The International Community Should Follow the U.S. by Referring to Taiwan’s Missions Abroad as the “Taiwan Representative Office”

Written by Milo Hsieh.

Image credit: 總統偕同副總統出席「Our Heroes!台灣英雄 凱旋派對」by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

During the Olympics, Taiwan’s “Chinese Taipei” name was on display for two weeks, reminding the world that “Taiwan” remains not to be mentioned at the Olympics. That name, a less than preferred one for the people of Taiwan, was introduced in 1979 due to the Nagoya Resolution. That year, the People’s Republic of China representatives agreed to participate in the 1980 Olympics only if athletes representing Taiwan used the name “Chinese Taipei.” Though the name is today unrepresentative of the country Taiwan has become, it was nevertheless accepted by Taiwan’s Republic of China government at the time.

Though the Taiwanese public in 2018 reaffirmed this name by voting against changing it to just “Taiwan,” the result was probably more reflective of the fear that Taiwanese athletes cannot participateif they try to change Taiwan’s “Chinese Taipei” name. Hence, the opposition campaigned on using fearmongering tactics rather than of public opposition to rectify Taiwan’s name in this particular instance. For a long time, the “Chinese Taipei” name has been an issue that has been referred to as a part of a “geopolitical absurdity” by outside observers. Any change to it remains contentious given China’s objection to its use, given implications for Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Taiwan has worked to alter self-representation by referring to itself as Taiwan rather than the dated “Republic of China.” Sometimes, however, in the Olympics and several international organisations like the World Trade Organisation, Taiwan still has to appear as “Chinese Taipei.”

Despite the necessity to use this name in certain instances, however, the level of support to see “Taiwan” as “Taiwan” in the West is increasing. For example, Taiwan’s latest plan to open a Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania is one sign that this is translating into an observable difference through using the term “Taiwan” rather than “Taipei.” Furthermore, although Lithuania’s decision led to backlash from China, which retaliated by withdrawing its Ambassador in Vilnius and possibly moving to hit Lithuanian exports to China, Lithuania has stood by its decision and did not cave to China’s pressure.

This European effort resonates with American measures halfway across the world. In addition, pro-Taiwan provisions in bills in the U.S. Congress addressing U.S.-China strategic competition would also likely introduce a similar name change into U.S. law. Currently, this effort is simultaneous in both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

The earlier bill – the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act – which passed the Senate in June includes a clause on changing U.S. Treatment of the Taiwan Government. The clause would direct the U.S. government to “engage with the democratically elected government of Taiwan as the legitimate representative of the people of Taiwan and end the outdated practice of referring to the government of Taiwan as the ‘Taiwan authorities.’” This would change U.S. policy towards Taiwan to just short of granting diplomatic recognition.

The Senate clause is indicative of a strong sense of bipartisan support in the U.S. and a sign that support for Taiwan is entering mainstream U.S. foreign policy discourse. It first originated from the 2021 version of the Taiwan Relations Reinforcement Act introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Jeff Merkley. Furthermore, it was later included in the Strategic Competition, sponsored by Sen. Bob Menendez, before integrating into USICA.

The latter bill, the Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement Act, passed through the House of Representative’s Foreign Affairs Committee in July.

Under proposed changes in this bill, under the “Taiwan Diplomatic Review” section, it would become “the policy of the United States to refer to Taiwan as ‘‘Taiwan’,’ not ‘‘Taipei’’ or ‘‘Chinese Taipei.” In addition, the bill would recognise that Taiwan’s de-facto embassy to the U.S., the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, is “inaptly named” and would direct efforts that would lead to a name change to the “Taiwan Representative Office.” Thus, the efforts in Vilnius may soon be seen with a comparable change in Washington.

The House clause originated from the Taiwan Diplomatic Review Act, introduced by Rep. Steve Chabot and Rep. Brad Sherman, long-time supporters of the Taiwanese-American community and the people of Taiwan. Though Rep. Steve Chabot attempted to also insert the Senate Clause on the treatment of Taiwan government—otherwise a strong potential change of U.S. policy towards Taiwan—Into the House bill through a 17-page amendment, it was not passed by the majority in the House Foreign Affairs Committee before the bill was sent to the House floor.

Existing clauses in either bill would make referring to Taiwan as “Taipei,” “Taiwan Authorities,” or “Chinese Taipei” explicitly inappropriate under U.S. law. This would be a welcoming and much-needed move on U.S. policy towards Taiwan. But, of course, it has already been a norm and a policy of the U.S. to refer to Taiwan as “Taiwan” before these changes. Still, the passage of either version into law would also signal new norms for the rest of the world by consolidating unspoken norms into explicitly written laws.

That being said, there is no certainty that either proposal in the Senate or House bills would be written in as public law. Still, given solid bipartisanship in the U.S. Congress on supporting Taiwan, more likely than not, a variation of either provision would clear the chambers by the end of 2021. When this happens, the U.S. would be taking a significant step to ensure that Taiwan is seen as “Taiwan,” even as fewer desirable names for it are used elsewhere.

Since the U.S. plays a leadership role in determining the attitudes of its allies towards Taiwan, evident given recent statements supporting peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait by high-level South Korean and Japanese officials, such a step forward can catalyse a change of attitudes, norms, and languages used towards Taiwan elsewhere.

Since the U.S. sets the norm through which Taiwan is seen –and because using “Taipei” to refer to Taiwan is outdated, not to mention the incoming name change for Taiwan’s U.S. embassy – the world should follow the examples set by the U.S. and Lithuania in perceiving Taiwan’s representatives as “Taiwanese.”

There is no guarantee that the current progress on seeing Taiwan as Taiwan would have long-term impacts on Taiwan’s names in international organisations and sports games, given China’s overwhelming pressure where the name “Chinese Taipei” is used. But if most countries allow Taiwan to use its name without the need to downgrade to “Taipei” or “Chinese Taipei,” perhaps the country could rid itself of a legacy name that it still has to use as a compromise against China’s unreasonable sovereignty claims.

Milo Hsieh studies international relations at American University. He is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He tweets @MiloHsieh

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