Politics & Law

The Cairo Declaration unpacked and debunked

01 March, 2023

An argument, which the Chinese Communist Party regularly trots out to justify its hegemonic claims to Taiwan is the Cairo Declaration. With the 80th anniversary of the declaration approaching, that argument needs to be re-examined, unpacked and debunked.

By Jerome F Keating


General Chiang Kai-shek, President Franklin D Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill meeting at the Cairo Conference in Cairo on 25 November 1943


In late November 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt and General Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China (ROC) met in Cairo to pledge to continue the war against Japan as well as plot what they would do if they were victorious.


Absent was USSR President Josef Stalin. The USSR had signed a five-year non-aggression neutrality pact with Japan in 1941 and Stalin also supported the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in its civil war against Chiang’s forces for control of China. Chiang did not wish to meet him.


Instead, Stalin, who wanted the allies to open a Western offensive against Germany, later met with Roosevelt and Churchill in Tehran immediately after. In return, he promised to fight Japan three months after the future hoped for defeat of Germany.


There were misgivings on all sides as these meetings took place; each hoped that no one of the four would pull out and sign a separate peace treaty as the Russians had done in World War I with the Treaty of Brest.


Thus, the Cairo Declaration, published on 3 December 1943, was brief; but it also contained idealistic and questionable phrases. One was that the participants would “covet no gain for themselves and have no thought of territorial expansion.” That would present obvious challenges in the aftermath of the war.


Also stated was that Japan would be stripped of the many islands in the Pacific, which it had gained since 1914 and World War I; it would also lose Formosa and the Pescadores “which it had allegedly “stolen from China in 1895.”


It is with this distorted nomenclature that the unpacking can begin.


The Manchus had conquered China, Mongolia and Tibet in the 17th Century and added those countries to their empire, which they ruled in 1895. Their Manchu Dynasty was called the Qing. It is only lazy historians that misuse nomenclature and apply the name “China” to all the lands that they conquered. In this empire, they united the Manchus, the Mongolians, the Tibetans, the Han Chinese, and the Uighurs all under one roof.


Japan would acquire Formosa from this Manchu Empire through the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. The two had fought over Korea, which the Manchus wanted to make a tributary state; Japan wanted to protect and expand its trade and economic interests there.


If there had been any “stealing of Formosa” history would have to read that Japan stole Formosa from the Manchus who in 1683 stole it from the fleeing Chinese Ming loyalists who stole it in 1662 from the Dutch who stole it from the indigenous tribes already living there in 1624.


As said, the Manchu/Japanese war was fought over Korea and not Formosa but in the following treaty, Japan gained control over Korea, the Liaodong Peninsula, Formosa, the Pescadores and parts of Manchuria. Later Russia and separate western powers pressured Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula. They did not wish a rising Japan to have that much influence over the crumbling Qing Empire.


From this perspective, Japan was no more a villain than were the Manchus who wanted to have Korea as their tributary state or from the other powers who feared that their influence in the Manchu Empire would be diminished.


Ironically, 1895 was also the year that Sun Yat-sen led his first failed attempt to overthrow the Manchu Empire; Chiang Kai-shek was only 8 years old, but he would be schooled in the “Han Chinese” narrative.


The Cairo Declaration employs a “selective Han use of stealing;” otherwise any territory acquired through war and treaty would also have to follow the same nomenclature rule.  


A more accurate insight into Japan and the complexity of the times is found shortly after in the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900) when Japan was part of the Eight-Nation Alliance that put down that Rebellion. Japan was not the only colonial power seeking influence and power in the Manchu Empire. And the Manchu rulers initially allowed the rebellion to go on hoping that it would give them better leverage against the “foreign” nations that resided there.  


If Americans question such a challenge to nomenclature, they might recall that in 1899, the US “supported” Cuban independence. This brought the US into war with Spain and, as a result of that war, the US gained control over the Philippines and many islands in the Pacific. Would such acquisitions fit the Cairo definition of “stealing”?


The complexities of nomenclature are also influenced by the fact that history is written by the victors.


Here, the unpacking of the Cairo nomenclature requires the ability to distinguish between ethnicity, nationality, and territory as regards what was “China.” In a different example, North America contains Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Technically all could be called Americans since they reside in North America. However, only those born in the US are called such. Why? In nomenclature, they are citizens of the United States of America, whereas Canadians do not identify their nation as the United Provinces of America.


When the Manchus ruled their empire, the cry went up “Overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming.” This cry was prevalent only among those who were ethnically Chinese.


The Tibetans, Mongolians and Uighurs did not say “Overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming.” They did not want ethnic Chinese rule. If they wanted anything it was a return to their own self rule.


This is where Taiwanese stand as different; they know that their Formosa has a different history. Taiwanese identify comes from seeing Taiwan as a democratic nation, not as ethnic Chinese. They had been united as colonials under Japan and their years as colonials taught them that whatever their past, the diverse groups on the island were now Taiwanese. Thus when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) came in exile after WWII, Taiwanese realized the falsehood of “we are all Chinese.” They replaced it with the saying “Pigs replaced dogs,” to describe the KMT replacing Japan.


The same applies when the CCP twists history by trying to say, “we are all Chinese” to entice Taiwan. The Taiwanese do not buy this phrase replete with all its baggage. To their dismay, Hong Kongers quickly found out the falsehood of such.


Thus for the Cairo Declaration, Japan did not “steal Formosa from China.” There was a war and the Manchus lost. The 1952 Treaty of San Francisco that later formally ended World War II in the Pacific set things straight. Japan surrendered sovereignty over Taiwan but did not name a recipient.


Does that mean that Taiwan still belongs to the US, the chief victor in that war? That is another question for another writing. For the present and for Taiwanese, Taiwan is their motherland. It has its own history, colonial periods and mixed ethnicities, but its people are now Taiwanese, united under the one democracy that they achieved.


Jerome F Keating is a consultant, educator, and writer who lives in Taiwan. He is the author of “The Paradigms that Guide Our Lives and Drive Our Souls”.

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