John J. Tkacik, Jr. On Taiwan: Taiwan, Ukraine and a 75th anniversary

Dear Reader, I intended to write about something that happened 75 years ago. But, last week saw a major war erupt in East Europe and I cannot ignore it. And, this week sees alarm spread across the globe that war may also break out in East Asia starting in the Taiwan Strait.

It is almost as if the second world war is repeating itself, except in mirror image: Putin’s Russia is not the victim, but rather the perpetrator, of aggression in East Europe. In East Asia, Xi Jinping’s (習近平) China plays the exact role of the Imperial Japan a century ago, demanding control of East Asia’s raw materials and maritime lines of communication, and menacing Southeast Asia, India, the Pacific isles and, needless to say, Taiwan.

Last week’s calendar also marked a dark seventy-fifth anniversary of an atrocity in Taiwan’s history, an event likewise redolent of World War II’s musty ghosts and cold war aftermath. It has been 75 years since the February 28 uprisings of 1947 were suppressed by invading Chinese armies who set about the capture and execution of native Taiwanese who had the effrontery to protest the gross abuse of Chinese occupation.

It is an anniversary that reminds us how history is never over. Its echoes resonate even more insistently today as democracies become so phobic of war that they fail to recognize criminality until it is committed upon their own persons. And even thus assaulted, most western leaders simply cannot believe that the despotic military powers of our 21st century can possibly be as brutal as were the dictators and warlords of the 1930s and 40s.

The viciousness of Russia’s invasion of peaceful Ukraine last week, in hindsight, could have been averted if the world’s “community of democracies” had acted with foresight last summer. But nothing happened. Seeing this diffidence, China voices enthusiastic support of Russia’s “legitimate security interests.” Xi Jinping’s lengthy, unconditional and somewhat strange February 4, 2022, “joint statement” of alliance with Putin now raises very rational concerns that Xi can expect Putin’s reciprocal support should the People’s “Liberation” Army launch its own war into the Taiwan Strait. China’s full-throated endorsement last week of Russia-Ukraine “negotiations” as Russia’s invasion jumped-off (and before Ukraine’s soldiers and militias seemed for a while to have stopped Putin’s conscript armies in their tracks) and its denigration of NATO and American support for Ukraine, are unsettling signs of Beijing’s ambitions.

Among Washington’s policy elites, Ukraine’s predicament has “focused the mind wonderfully.” So too, the prospect that Taiwan may be struck in a fortnight by Chinese missiles has concentrated President Biden’s mind. He was obliged last week to dispatch to Taipei a delegation of top defense envoys for emergency consultations. Serendipitously, Biden’s delegation bumped into the grave elder statesman of the Trump Administration, former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

Apocalyptic visions, on this 75th anniversary of the “228” uprising of 1947, remind me why the United States has maintained such a keen interest in Taiwan through the decades since the catastrophes, deaths and destruction of World War II Asia.

The February 1947 pogroms forced the State Department to reassess its policy toward the Chinese nationalist occupation of Taiwan. On March 21 Ambassador Stuart (司徒雷登) in Nanking warned the Secretary of State that Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) repression was “an acute national embarrassment” to the United States. In April 1947 an outraged Midwest senator, Joseph H. Ball (R-MN), demanded the Secretary of State intervene in Formosa to prevent a “bloodbath”. In his reply of April 11, Dean Acheson sadly confirmed the violence but appended his hopeful observation that the transfer of sovereignty over Formosa to China “has not yet been formalized.” It was the first time the State Department had publicly asserted that Formosa’s sovereignty was “not yet formalized.”

At the time, General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in the Far East, also fretted about China’s maladministration in Taiwan and its effect on the stability of the administration there.

He warned that Taiwan must not fall into the hands of powers hostile to the United States (the General numbered Russia and communist China among such powers). Despite post-war Washington’s efforts to stay neutral during the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949), General MacArthur pestered Washington with constant and unwelcome blandishments of Taiwan’s enormous geostrategic importance to his theater of operations in Tokyo.

