Dec. 1 marked the 70th anniversary of the Cairo Declaration, that was issued after the November 1943 summit by then-US president Franklin Roosevelt, then-British prime minister Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石).
The commemoration gave rise to a conference in Taipei titled “The Cairo Declaration 70th anniversary exhibition and international symposium,” and prompted a number of statements and declarations by officials from China and Taiwan, including President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
Many of these commentaries tried to imply that the Cairo Declaration was a legal basis for the “return” of Taiwan — then referred to as Formosa — to Chiang’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), while People’s Republic of China (PRC) spokesmen attempted to use the document to justify China’s claim to Taiwan, and engaged in some Japan-bashing along the way.
Therefore, it is necessary to clearly understand the nature and the legal status of the Cairo Declaration: what it is, and what it is not.
First, it was a “declaration of intent” by the allied leaders. It has no legal status beyond being a press release at the end of the meeting, and in the archives of the US Department of State, it is classified as such. Also, it was not signed by the leaders present, and does not have executive agreement or treaty status.
It was nevertheless an important document, as it signified the intentions of the allied leaders after the war. It was also referred to in the Potsdam Declaration of Aug. 1, 1945, when then-US president Harry Truman, Churchill and then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin agreed: “The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine” (Annex II, article B.8).
However, what actually happened is quite different from the “intent” of both Cairo and Potsdam. One month later, on Sept. 2, 1945, US general Douglas McArthur issued General Order No. 1, designed to formalize the surrender of Japanese troops, and it was decided, inter alia, that the Japanese troops on Formosa would surrender to Chiang, who would temporarily occupy the island on behalf of the Allied forces.
Following McArthur’s instructions, then-Japanese governor-general Rikichi Ando signed the surrender document with Republic of China (ROC) general Chen Yi (陳儀) in Taipei on Oct. 25, 1945. However, as subsequent statements by the US from 1945 through 1952 clearly indicated, this did not in any way, implicitly or explicitly, signify a transfer of sovereignty. That was an issue which would be dealt with in a formal peace treaty.
This peace treaty came seven years later, in the form of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951-1952, in which Japan formally ceded sovereignty over Taiwan and the Pescadores. However, it was not decided to whom this sovereignty was ceded.
We may recall that this was the time during which many countries in Asia and Africa gained their independence, and it was certainly the intention of those who signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty that the views of the Taiwanese needed to be taken into account.
The British delegate stated: “In due course, a solution must be found in accord with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
The Egyptian delegate stated: “The reason behind not specifying the recipient is to afford the opportunity to take into consideration the principle of self-determination and the expressed desire of the inhabitants of Taiwan.”
The French delegate stated: “Taiwan’s legal status must be determined one of these days, taking the wishes of the Formosan population into consideration.”
However, the harsh reality was that during the “temporary occupation” of 1945-1952, Chiang’s regime had started to harshly repress the local population (the 228 Massacre of 1947), and in 1949, the Nationalists had had to flee China to escape the communist onslaught. The following decades thus saw very little possibility to take the wishes of the Formosan population into account. On the contrary, Taiwan suffered under 38 years of martial law.
During the following decades, Chiang’s pretense of representing China of course became increasingly untenable, which led to the ouster of his representatives from the UN in 1971, and the break of relations with the US in 1979.
Taiwan’s transition to democracy during the late 1980s and early 1990s provided the first opportunity for Taiwanese to voice their views on their future. The main conclusions are that they want to remain a free and democratic nation, and that they want to join the international community as a full and equal member.
To return to the arguments laid out in the beginning of this essay: Trying to use the Cairo Declaration to either imply it was a “legal” basis for Chiang’s occupation of Taiwan, or to claim that it justifies the PRC’s claim to Taiwan simply does not hold water. The historical facts prove otherwise.
Gerrit van der Wees is editor of Taiwan Communique, based in Washington.