual Defense Treaty with the Republic of China; see especially the statement of Secretary of State Dulles in Appendix D, 12.

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