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How Beijing Took Taiwan by Force, the Last Time
An overview of the Taiwan question three centuries ago that ended in military showdown
In the year 1683, two consequential battles took place respectively in the West and East. In the wake of a siege-breaking bloodbath outside Vienna, King Jan III Sobieski of Poland wrote to his queen-consort about how his winged hussars had saved Christendom from the invincible Ottoman janissary. Thousands of miles away in the high-walled Forbidden City in Beijing, a courier rushed in with the news of an equally inconceivable military triumph: The emperor’s armada had brought Taiwan back under the imperial reign. It was the Mid-Autumn Festival, an occasion of family reunions in Chinese culture. Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty, ravished with excitement, improvised a poem to celebrate the historic reunification of Chinese territories across the strait, “long had I deplored my subjects stranded off the seashore; in peace now they plow the fields with the mandate of heaven restored.”1
A cliff-hanging sea battle put an end to the Taiwan question that arose over 300 years prior to the one we had today, though Beijing had also preferred the issue settled in a peaceful manner. History might not repeat itself, until it does.
Inconclusive Civil War
Today’s standoff across the Taiwan Strait is a leftover of the 1946-1949 Chinese civil war between Communists and Nationalists. The deadlock was reached after Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek dragged his demoralized Nationalist forces to the island in 1949, biding his time for a comeback. In a similar fashion, the Taiwan question three centuries earlier was also derived from a struggle for China’s national power. Only that it was a dynastic war between Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911).
Having fought Ming beyond the Great Wall for decades, the once nomadic Manchus brought Beijing under their heels in 1644 and began a full-fledged national takeover as the new dynasty Qing. The capital of the heavenly empire then was the low-hanging fruit for Manchus, as a sprawling peasant uprising had devastated Ming’s central government and cornered Emperor Chongzhen to end himself in a disgraceful suicide. Qing was set to rule the empire. In the vast, unoccupied southern provinces, however, Ming loyalists enthroned surviving royal princes, several all at once, to continue the fight against the Manchu conquest. It took the Qing court another two decades to crush all the resistance forces, all but one staunch defiant, who still stood to the ground on China’s southeast coasts.
Zheng Chenggong 郑成功, sometimes referred to as Koxinga, was a steadfast, ruthless and loyal commander. Born to a Chinese pirate and a Japanese samurai’s daughter, Zheng received an orthodox Confucian upbringing at Nanjing’s imperial college, which rendered him religiously devoted to Ming’s cause of defending the heavenly mandate. He proclaimed his resolve to fight Manchus in 1647 and raised an army of 170,000 strong in the coastal province of Fujian2, even though his father Zheng Zhilong 郑芝龙 had already surrendered to Qing one year earlier. And thanks to his father, who had once built a fearsome seaborne faction, Zheng inherited a fleet second to none in East Asia at the onset of his crusade. This maritime force was a game changer. It helped Zheng’s father pull off arguably China’s first military victory over a Western power (Battle of Liaoluo Bay in 1633 料罗湾海战), it enabled Zheng to follow through the 15-year struggle against Manchus to the end, and it would later wind up to be the biggest obstacle to Taiwan’s return to the fold. Manchus were strangers to sea waves, but unstoppable on horseback. After a calamitous military adventure to recover Ming’s second capital Nanjing in 1659, Zheng came to recognize Qing’s superiority in land battles, and decided to seek out a home base beyond Manchu warriors’ reach in preparation for the long haul. Zheng laid his eyes on Taiwan.
In 1662, Zheng led his mighty fleet to embark on another military adventure to take Taiwan from the Dutch East India Company, which had kept a colonial presence on the island for nearly 40 years. This time he succeeded, earning himself the title of the nation’s hero that has lasted till today. Zheng was determined to build the island into a military base and commercial center, in a bid to wait for a window to rehabilitate Ming’s rule in China. Zheng Chenggong passed away in the same year of his conquest, but his son resumed his project. Also in the year 1662, two other earth-shaking events took place in China. The last Ming emperor was murdered in Yunnan, making Zheng’s regime in Taiwan the only force still upholding Ming’s banner across the country. In Beijing, a Manchu prince who was eventually remembered as the greatest emperor of the Qing Dynasty, if not of all Chinese dynasties, ascended to the throne by the reign title of Kangxi, even though he was only eight years old then. The standoff across the Taiwan Strait officially began.
