The Magazine

What's in a Name?

Ask Taiwan.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By GARY SCHMITT and JOHN J. TKACIK JR.
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The Bush administration, which once pledged to do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan, is increasingly distancing itself from the prosperous and democratic island. This has been going on since August 3, 2002, when Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, first declared that "each side [of the Taiwan Strait] is its own nation." Although this assertion had the benefit of being true, it incensed Beijing's leaders, who pressured the United States into rebuking Chen, in exchange for possible Chinese support at the United Nations when dealing with Iraq.

Now, in a move that is bound to aggravate Beijing even further, Taiwan's government is saying that they do not want to identify their "Palace Museum" with China's identically named "Palace Museum," or confuse their "Republic of China" postage stamps with Beijing's "People's Republic" stamps, or pretend that Taiwan's "Chinese Petroleum Corporation" is actually "Chinese." And, indeed, last week, the government changed the post office's name to Taiwan Post Co., changed the China Shipbuilding Corporation to the acronym CSBC, removed the word "province" from the Taiwan Water Corporation, and removed the word "China" from the Chinese-language name of what is now the Central Bank.

These changes were opposed by Washington. The State Department chastised the government of Taiwan saying, "We do not support administrative steps by the Taiwan authorities that would appear to change Taiwan's status unilaterally or move toward independence." These steps include "changes in terminology for entities administered by the Taiwan authorities."

Since 1979, when the United States cut formal diplomatic ties with the "Republic of China"--that is, the government of Taiwan--it has banned official U.S. government use of the term "Republic of China." Yet, in the Alice-in-Wonderland logic of Foggy Bottom, the State Department criticizes the Republic of China for using the word "Taiwan," even while addressing its statement to the "Taiwan authorities." Meanwhile, out at Langley, the CIA lists "Taiwan" in its World Fact Book not under "China," nor alphabetically, but at the end, after Zimbabwe. And under "Name: conventional long form" it says "none," when in fact the "conventional long form" of the name of Taiwan's government is "The Republic of China." So, while the State Department complains about the decision in Taipei to drop "China" in exchange for "Taiwan," the CIA is desperately trying to avoid using the term "China" in reference to Taiwan.

This would all be quite amusing if it weren't so deadly serious. Names matter.

China insists that Taiwan keep the name "Republic of China" in order to legitimize implicitly its claim that Taiwan is part of "one China" and, hence, part of its sovereign territory. By going along with this, the United States actually fuels China's sense of entitlement--or, more accurately, its resentment over the fact that it doesn't rule Taiwan.

But the United States has not recognized Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan since at least April 11, 1947, when then-Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a letter to Senator Joseph Ball, stated that "the transfer of sovereignty over Formosa to China [had] not yet been formalized." Taiwan, then called Formosa, had been a colony of the Japanese Empire from 1895 until the end of the Second World War, when Japan "renounced all right, title, and claim" to the island as a condition of Japan's surrender. When, in 1951, a formal peace treaty with Japan was concluded in San Francisco, China was not represented, because of a disagreement among the signatory powers as to which government actually represented it. The delegate of the United Kingdom stated for the record that the "treaty also provides for Japan to renounce its sovereignty over Formosa and the Pescadores Islands. The treaty itself does not determine the future of these islands," a position that all parties, except the Soviet Union, adopted. The Soviet delegate grumbled that "this draft grossly violates the indisputable rights of China to the return of integral parts of Chinese territory: Taiwan, the Pescadores, the Paracel and other islands."

In the context of the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Sino-Soviet alliance, the U.S. position, as articulated by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in a presentation to British foreign minister Anthony Eden in October 1954, was that the sovereign status of Taiwan "was deliberately left undetermined, and the U.S. as a principal victor over Japan has an interest in their ultimate future. We are not willing that that future should be one which would enable a hostile regime to endanger the defensive position which is so vital in keeping the Pacific a friendly body of water."