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Changing ‘ROC’ to ‘Taiwan’ in U.N. bid will be detrimental

On Sept. 11, 2007, Thomas J. Christensen, Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, expressed the Department of State’s position on the government of Taiwan’s proposed name change, by referendum, from “Republic of China” to “Taiwan” for United Nations (U.N.) membership to the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council. The State Department’s opposition to the referendum stems mostly from its concerns that the referendum is purely an antagonistic political move, and one that will “limit [...] Taiwan’s international space,” not expand it. It asserts this position mainly from the view that such action on the part of Taiwan will unnecessarily provoke the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), stating that such a referendum and name change would constitute an unnecessary “[f]rontal assault on Beijing’s sensitivities” and is bound to fail. I advance a different reason for why a referendum that decides in favor of changing the ROC’s official name to “Taiwan” would be detrimental to the people of Taiwan and Taiwan’s international legal status.

Since the late 17th century, Taiwan has officially constituted a part of China. Save for the period of official Japanese occupation in the late 19th and early 20th century, since the late 17th century, the island of Taiwan has been a province of China. The ROC was established in 1912, replacing the Qing Dynasty of China, and officially exercised sovereignty over all of China (including Taiwan after World War II) until the establishment of the PRC in 1949. Thereafter, the ROC government moved to Taiwan, and established its government on the island that has since become a functioning democracy.

It is important to emphasize that since this time, the island of Taiwan itself has always remained a province of China, regardless of what government was controlling it. The ROC government, when it officially moved to Taiwan in 1949, essentially occupied a province of China. It had legitimate standing to do so because of its legitimacy as the “Republic of China” as established in 1912 — essentially, the ROC’s occupation and establishment of its government on Taiwan constituted the “Republic of China on Taiwan.” As long as the Republic of China lives on in Taiwan, this republic still exists.

The PRC’s government, in contrast, can be likened to the “People’s Republic of China, Beijing,” or alternatively, the “People’s Republic of China, Mainland China.” When Taiwan seeks from the international community recognition as an “independent state,” it seeks recognition of its government, as established on the island of Taiwan. This government is the “Republic of China” regardless of what political party is governing. As long as the government in Taiwan traces its legitimacy from the republic established in 1912, it has authority or “right” to exist on the island of Taiwan because it represents a legitimate republic that continues to exist.

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