This standoff came to existence because of the soaring military projection cost for Beijing, built up by the treacherous sea waters and Zheng’s seasoned maritime force. Originating from the nomadic Jurchens in northeast China, Manchus remained largely a land power by the time of Zheng’s retreat to Taiwan. The Qing Empire’s only naval force then was constituted mainly of defectors from Zheng’s fleet, and therefore deemed feeble and unreliable. Only with the help of the vengeful Dutch did the Manchu navy in 1663 conquer Amoy (today’s Xiamen), a coastal island built into a military outpost by Zheng Chenggong.3 Still, Qing made its due attempt to unify China. In 1665, gathering all the seaborne might at hand, the Qing court launched its first strait-crossing military operation to eradicate the Ming Empire’s last residue on Taiwan. Shi Lang 施琅, a defector from Zheng’s side, commanded the Manchu fleet. He was the key figure who eventually helped Emperor Kangxi achieve the remarkable feat, but his debut in 1665 ended in a fiasco. As the Manchu fleet made it halfway near Penghu islands, its formation was broken down by ferocious storms in the open sea, and Shi’s flagship disappeared for days before it was found drifting 150 miles away to Guangdong.4 Besides the capricious weather, Shi’s adventure was unlikely to fare well due to an array of unfavorable factors: Shi was not delegated with full authority because of his record of infidelity; the powerful minister Oboi 鳌拜 acting as the young emperor’s regent was not determined to press the claim on Taiwan; and most important of all, the Qing Empire, which set up in Beijing for only 20 years, did not have the capacity to prepare a naval force strong enough to bear the staggering military cost generated by the Taiwan Strait. After the defeat, the Qing court ordered the fleet disbanded, called back to Beijing all its naval commanders, and aborted the plan to recover Taiwan by force.5 A delicate balance was reached that neither the Qing Empire on the mainland nor the Ming loyalists in Taiwan could unseat each other.
An inconclusive dynastic struggle gave rise to the question of Taiwan in the early Qing dynasty. What happened three centuries later in China’s civil war was a striking reflection of that chapter of history. By 1949, the Communists had decisively defeated the Nationalists, who had once appeared as China’s central government, and established the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. The communist government began to sweep through the Chinese territories on the mainland including Xinjiang and Tibet. After Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat to Taiwan in 1949, however, the Communist authorities in Beijing discovered that the seaborne operation to take the island would entail a powerful naval fleet it did not possess at the time. The Nationalists’ air and sea superiority and the subsequent intervention by the U.S. 7th Fleet added to the military cost for Beijing. The Communists further recognized the difficulty of forcibly taking Taiwan after its failure to recover the coastal island Kinmen in an amphibious assault in 1950. Since then, Beijing had to put off the plan of military unification for another seven decades. In both cases, the Taiwan question arose as an extension of the civil war in China, and the war would not end until the question was settled one way or another.
Illusion of Peace
As the stalemate lingered on, both the Qing court and Zheng’s Taiwan tried to reach a settlement through peace talks. Over the two decades of the armed standoff, the two sides across the strait initiated 10 rounds of peace talks, which all ended in failure. They had fundamental differences on one question, one that is crucial to the Taiwan question both then and today: Can Taiwan be considered an independent country?
Upon the death of the strong-willed Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong in 1662, his heir Zheng Jing 郑经 proposed to Beijing his conditions for settlement, “taking Korea (Joseon) as the example, Taiwan should be considered a tributary to the Qing, without adopting the Manchu hairstyle.”6 Though part of the East Asian tributary system with China at the core, Korea was in many respects a country with self-evolved political and social structure. The king of Korea was subject to the Qing emperor, but the Chinese bureaucratic system did not have the authority to directly interfere with Korean internal affairs. Through this proposition, Zheng's Taiwan implicitly offered to abandon the cause of Ming's restoration by recognizing Qing as the suzerain. But to regard Taiwan as Korea is to take Taiwan as a country independent of China. It was by no means acceptable to Beijing.
