What’s in a name? Apparently quite a lot if you live in Abkhazia, Israel, Kosovo, Northern Cyprus, or South Ossetia. The same is true for the Republic of China (also known as Taiwan), whose name and status has remained in contention since its founding in 1912. The Republic of China was led by Chiang Kai-shek and fought a bitter civil war against the Communist forces of Mao Zedong. In 1949, Chiang’s forces were defeated and forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan, ceding control of the mainland to Mao. Since then, Beijing has always claimed that the Republic of China ceased to exist and has worked to undermine the use of the names “Republic of China” and “Taiwan.” In other words, Beijing considers Taiwan not as a state, but as a breakaway province of the communist People’s Republic of China and will only refer to it as such.
On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, the majority of Taiwanese, roughly two-thirds, support the status quo of de facto independence without recognition by the mainland or by the United Nations. Only a minority, 23.5 percent, want outright independence and a limited number, 10.4 percent, desire unification with mainland China, according to a recent poll . Despite these numbers, Chinese President Xi Jinping believes now is an opportune time to use his consolidated and newly indefinite powers to “reunite” Taiwan as part of China’s “Great Rejuvenation.”
Part of Xi’s effort includes challenging Taiwan’s de facto existence through attacking its very name - an exercise that could be called “namefare”. Much like shamefare, coined by Harry J. Kazianis, a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest, namefare resorts to non-military means to fight geopolitical battles. In this seemingly petty exercise, the war is eventually won when one state controls the name that is used or the opposing side’s name falls out of widespread use. Victory also can encompasses which names receive diplomatic and political recognition, are used in commercial trade, and which are referenced by websites.
Official recognition from other countries is vital to Taipei’s interests, as friendly allies can lend support at the United Nations General Assembly and other multilateral organizations in which Taipei is not recognized. However, in recent years Beijing has successfully waged namefare against several of Taiwan’s supposed allies and won. This has reduced the number of countries which recognize the government of Taiwan from 30 to a historic low of 19.
Most recently, on May 1, Taipei lost its the support and recognition of the Dominican Republic. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Dominican Foreign Minister Miguel Vargas signed a joint communique in Beijing, effectively handing the name “China” back to the mainland and redefining “Taiwan” as merely an island belonging to China:
“The Government of the Dominican Republic recognizes that there is but one China in the world, that the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory. Hence the Government of the Dominican Republic severs "diplomatic relations" with Taiwan as of this day.”
This communique was the culmination of negotiations which started in 2016. Underscoring Beijing’s commitment to namefare, those negotiations included in promises of more than $3 billion in infrastructure loans to the Dominican Republic for railways, power plants, highways, and affordable housing. This exchange of withdrawing diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and receiving economic gifts is not lost on the Dominicans and in fact is part of a pattern elsewhere.
According to AidData, countries that vote with China at the UN usually receive more aid than other countries. To be fair, China is not the only country to lavish extensive economic aid in exchange for political allegiance (the phrase “dollar diplomacy” for a reason), but China is one of the countries which has the most to offer financially.
Taipei understandably struggles to compete with China’s dollar diplomacy, having set aside just $89 million for its diplomatic budget each year. Last October, Taiwan promised $35 million in military aid to the Dominican Republic, including two Bell UH-1H helicopters, ninety AM General Humvees, one hundred engines and technical support. Using economic incentives, Beijing has whittled down Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, including Panama in June of 2017 and Sao Tome and Principe in December of 2016.
The loss of support from the Dominican Republic despite seventy-seven years of diplomatic ties caused Taipei to state it was “deeply upset by China's actions. ” This was especially painful for Taipei considering that it the aid Taiwan had provided and that it had signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation with the Dominican Republic just a year ago. Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu expressed Taipei’s outrage over the decision: "Beijing's attempts at foreign policy have only served to drive a wedge between the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, erode mutual trust and further harm the feelings of the people of Taiwan.”