Commentary Magazine


“The Republic of China”

Reports are circulating this morning that Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte has taken the unusual step of publicly warning Taipei not to hold a referendum on whether to apply to the United Nations using the name “Taiwan.” This is very unusual: the State Department usually declines comment on such matters. The story is widely reported in official Chinese media, but the most thorough report comes from Charles Snyder and Ko Shu-ling in the Taipei Times:

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said that the bid to enter the world body under the name “Taiwan” would be a move to change the “status quo”. . . . The U.S. has signaled a major intensification of its campaign against President Chen Shui-bian’s plan for a referendum seeking membership in the UN under the name “Taiwan,” warning publicly for the first time that it sees the referendum as a move toward independence.

Snyder and Ko go on to quote Negroponte:

“I would recall that in the past President Chen has made commitments to the American president, to the international community, and to the people of Taiwan not to take any kind of steps that would represent a unilateral alteration of the status quo, such as a change in the official name of Taiwan,” Negroponte said.

But what is Taiwan’s “official name”? I consulted the CIA’s World Factbook: only “Taiwan” is listed. The Factbook entry follows the usage we have insisted on for decades, referring to the island only as Taiwan. But given that we use the name Taiwan, why would we object to the Taiwanese following our example?

The answer is that Taiwan has, in fact, another name, “The Republic of China,” which was imposed on it when the troops of Chiang Kai-shek arrived in 1945. But after we broke off independent relations with Taiwan in 1979, we expunged “Republic of China” from all official usage—even from the World Factbook (which, curiously, does list “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” for North Korea, a country we do not recognize diplomatically).

Yet the name “Republic of China” has not really vanished: Negroponte was referring to it when he spoke of an “official name.” “The Republic of China” is the last, slender thread by which one can argue that Taiwan is somehow linked to China. Washington and Beijing do not want it to perish entirely—though they themselves publicly repudiate it. (Although Negroponte insists, indirectly, that the Taiwanese continue to use it, whether they like it or not. He even opposes a democratic referendum on the question.)

Our government takes this position, very much at odds with fundamental American beliefs about people and their rights, for one reason: pressure from China. If Beijing ended its diplomatic blockade of Taiwan, the United States would not continue it alone. Now, as Taiwan considers its application to the UN, it may be time for us to end that blockade without waiting for Beijing.