IN the autumn of 1949, after 22 years of bitter and protracted struggle, Mao Tse-tung and his Red armies finally established Communist rule over mainland China. The initial American reaction was division and confusion. It has remained so to this day. We still are certain only of what we will not do about China. We will not give formal recognition to the government in Peking. We will not agree to Chinese Communist membership in the United Nations.

For too long now we have remained at the mercy of events set in motion by leaders in Taipei and Peking. We have neglected to make constructive use of the periods of uneasy calm between recurrent crises. We have failed to take into account adequately the long-range forces which seem certain to shape future developments. Has the time not come to face the fundamental realities of our "China problem"? Until we do, we shall continue to be severely hampered in our relations with all of Asia.

Under present conditions, debate over recognition of Communist China by the United States is largely a dead-end street. If we should propose an exchange of ambassadors, Mao Tse-tung would surely ask if our recognition extended to Communist sovereignty over "the Province of Formosa." And when we replied that it did not, his response would inevitably be a contemptuous refusal of our offer. A similar outcome can be predicted if we proposed that "both Chinas" be admitted to the United Nations. Chiang Kai-shek would also reject such a proposal. The stalemate would persist.

This means that the two primary questions which have caused such deep discord here in America are not at the moment solvable. At some later stage we may find it useful to test the peaceful intentions of the Chinese Communists by proposing that both sides accept a situation which neither we nor they can alter short of war. But until then, let us bypass the question of formal relationships and focus on the immediate and, perhaps, obtainable.

If there were no other reason to seek a fresh perspective on Communist China, the crucial issue of disarmament would in itself be enough. For it is clear beyond doubt that no disarmament plan can have meaning without her participation. She possesses not only the world's largest army but a potential capacity for the production of nuclear weapons. Nor is there any reason to believe that we can hold the Soviet Union accountable for Peking on this matter. Either we must give up any thought of reaching an agreement on a safeguarded system of world-wide disarmament or search for ways to influence the course of events in the China theater.

While we may be almost totally unable to affect short-term developments in Communist China, our capacity to influence other aspects of the China problem is greater than we seem to realize.

Formosa (Taiwan) offers a case in point. The island is rich and its economic development has been spectacular; yet its political position remains precarious, not only in regard to mainland China but also in its relations with the whole arc of free Asia from India to Japan. This is so because Formosa's political status is founded on a myth that Chiang Kai-shek, who was driven from the mainland 11 years ago, remains the ruler of 650,000,000 Chinese. This myth--rejected by most Asians, by our NATO allies, by our closest friends the Canadians, and by a large number of Americans--is supported only by three or four Asian governments under heavy pressure from Washington, by our Department of State and by some members of Congress. Perpetuation of the myth will increasingly isolate Formosa at a time when its leaders should be striving in every way to identify their future with the mainstream of thought and action in free, non-Communist Asia.

Americans and Nationalist Chinese alike should now strive to find a common ground with their allies and friends, and to relate their policies more rationally to the forces which will shape events in Asia during the next decade. Such policies, I believe, may be based on the following assumptions:

1. That the Peking government, although beset with difficulties, is in firm control of mainland China.

2. That mainland China, with an inadequate resource base, spiraling population, ruthless Communist leadership and intense nationalist spirit, will develop fiercely expansionist tendencies directed toward the weaker neighboring states to the south.

3. That a primary aim of American policy should be to prevent the armed expansion into Southeast Asia which Chinese Communist leaders may be tempted to undertake.

4. That any effective disarmament program will ultimately require Peking's participation.

5. That in the present circumstances no negotiation of our major differences with the Peking government seems likely to be productive.

6. That the 8,000,000 Formosans and the 2,000,000 mainland Chinese on Formosa have the right to a secure, independent existence and to cultural development outside the Communist orbit; and that such an evolution on Formosa is in the interests of the American people.

7. That for the time being Formosa's independence will continue to depend on American military guarantees and economic assistance.

8. That in the long run the security and prosperity of the people of Formosa will depend on the orderly political growth of the non-Communist nations of Asia, particularly India and Japan, and on their attitudes toward the Formosa government.

