Getting ‘International Recognition’ of Taiwan Right Before It’s Too Late

Getting ‘International Recognition’ of Taiwan Right Before It’s Too Late

Playing along with the Chinese Communist Party’s linguistic games will only embolden it to carry out its final solution to carry out its oft-stated fixed intention to unite the “race” through violence.

At the current moment, fourteen countries still “formally recognize Taiwan,” which means that they technically recognize the ROC (Taiwan) as the legitimate state of the one and only China and operate under the obvious and untenable fiction that the “PRC” simply does not exist. The CCP prefers this “Taiwan as China” paradigm because it allows it to more easily pick off Taiwan’s diplomatic partners, who themselves are engaged in a diplomatic fiction that Taiwan is China and then claim that few countries formally recognize Taiwan as a country, therefore it is not a country. Even the Taiwanese ambassadors to those “formal recognition” countries themselves do not believe that they represent “China.” They know they represent “Taiwan.” When Nicaragua “switched” recognition from “Taiwan” to “China” in December 2021, as was reported in the popular press, all Nicaragua did from a formal legal perspective was recognize the “People’s Republic” of China as China, far from an exercise in arbitrary absurdity. Despite many in the United States’ lamenting Nicaragua’s “switching” of recognition from democratic Taiwan to the autocratic “People’s Republic,” the United States made the same recognition on January 1, 1979, and has not suggested that it would return to recognizing Taiwan as “China.” Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, though, should not be too readily praised for aligning Nicaragua’s diplomatic relations more closely with reality. He took the extra sycophantic step of parroting the CCP’s propaganda that Taiwan is part of the inalienable territory of the “PRC,” which is simply not and never has been true. So, he exchanged one well-meaning and democracy-friendly fiction for an authoritarian one. Nicaragua’s warm embrace of Beijing’s falsehood (accompanied by the likely-illegal and clearly insulting seizure of Taiwan’s state property in Nicaragua) was not accompanied by the mitigating (linguistic) accommodations that almost all of the world’s liberal democracies have taken when they too “switched” diplomatic recognition of “China” from Taiwan to China (the PRC).

This example introduces the second discursive model of Taiwanese recognition: that of maintaining “informal economic and cultural relations with Taipei” while formally recognizing the PRC as China. The United States with its Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) is the most forward-leaning on this “informal Taipei relations model.” The TRA, since 1979, reconstructed in almost every conceivable respect a formal, diplomatic relationship model between the United States and Taiwan but ostensibly informal and grounded only in domestic U.S. law.

To be sure, the “informal Taipei relations” model is closer to the truth than the ROC (Taiwan)-as-the-only-China model because it does not make the false claim that Taiwan is the China. In light of Putin’s similar tactics at creating a pretext to attack Ukraine, and as more liberal-democratic states react to Beijing’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy and Chinese bullying by increasing their levels of ties with Taiwan—as we have seen lately with the United States, Japan, Australia, France, and other countries—the fiction that they maintain only “informal relations with Taipei” will become increasing unplausible. In the case of the United States, the “informal Taipei relations” model looks very much like formal relations with Taiwan, from arms sales to visa-free entry for Taiwanese but not PRC citizens, actively stationing troops in Taiwan and generally treating Taiwan as an independent, sovereign state. Clearly, these are “formal” relations, not with Taipei, but with an independent, sovereign state of Taiwan. Given that the PRC is well known to routinely rely on discursive obfuscation and suppression of free speech and open debate in its governance and international relations, using an unstable discourse model puts the United States in the highly ironic and unusual position of denying the PRC’s accusation when the PRC is actually accurate when it accuses the United States of treating Taiwan as an independent country.

