Taiwan’s ROC Dilemma – A Country that no longer exists

Taiwan is broadly considered as a hi-tech country that has created a democratic miracle during the 1990’s. However, despite this great achievement, the official name of Taiwan is still “Republic of China (ROC)”, a country that ceased to exist in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established.

By I-Chung Lai, Ph.D.
Taiwan is broadly considered as a hi-tech country that has created a democratic miracle during the 1990’s. However, despite this great achievement, the official name of Taiwan is still “Republic of China (ROC)”, a country that ceased to exist in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established.
Did people in Taiwan want their country to be represented by the ROC? No, the ROC was imposed on them when Chiang Kai-Shek moved his strong KMT army to Taiwan in 1949. Today, do Taiwanese want to change the official name, ROC, which the world essentially considers as a non-existent state? Yes, but the People’s Republic of China is threatening to use force against Taiwan should the official name of the ROC be changed. Furthermore, almost every country in the world, whether it is democratic or not, considers such a name change, even if it will be through a constitutionally sanctioned procedure, as unnecessarily provocative and destabilizing. They accuse political parties advocating such a change, not the country who threatened to use force, as the troublemakers who should be stopped at all costs. Can Taiwan live with this imperfect name for now and patiently wait for a better future? That’s exactly what the Taiwanese people are doing. But with the rise of China and the seemingly wavering commitment from the U.S., it seems time is not on Taiwan’s side.
Chiang Kai-Shek’s Regime insisted on preserving the ROC
After the defeated Chiang Kai-Shek moved his military establishment to Taiwan, the international trend was to recognize Mao’s China, the People’s Republic of China, as the sole legitimate government representing China. Ignoring recommendations from his advisers to adopt a “two-China” position, Chiang insisted on competing against PRC for the representation of China. In retrospect, the reason behind Chiang so stubbornly adhered to this position was the fear that abandoning it could force Chiang’s regime to face the unwanted consequence of holding an island-wide election. Such an election result could have wiped out Chiang’s legitimacy completely. Thus, the ROC and its one-China connotation not only mean the continued KMT-CCP struggle for the ownership of China, but also served as a mean for the KMT regime to deter possible domestic democratic challenges.
Since the international consensus gradually moved to accept that there is only one China and it is represented by the PRC government, Chiang’s claim was seen by the Taiwanese as severely detached from the reality and should be responsible for the international isolation of Taiwan.
Taiwan was thrown out of UN in 1971. In 1972, Japan switched its official relation with Taiwan to China. Taiwanese athletes were forbidden to participate in the Montreal Olympics in 1976. And the U.S. recognition of PRC as the sole representative government of China in 1979 presented the most devastating shock to Chiang’s ROC myth. All those events led many people, particularly the democratic activists, to conclude that the only way out for Taiwan is to move away from Chiang’s myth and to go back to the natural “One China, One Taiwan” position. They believe it will increase the likelihood for Taiwan to be reaccepted by the international community.
Thus, it goes without saying that the shift from “ROC as one China” to the notion of “One China, One Taiwan” or “Two Chinas” was strengthened along with Taiwan’s democratization process in the 90’s. While the societal acceptance of the Taiwanese identity started to pick up momentum, and it has now reached the majority, the support for a separate U.N. representation has already reached overwhelming majority. Various polls pointed out that over 80% of the population supported the “Join UN” campaign.
PRC’s strategy: through ROC it can acquire Taiwan
While democratization leads Taiwan to look for a new position in order to avoid the ROC vs. PRC representation struggle, it is PRC who keeps this struggle alive by insisting that Taiwan should not change its official name and that Taiwan should continue to assert that Taiwan is a part of China. PRC believes that as long as Taiwan continues to use “ROC” as the national title and thus recognize that Taiwan is a part of China, PRC can strengthen its case of representing Taiwan through the internationally recognized “One China Consensus”, which states that the only government representing China is PRC. PRC knows that since the international consensus rejects ROC can represent China, they can effectively contain Taiwan in the one China box as long as Taiwan keeps the ROC title and admits it(Taiwan) is a part of China.
PRC now appears to be the savior of ROC, its old one China arch-enemy during the Cold War era. When Taiwan decided to avoid diplomatic competition, it is PRC through the military threat that force Taiwan to continue this game.
Abandoning ROC = Changing Status Quo
Out of fear of angering China, many Western democracies have blamed Taiwan‘s previous actions as destabilizing and unnecessarily provocative. The U.S., the security guarantor of the Taiwan Strait, warned Taiwan repeatedly about changing the national title of the ROC due to the possible consequential action of PRC. However, even the United States takes the position that ROC cannot represent China and that ROC is not a country. Hence people in Taiwan were accused by U.S. senior officials for rocking the boat by thinking about changing the official name, an official name even the United States refuse to recognize. Some Western sinologists even suggest that a change of Taiwan’s official name is equivalent to populism and should be labeled as irresponsible. In their view, only the democracy that do not to deviate from the Western One China policy framework can be considered as a responsible democracy.
If Taiwan sticks with the ROC, the lack of international legitimacy associated with ROC will start to hit Taiwan. As long as Taiwan continues to use ROC as the national title, it will find itself trapped into the ROC-PRC representation battle, a war that was lost 30 years ago. If Taiwan decides to change the ROC title, Taiwan is blamed as the provocateur across the Taiwan Strait: an evil country that intends to use blood of American soldiers to cash in its political adventurism. If Taiwan continues as today, Taiwan will barely have any legitimate case left for international participation.
Taiwan Sandwiched between a Rock and Hard place
Globalization is adding to the misery by forcing Taiwan to make a decision sooner rather than later. In other words, the status quo is untenable due to globalization. Because the rule and norm of globalization is set through the state-based international cooperation. Due to the “ROC problem” Taiwan has no effective representation for the new international cooperation. Therefore, Taiwan has to rely more on its traditional allies and Taiwan is thus more sensitive to any change of Taiwan’s formal recognition. Taiwan cannot afford losing diplomatic allies but actions to strengthen these bilateral ties between Taiwan and its official relations, would very easily be perceived as a diplomatic offensive, or attempt to public challenge China. This will further exacerbate the international isolation problem of Taiwan.
Also, the rise of China presents a serious challenge for Taiwan to gain the necessary support for its international participation. If China continues to rise as today, Taiwan cannot play the waiting game and time is not on Taiwan’s side.
Taiwan’s ROC dilemma is not about whether people like this title due to their personal national identification. It is about Taiwan’s international survival. Changing name will anger China – a move strongly detested by Western democracies. Sticking with it not only continues Taiwan’s international isolation, but it also greatly enhances China’s claim of ownership of Taiwan. In addition, globalization and the rise of China mean that the status quo cannot be maintained. The problem is, aside from Beijing and the people in Taiwan, did anyone see it coming?
I-Chung Lai is Ph.D. and assistant Professor at Mackay Medicine College for Nursing and Management.