9. That if ever it becomes practicable it will be in our national interest to restore our traditionally friendly ties with the Chinese people on the mainland.

Let us now examine, within the framework of these assumptions, the realities with which American policy must grapple.


Formosa, an island of 14,000 square miles of lofty mountains and fertile valleys, has hovered on the edge of Chinese history for several hundred years. In the mid-seventeenth century, when the invading Manchus displaced the Ming emperor in Peking and over-ran China, Formosa served as a refuge for adherents to the Ming régime, much as it now serves Chiang Kai-shek. In 1683, after 40 years of fitful struggle, the Manchus finally annexed the island and made it for the first time a province of China. In 1895, following the Japanese victory over China, Formosa passed under the rule of Tokyo and remained there until its liberation by American forces 50 years later.

Today political power in Formosa rests exclusively with the Generalissimo's authoritarian Nationalist Government. The 2,000,000 mainlanders who fled with Chiang across the Formosa Straits in 1949 provide most of the central government's staff and account for two-thirds of his army of nearly 600,000 men. For a decade, American policy in regard to Formosa has largely focussed on this Nationalist Chinese ruling minority. Yet in the long run it is the 8,000,000 native Formosans who will shape the island's fate. We hear very little about their wishes, hopes and fears. One of them, writing in this review recently, noted that there are no independent Formosan newspapers and no recognized Formosan political parties.[i]

Some observers have suggested that the ultimate solution in Formosa may be to hold a plebiscite. As a practical matter, however, a plebiscite would almost certainly be rejected by both the Taipei and Peking governments. We therefore can only guess what most Formosans really want. Several significant facts can nevertheless be cited.

For nearly two generations prior to 1945, Formosans knew only Japanese rule. Although most of them speak the Fukien dialect of southeast China, they were educated in Japanese schools. Because the island prospered, many of them had come to feel closer to Tokyo than to the mainland. But 15 years of Nationalist rule have brought significant changes. Time, proximity and education are creating, among the younger ages in particular, a gradual amalgamation of the island's Chinese and Formosan communities. There may slowly be emerging a new national identity predominantly Chinese by culture but Formosan in outlook.

This process has been aided by several important economic and political developments which critics of Chiang Kai-shek often neglect. Since 1949 the Nationalist Government has taken a series of constructive steps which it failed to take while it was on the mainland. Among the most important is its recognition of the decisive importance of the villagers who, as in all Asian nations, not only constitute the majority but also control the food supply and hence provide the economic and political key to orderly growth. Under Chiang's direction, a reform program which limits land ownership to ten acres and substantially reduces rentals has been combined with a competent rural extension service, easy credit and an expanded fertilizer industry. The result has been a sharp increase in the output of rice and cotton per acre and an easier and more prosperous life for the peasants. Formosan living standards are now the second highest in Asia, surpassed only by Japan.

The internal political situation has also improved since the bloody 1947 uprising against the misrule of a carpet bagging Nationalist governor. To be sure, the national government is still run almost entirely by mainlanders. The Assembly has 1,576 members, of whom only 26 are Formosans. Yet there has been some progress toward democratic participation by Formosans. In the provincial assemblies and county administrations, for instance, the islanders hold large majorities through reasonably free elections. The mayors of most towns are also native Formosans.

For over 30 years in victory and defeat the Generalissimo has almost single-handedly held the Kuomintang together. But though he is robust at 73 he cannot rule forever. Formosa's future depends on the stability of the government which will survive his passing from the scene.

As long as the United States maintains adequate sea and air power in East Asia, and the will to use it, there is only one way in which Mao Tse-tung can establish his sovereignty over Formosa and that is by a coup d'état which would depose Chiang or his successor and place in power a new island government prepared to come to terms with Peking.

