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."
The State Department formally restated this position to the U.S. Senate in 1970: "As Taiwan and the Pescadores are not covered by any existing international disposition, sovereignty over the area is an unsettled question subject to future international resolution." And President Ronald Reagan, as part of his "six assurances" in 1982 to Taiwan president Chiang Ching-kuo, declared that "the United States has not changed its long-standing position on the matter of Taiwan's sovereignty." Every succeeding U.S. administration has reiterated its adherence to that assurance--though without spelling it out, which is probably why Foreign Service officers in the Department of State and staffers on the National Security Council have come to lose sight of this fundamental fact.
But understanding its implications is more urgent than ever. China continues its military buildup and is close to being able to make good on its threats to coerce Taiwan into accepting its rule, while fewer and fewer of Taiwan's citizens--less than 5 percent in recent polls--think of themselves as Chinese. And the "name game" Washington, Beijing, and Taipei are playing now is a reflection of the tension generated by the inconsistencies and contradictions in America's "one China" policy. We want a peaceful resolution of the Cross-Strait dispute, but can do little to stop the Chinese military buildup and shy away from doing all we can to buttress Taiwan's defenses. We want to promote democracy globally, but find it problematic that a democratic Taiwan has no interest in becoming unified with a despotic China and wants, naturally enough, to be recognized by the rest of the world as a legitimate self-governing state.
At the moment, Beijing is dictating how Washington and, for that matter, Americans think about Taiwan. In late January, the New York Yankees signed an agreement with Chinese officials to help support China's fledgling baseball leagues in exchange, they hope, for getting a leg up on marketing the Yankees in China. At the press conference announcing the agreement, general manager Brian Cashman referred to Yankee pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, who last year tied for the most wins in the American league, as coming from "Chinese-Taipei." While doing so no doubt pleased his Chinese Communist hosts, it was undoubtedly an embarrassment for Wang, a national hero in Taiwan, to have his country tossed aside for the sake of the Yankees' commercial interests. Of course, the Yankees have not been the only ones to go down this road. And the real issue here is not whether the Yankees or Major League Baseball can sell a few more baseball caps and shirts in China. The real issue is that by playing this game we are not moderating Chinese ambitions toward Taiwan but fueling them.
Gary Schmitt is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and John Tkacik a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.
First appeared in The Weekly Standard