In 1669, Emperor Kangxi dispatched a high-profile delegation headed by one of his closest advisors Mingju 纳兰明珠 to promote peace talks. This was Qing’s first attempt at peaceful solutions since its failure to attack Taiwan in 1665. And it came shortly after Emperor Kangxi purged all-powerful Oboi and his faction, and assumed the real power of the empire. Beijing’s highly-anticipated effort was met with Zhengs’ unwavering demand that Taiwan should be treated as a vassal state like Korea. Qing’s high commissioner Mingju responded firmly by insisting that “Taiwan can not be drawn parallel to China’s foreign subjects.”7 It was the fourth round of inconclusive peace talks. The failed charm offensives prompted Emperor Kangxi to contemplate its efficacy, to which his minister explained that peace talks would not end up well because Taiwan stood firm on the political status of an independent country as they were well aware of the difficulty for the Qing fleet to navigate across the sea and attack.8 Despite the cognizance of the island’s intransigence, Beijing did not try to resort to force again exactly because of the risks of another unsuccessful sea campaign, until Taiwan ventured to challenge the status quo.
In 1674, the cross-strait military equilibrium was disrupted, as three feudatories in south China, who had once defected to Manchus from Ming, declared themselves in open rebellion against the Qing Empire. The rebel forces were at one time so unstoppable that many in the Qing court started to believe they were on the verge of becoming another short-lived nomadic Chinese dynasty. Taiwan under Zheng Jing’s reign jumped on the occasion to invade the mainland, with the help of the impressive naval force passed on through generations. Zheng’s fleet wreaked havoc in the coastal regions of Fujian Province,9 though that was the extent of it. Stuck in fierce combats on multiple fronts, the Qing court was anxious to resume peace talks with Taiwan. Again, Zheng Jing repeatedly demanded that Beijing recognize Zheng's regime in Taiwan as a tributary like Korea10, and cede part of the coastal areas on the mainland. Taiwan's demand was first turned down by frontline Manchu commanders, and then was officially rejected by the governor-general of Fujian.11 Despite Qing’s pessimistic outlook on its own survival, it was still Beijing’s bottom line that Taiwan should never be considered an independent country. Zheng Jing remained adamant about his demand for a Taiwan free from Beijing's direct governance until his death in 1681, by which time the Qing Empire had crushed the rebellion in the south and forced Zheng's fleet back to Taiwan with its tail between its legs. The ball was back at Beijing's court.
Whether Taiwan should be considered an independent country is at the core of the Taiwan question, and it also applies in today’s context. Since 1958, the Chinese mainland started to bombard Kinmen to convey the message that Beijing did not recognize China’s civil war had ended with Chiang’s fall back to Taiwan. The bombardment stopped in 1979 and Beijing announced its intention to peacefully recover Taiwan. Extending an olive branch did not mean that Beijing had softened its claim on Taiwan, rather it deemed the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question a growing possibility, especially with Washington’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China in the same year. After the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, who was still committed to the idea that Taiwan belonged to China, the ensuing political leaders of Taiwan began to break away from this tradition to invoke populist support. Any move to promote “Taiwan independence” will be regarded by Beijing as a challenge to the status quo, with or without American meddling. That is how peace talks break down, and war breaks out.
Beijing’s Last Resort
After many rounds of desperate, yet fruitless peace talks, the Qing court realized that the Taiwan question had to be resolved by military means. By the 1680s, Beijing still bore paramount risks to launch a seaborne attack on Taiwan, but the Qing Empire was left with no option as it saw the danger of a permanent dent in the territorial integrity.
The balance of military might was tipping in Beijing’s favor. To fend off Zheng’s fleet amid the Three Feudatories’ Rebellion, the Qing court ordered to rebuild the naval force in Fujian in 1678. By 1680, this fleet contained 240 warships and 28,000 battle-tested soldiers, already a capable match for its opponent. Prior to the Qing’s reconquest of Amoy in 1680, it was suggested that the Qing’s fleet turn to the Dutch for help as it did in 1663. Wan Zhengse 万正色, chief commander of the Fujian fleet, firmly rejected this proposal and launched a successful assault before the Dutch fleet could have arrived.