This development is improbable but not impossible. For ten years the 2,000,000 Nationalists on Formosa have been told that sooner or later Chiang's army--backed by massive American military support--would invade the Fukien coast and start the long-promised reconquest of the motherland. An increasing number of them have come to understand the practical impossibility of such a venture. Meanwhile Peking's propaganda broadcasts have skillfully played on their nostalgia and promised them forgiveness for their past sins, a hearty welcome home and even privileged positions in the "new China." At the same time, Peking has offered Formosa a special status as an "autonomous" area.

The persuasiveness of these appeals has been cut, of course, by reports of the way the commune system is working on the mainland and by Peking's actions in Tibet. Yet the pull of the homeland still contributes to the potentially unstable political situation.

On the mainland, powerful totalitarian forces are reshaping Chinese society, remolding Chinese thought, and rewriting Chinese history within the constricting framework of the Lenin-Stalin-Mao ideology.

An independent Sino-Formosan nation can offer the contrast of a modernized non-Communist Chinese society, free from mass regimentation, with an increasing measure of political liberty and with expanding economic opportunities for all citizens. In building such a society the younger generation of Taiwanese and Chinese can find a common sense of purpose and at the same time supply a cultural base for the 13,000,000 overseas Chinese.


How can we adjust our policy to foster such a development?

Let us accept the fact that Formosa's adoption of an affirmative new role in non-Communist Asia cannot be stage-managed by American policy-makers, however well supplied with good will and dollars. Nor can it be arbitrarily imposed on the Formosan majority by the Nationalist refugees from the mainland. Our role must be that of a genuine friend. The native Formosans, the Nationalist Chinese and the world generally must be convinced that our objective is not to create a military base for the invasion of the mainland but to encourage the orderly growth of a new, independent nation.

In this perspective, our exposed position on Quemoy and Matsu makes very little sense. As Secretary of State Herter said on September 29, 1958, in a speech at Atlantic City: "Anyone can see from looking at the map" that these islands "are not strategically defensible in the defense of Formosa . . . " despite the fact that the Nationalist Chinese "have a fixed devotion to these islands which is almost pathological." In spite of this the State Department still hesitates to bring its tactics into harmony with such realities. So long as our position remains unclear we leave the initiative to others and expose ourselves to the possibility, if not the probability, that once again we will face the unhappy choice of retreating under fire or attempting to stand firm on a militarily untenable position.

On the one hand, we should encourage the neutralization of the offshore islands immediately adjacent to the Chinese coast. In their present status they serve only to keep alive the myth that a Nationalist invasion of the mainland is imminent and thereby give Peking a handy excuse for "counter" hostilities.

On the other hand, our assurance that we will offer all-out military opposition to a Communist attack on Formosa itself should be substantially strengthened and extended to include any measures necessary to deter a coup d'état. In the event of such a coup, we should institute an economic and naval blockade to deny the Peking government effective occupation.

It might well take some time for Formosa's position in the United Nations as an independent nation to become accepted. Once this happened, its security would be backed by the organization's full guarantees. In the meantime our unilateral military commitment to defend the island must be unequivocal. We can no more abandon the people of Formosa than we can those of West Berlin.

As our military obligations in the area are gradually brought in line with the realities, we shall be able to reduce our military grants substantially. The savings can be profitably diverted into a further expansion of the Formosan economy.

The solid industrial and agricultural base now in process of creation will be a long step toward economic self-reliance. If the resulting economic benefits are directed largely to the peasants and workers instead of to the Nationalist minority already at the top of the economic pyramid, orderly political growth will be further stimulated. Private capital investment in Formosa should also be vigorously encouraged. If the island's independent future could be made more sure, increased capital would become available from Hong Kong.

American policy and American funds should also be directed toward the development of Formosa as a cultural center for non-Communist Chinese everywhere. Substantially increased assistance to Formosan colleges from public and private American sources can be an important first step in that direction. Scholarships for overseas Chinese to study on Formosa as well as scholarships for both Chinese and Formosans to study in the United States should also be increased. Similarly, more fellowships to enable talented American students to follow Chinese studies in Formosan institutions would help create the basis for a new partnership. Despite our long association with the Chinese, too many Americans are ignorant of their history and culture.

