Taipei’s Name Game


First the phone call, then the bombshell. On December 2, Donald Trump reversed 37 years of American foreign policy by taking a ten-minute congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Yesterday, he went further, announcing that he doesn’t know “why we [the United States] have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

Trump’s official position is still unclear, but his comments indicate that on the issue of Taiwan, he may favor changing a status quo that has persisted for nearly four decades. The current version of the United States’ One China policy, which holds that there is only one legitimate government of China, dates to 1979, when the United States recognized the communist government in Beijing while breaking off formal diplomatic ties with the nationalist government in Taipei.

At the time, Taiwan was still a repressive one-party state, but over the next 20 years it peacefully transformed itself into a vibrant liberal democracy. Bet despite this progress, there is still not a independent country named “Taiwan.” The island Tsai governs still calls itself the Republic of China (ROC). Mainland China refers to it as Taiwan and officially considers it to be a renegade province, but in practice treats it like a foreign country. The World Trade Organization calls it the “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu (Chinese Taipei).” The United States still uses the name Taiwan and is open about its desire to maintain strong, unofficial relations with the government in Taipei. Nevertheless, when a U.S. State Department spokesperson accidentally called Taiwan a country earlier this year, it was considered a major gaffe.

But what is Taiwan, then? Today, 70 years after the end of the Chinese civil war that separated the island from the mainland, it is time for the international community to settle this question. It is meaningless to perpetuate the myth that Taiwan is a province of China. Rather, it