The growing strength of Qing’s naval might did not guarantee a sea-crossing military victory. Shi Lang concluded after his failure in 1665 that a seaborne assault required much more caution than land battles because an expedition to Taiwan was replete with capricious weather conditions and complex hydrographic landscapes unseen in coastal waters.12 Wan Zhengse, despite his astonishing recapture of Amoy, strongly opposed the plan to attack Taiwan. He listed three major reasons for a further postponement: first, Zhengs had strong roots in Taiwan after decades of control; second, sea battles contained too many uncertainties; finally, Zheng’s fleet was too formidable a force to confront in open seas.13
Wan might have been right to do the military calculations as a general, but he clearly underestimated Beijing’s resolve to settle the Taiwan question by all means. As soon as Emperor Kangxi learnt of Wan’s hesitation, he stoutly replaced Wan with Shi Lang as the top naval commander.14 This was a huge gamble for Emperor Kangxi. Shi Lang was a defector from Zheng Chenggong’s fleet, he was not an ethnic Manchu, and he had been through a humiliating defeat on the last expedition to Taiwan. Now, the emperor put this man in charge of the naval force that had taken the entire empire five years to build to accomplish the most important maritime conquest at the time. Shi was even granted the supreme authority in this mission free from the supervision of the governor-general of Fujian. Emperor Kangxi saw in Shi the determination and capability to embark on another sea-crossing military adventure, and that was enough for him. Beijing simply had no room to back down.
In June 1683, by the urge of the emperor, Shi Lang’s armada set sail from Fujian on its course to Taiwan. The decisive battle took place in Penghu Islands, the critical midway stop in the strait. It was by no means a landslide victory. Shi’s ships were initially suppressed by the Taiwan fleet, only to turn the tides after the winds had changed in his favor.15 In the wake of this sea campaign, Zheng’s regime in Taiwan decided to surrender the island back to China’s fold. The battle was won partly out of luck, but the triumph should largely be attributed to Emperor Kangxi’s firm resolve to seek Taiwan’s return. Even if Shi Lang had again failed in Taiwan’s reconquest in 1683, it was almost certain that Beijing would not stop its attempt to take Taiwan by force, until it succeeded.
Today, many people wager that Beijing will draw a lesson from Russia’s sluggish advance in Ukraine and abandon its promise to unify Taiwan at all costs. And some advocate a porcupine strategy for Taiwan secessionists in the hope of deterring Beijing’s resolve for unification. They are probably not the best students of Chinese history. The Chinese government on the mainland has not, and will never tolerate Taiwan’s de jure or de facto independence. Should the peaceful methods be exhausted, Beijing will find itself in a position to be forced to take Taiwan through military means, however staggering the cost. Since the promulgation of the Anti-Secession Law in 2005, it has been legally binding for Beijing to resort to force in the event of Taiwan’s secession from China. Meddling from foreign actors, like Pelosi’s rogue visit to the island or Biden’s unconvincing promise to “defend Taiwan,” is very much likely to be counterproductive as deterrence. They are sending wrong signals to Taiwan secessionists, who might be prompted to challenge the status quo and thus invite a military showdown. In the most recent report to the 20th CPC National Congress, Chinese top leadership made it clear that China has “maintained the initiative and the ability to steer in cross-Strait relations.” Through decades of military modernization, Beijing has enough chips on the table to start a gamble. Disillusion in peaceful unification is all it takes to make the decision. And once the game is on, it will not end until the island is returned to the fold.
Xu Zeyu, author of this article, is a senior correspondent with Xinhua News Agency, China’s official newswire. He did extensive research on the question of Taiwan as a master student of international history at Peking University and London School of Economics and Political Science.
Xu Zeyu is also the founder of Sinical China, a newsletter aimed to offer original insights and fresh perspectives on China's affairs. You are welcome to follow him on Twitter @XuZeyu_Philip
Disclaimer: The published pieces in Sinical China reflect only the personal opinions of the authors, and shall NOT be taken as Xinhua News Agency’s stance or perception.