Finally, and of the utmost importance, every effort should be made to persuade the Nationalist Government to adopt a more realistic approach to their non-Communist fellow Asians. Formosa's future as an independent nation is tied to the future of free Asia and particularly to those two great geographic and political anchors, India and Japan. Unhappily, many Nationalist leaders have shown nothing but contempt for those free Asian governments which do not share their own doctrinaire interpretation of the world conflict. Instead, they often seem to speak and act on the assumption that a third world war is inevitable and that anyone who fails to agree is a Communist dupe. And, of course, such an assumption is basic to the myth of mainland reconquest. A wide gap therefore exists between the Nationalist Government and most of the peoples and leaders of non-Communist Asia. We should do all we can to close this gap and thus diminish Formosa's present political isolation.


Now what of "the other China," the giant on the mainland? Here our field for creative action is inevitably more restricted.

The Chinese Communist Government today is embarked upon a gigantic effort to industrialize its 650,000,000 people on a resource base which is woefully inadequate. There seem to me to be three possible results of this experiment.

The Chinese Communists may be impelled by the harsh economic limitations of their position to modify their policies gradually, reduce their objectives, and seek to relieve their food and other shortages through peaceful foreign trade. In view of their intense, deeply rooted and doctrinaire Communist nationalism this development appears unlikely in the foreseeable future.

A second possibility is that they will seek to re-settle part of their swelling population in the vast expanses of the Soviet Union bordering on China. But a large-scale development of these inner Asian regions of severe and uncertain climate would not be easy, and it is hard to imagine the conditions under which the Soviet Union would accept a great influx of Chinese settlers.

The third possibility is expansion into Southeast Asia, with its wealth of under-populated, food-rich countryside, as well as the great reserves of oil, tin, rubber and other resources which China badly needs. Our objective must be to create a military, political and economic barrier sufficient to discourage any such attempt.

For us to indulge in threats of atomic war would merely frighten the non-Communist Asian nations and further feed the fires of aggressive Chinese nationalism. It is vital, however, that we make clear in temperate language and through diplomatic channels our total commitment to defend Southeast Asia against Chinese attack. And unlike an attack on Formosa, a Chinese thrust southward would also bring into play the existing guarantees in the United Nations Charter.

Ultimately, however, the fate of the non-Communist nations of South and Southeast Asia will be determined by two factors which we can influence only indirectly: first, by their own economic and political stability and by their willingness to oppose any infringement on their sovereignty; and second, by the willingness of the two principal nations of the region, India and Pakistan, to add their weight more and more to the balance against Chinese aggression.

The role of India is of particular importance. Indeed, it is fair to say that an India which is politically stable and developing economically, and which works in harmony with the rest of non-Communist Asia, is the key to the ultimate balance of power in Asia and the Middle East as well. The recent Chinese probings of the Indian border regions have underscored both the significance of India and the dilemma she faces. Nor has the lesson been lost on India's neighbors. Indeed, the attitudes in free Asia seem to be moving closer together in face of the common danger.

By wise and sensitive diplomacy we can contribute to this development. In the military sense, our role should be one of quiet readiness for any emergency, much as the British Fleet gave meaning to the Monroe Doctrine during our neutralist nineteenth century. Our direct economic assistance should give the highest priority to those nations which are willing and competent to help themselves and to devise programs to stabilize raw material prices at levels fair to the producers.

We undoubtedly have the strength to play our proper role in Asia; the question is whether we have the necessary tact, subtlety and flexibility. Let us, to begin with, put aside some of our own doctrinaire preconceptions and examine realistically the complex nature of the Sino-Soviet relationship.

Deep potential differences exist between Chinese and Russian Communism as a result of the radically different cultures, experiences and leaderships in the two countries. These are magnified by the fact that the two societies are at different stages of development--the one industrialized, with rich resources and an abundance of land; the other with a shortage in agriculture, inadequate resources and a burgeoning population.