Summing up his concerns in a top secret memorandum of June 1950, while the Truman Administration prepared to abandon Taiwan to Mao’s communist armies, General MacArthur recounted Taiwan’s crucial role in the Pacific War from the perspective of his command of over a half million men:

“Historically Formosa has been used as a springboard for military aggression,” he said describing “the utilization of Formosa by the Japanese in World War II.” He bitterly reminded Washington that, as he tried to defend the Philippines in 1942, Japanese forces investing Luzon were “staged from Keelung, [Kaohsiung], and the Pescadores”; their “supporting air forces were based on fields situated along Southern Formosa.” He continued, “…from 1942 through 1944 Formosa was a vital link in the transportation and communications chain which stretched from Japan through Okinawa and the Philippines to Southeast Asia.” In 1944, as Japan’s occupying armies in the Philippines dug in against MacArthur’s advancing campaign, “Formosa was the key staging point for troops and air reinforcements deployed to the Philippines.” After Japanese armies had been driven from Luzon, Japanese air wings continued to attack MacArthur’s forces from Formosa.

Given this history, the General of the Army warned Truman and his aides that:

“…The future status of Formosa can well be an important factor in determining the political alignment of those national groups who have or must soon make a choice between Communism and the West.” He asserted that there was “no doubt but that the eventual fate of Formosa largely rests with the United States. Unless the United States’ political-military strategic position in the Far East is to be abandoned, … it is apparent to me that the United States should initiate measures to prevent the domination of Formosa by a Communist power.” Although this was written more than seven decades ago, the situation in 2022 is largely unchanged.

Moreover, MacArthur knew well both the causes of the February 28 uprising and brutality of Chiang’s suppression. As Supreme Commander in Tokyo, he too was mindful that “sovereignty” over Taiwan had not yet been “formally transferred” from Japan. He assessed that Chiang’s regime-in-exile in Taipei lacked popular support and possessed but fragile legitimacy. Several times, he recommended some sort of United Nations trustee arrangement, or perhaps a supervised plebiscite for Formosans.

For example, MacArthur was aghast at the wording of a 1949 draft copy of a proposed Japan Peace Treaty. It read, “Article 4 (1.) Japan hereby cedes to China in full sovereignty the island of Taiwan (Formosa) and adjacent minor islands…” In its margin is the shorthand notation “MacArthur suggests consider trusteeship for Taiwan after a plebiscite.” MacArthur shared his concerns in person with John Foster Dulles, named by Truman as the US coordinator of the Japan Treaty. Dulles understood immediately. In fact, the Korean War erupted while Dulles was in Tokyo conferring with MacArthur and the war immediately settled for them the matter of Taiwan’s strategic importance.

In the end, Dulles worked with 46 other allied nations to ensure that the Japan Treaty a year later did not transfer Formosa’s sovereignty to either “China”, communist or nationalist. And it never was. Taiwan’s “unsettled sovereignty” was the firm position of the Eisenhower Administration and the Eighty-Third Congress which ratified the treaty; and of every administration and congress since. Indeed, Taiwan’s unsettled “sovereignty” is the fifth of President Ronald Reagan’s “Six Assurances,” now recognized by both the Trump and Biden administrations, and explicitly by the current 117th Congress, as a cornerstone document of US policy toward Taiwan.

And today, when American officials speak of “our One China policy,” this is what they mean. Secretary Pompeo said as much in November 2020 when he explained publicly: “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 three and a half decades”.

Now, in March 2022, Washington faces an ordeal of Great Power confrontation unseen since World War II. Can the US, Europe and NATO blunt the brutality of Putin’s war in East Europe? Will they and the world’s other democracies internalize these lessons and forestall Xi Jinping’s designs on East Asia and Taiwan; Taiwan which retains the same geostrategic importance in the Western Pacific as it did 75 years ago? Taiwan, which today is a flourishing democracy and a nation possessed of an economy six times Ukraine’s? An economy which is the linchpin of the world’s advanced technology supply chain?

Allowing Taiwan’s fall to powers hostile to democracy would be a human tragedy of inestimable dimensions. Taiwan’s collapse to a predatory, socialist-imperialist China in 2022 will certainly light the same fuses that burst into the flames of World War II.

John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

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