To the extent Taiwan’s existence turns on the international law aspect of recognition, it is key what is being recognized and how it is being recognized. In other words, formal recognition of Taiwan as “China,” from a factual sufficiency and state practice standpoint, may be far less valuable under international law in the long term than “informally [but robustly] recognizing Taiwan as Taiwan.” Whenever a state, such as Nicaragua, “switches” (language that invokes the Taiwan-as-the-only-China discourse model) “formal recognition” from Taiwan to China, we believe it is another necessary step in the establishment of a stable, sustainable discourse of international recognition of Taiwan as Taiwan. Friends of liberal-democratic Taiwan fear such “switching” further isolates Taiwan internationally, but as long as the major liberal-democratic powers of the world continue to de facto treat Taiwan as an independent country, which they mostly do, that fear of isolation is probably overblown. To the contrary, as long as some states still recognize the ROC (Taiwan) as “China,” the continued existence of this Taiwan-as-China discourse actually works to affirm the CCP’s fiction that Taiwan is part of China. When one walks into the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) lobby in Taipei, one is greeted with the flags of all the countries that “formally recognize Taiwan,” i.e., that recognize the ROC (Taiwan) as the “only China.” It would be better if MOFA proudly displayed the flags of the United States, Japan, the European Union, and all of the other consequential nations that recognize Taiwan under the “informal Taipei model.” By switching recognition models, Taiwan would immediately go from being de jure “recognized” as China by a few smaller states to being de facto recognized as Taiwan (or at least “Taipei”) under the “informal Taipei model” by all of the most consequential states on Earth, and this model would be more discursively stable because it is closer to reality. Moreover, it would support but not require domestic changes in Taiwan’s de jure constitutional understanding of itself.

Despite some backtracking under CCP pressure, in December 2021, Lithuania, a small Baltic nation and NATO member that knows well what it was like to live under Communist autocracy, introduced to the world an even more substantively truthful model for recognizing Taiwan: allowing Taiwan to name its representative office in Lithuania the “Taiwan Representative Office” instead of the “Taipei Representative Office.” Predictably, the PRC engaged in a full-out attempt to hurt Lithuania economically and diplomatically, curtailing imports and (so far unsuccessfully) bullying the European Union to isolate Lithuania economically. The PRC went so far as expelling Lithuania’s representatives and even upped its usual slew of thinly veiled threats. Acknowledging the reality that it is the representative office of Taiwan (which it clearly is) instead of “Taipei” brings the discursive model much closer to objective reality. Every liberal democracy could follow suit, and Taiwan (starting with its own Ministry of Foreign Affairs) should recognize that this model is a better reflection of reality.

One should not mistake thinking that aligning our language of recognition—recognizing Taiwan as independent Taiwan even if we don’t explicitly take a position on whether it is an independent state—closer to reality will “antagonize” or “provoke” the CCP. Just like Putin, the CCP has been engaging in mendacious behavior on a breathtaking scale for a long time, both domestically in China and on the world stage. Moreover, because China actively suppresses its brightest thinkers and long ago outlawed free speech, Chinese society today has very few mechanisms to self-correct the narrative internally. Playing along with the CCP’s linguistic games will only embolden it to carry out its final solution to carry out its oft-stated fixed intention to unite the “race” through violence. Given all this, the Lithuanian “Taiwan representative office” model—which stops just short of recognizing Taiwan as an independent, sovereign nation, although it would invite more CCP invective—likely constitutes the most stable and appropriate discursive model for international recognition of Taiwan at the given moment. Once again, just like Ukraine has become an unexpected lesson in moral courage for the West, Lithuania—another post-Soviet state—is pointing towards a more truthful way to talk about a free people. All states that have due regard for the truth and care about Taiwan as a fellow liberal democracy should immediately follow suit. We need to stop playing China’s linguistic games because behind those games is murderous intent, and it does no good to pretend it is otherwise. Taiwan and the rest of the free world need to start talking truthfully about international recognition of Taiwan before it is too late.

Dr. E. John Gregory and Dr. Lillian Li-Hsing Ho are instructors in the Chinese Language and East Asia Area Studies Program in the Department of Foreign Languages at the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY. All views expressed in this article reflect the scholarly and personal views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of West Point, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

Image: Reuters.