Because of these differences we may assume that the Soviet Union and Communist China view the cold war from quite different perspectives. The Peking government utilizes the present tense situation in East Asia to fan the nationalistic fervor of its people, divert attention from internal difficulties and assure continued economic assistance and military support from the Soviet Union. When Moscow professes a desire to lessen tensions with the non-Communist world, there is every reason to believe that Peking tends to pull hard in the other direction.

No outsider can be sure of the present nature or future development of the Sino-Soviet alliance, but certainly it is an infinitely complex and delicate arrangement. The assumption that it is rigid, monolithic and unchangeable is out of date. In view of this, recent efforts of State Department spokesmen to score debaters' points by depicting Mr. Khrushchev as "leader of the world Communist movement" and twitting him for not "keeping China in line" are naive and self-defeating. Let us realize that Communist alliances as well as Communist nations are subject to the eroding effects of economics, nationalism and history.

Between 1919 and 1933 the United States had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Yet during that period thousands of Americans traveled in Russia and thereby increased both our knowledge of developments there and the Russian people's awareness and understanding of us. It seems to me that today we should be striving by all reasonable means to establish people-to-people contacts with mainland China. It may be useful as a first step to offer a fresh approach to the exchange of correspondents with Red China. We are badly in need of the facts and perspective that able American reporters can give us, and we have no reason to be embarrassed by what Chinese journalists may see in America.

Such a two-way exchange has been obstructed so far both by Peking and by our State Department. It would be wishful thinking, of course, to assume that our attempts to reopen communications with the people of China will be welcomed by Peking. In many ways, the Communists serve their own interests best by keeping us their Public Enemy. It is up to us, however, to remove all technical obstacles to the travel of correspondents still existing on our side so that responsibility for the continuing communications barrier will clearly rest with Peking.

But the freer flow of news is only the beginning. Educators, politicians, businessmen--all the many Americans who could profit by a first-hand understanding of the Chinese revolution and who could transmit their understanding to the rest of us--should be allowed access to the mainland by our authorities, with reciprocal privileges for the Chinese. A by-product of such contacts would almost surely be the freeing of the five Americans charged with espionage and still held in Chinese prisons.

As I have already pointed out in regard to trade, it would be unrealistic at this stage in China's development to expect the doctrinaire Communist government in Peking to attempt to meet its steadily growing food and raw-material needs by major purchases overseas. Yet in the longer perspective it seems clear that China's only practical alternative to an effort to seize the material and land resources of Southeast Asia by force is to embark on a greatly expanded trade program. Since world peace will depend on which road China ultimately chooses this question deserves the most urgent attention of American policy-makers.

Only when we start to move off dead center in East Asia, beginning with the creation and implementation of imaginative policies based on the reality of two Chinas, will we start to exert a constructive influence on the shape of events to come. And as we do so, is it too much to hope that the sheer magnitude of the war danger in East Asia may gradually bring a degree of at least tacit coöperation between the United States and the Soviet Union in that area? Despite our profound ideological and political differences and aims we seem to have a common interest in the development of a less precarious military, economic and political balance of power in Asia.

Nationalist extremists on Formosa will not be happy about the policies which I have suggested, and the Communists in Peking will denounce them violently. The patriotic but quite unrealistic Formosan nationalists who demand that we push Chiang aside and help them to set up their own government will reject them also.

At this point, our policy should be directed toward proving these things to the Chinese Communist leaders: One, we will oppose by all necessary means any movement of theirs into Southeast Asia. Two, we will not allow them to over-run Formosa either by direct attack or by subversion. Three, our military installations on Formosa are not designed to aid or abet a Nationalist attack against the mainland. Four, Formosa is to remain a free entity and all its people should eventually be consulted as to its form of government.

If we adopt these objectives, it is possible that as the prosperity and stability of Formosa become evident the Peking government may grudgingly come to accept the island's independence as one of the facts of life in non-Communist Asia.

[i] Lí Thian-hok, "The China Impasse: A Formosan View," Foreign Affairs, April 1958.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • CHESTER BOWLES, United States Congressman from Connecticut; former Ambassador to India; former Governor of Connecticut; author of "Ambassador's Report," "The Coming Political Breakthrough" and other works
  • More By Chester Bowles