In the upcoming presidential elections in Taiwan, voters will be faced with the question of how they identify their nation, as "Taiwan" or "Republic of China." This is not an issue of "mere labels" -- as some foreign observers have suggested -- but touches on fundamental questions of identity, nationality and fate. It is as fundamental as the difference between being "American" or "British" in the American colonies in the 18th century.
While this decision is up to Taiwanese themselves, from a foreign policy perspective, it is important to ask if the name will affect Taiwan's relations with other countries.
The key issue facing Taiwanese policymakers is how to remove the nation from its international isolation. How did it get there in the first place?
In 1945 Taiwan was occupied by the Chinese Nationalists, who themselves were kicked out of China in 1949 and transplanted themselves to the island, continuing their claim to sovereignty over China. This claim became untenable and in the 1970s, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime was de-recognized and expelled from the UN.
It is important to note that Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his representatives were not expelled from the UN in 1971 because they claimed to represent Taiwan. They were expelled because they claimed to represent China. This is an essential difference.
They did not represent the Taiwanese people in any fashion: from 1949 until 1987 the nation was under authoritarian martial law and ruled by what former president Lee Teng-hui (
Subsequently -- from 1986 through 1992 -- the Taiwanese pushed through their momentous democratic transition, and, since 2000, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has emphasized that Taiwan is now a free and democratic nation that deserves to be accepted by the international community as a full and equal member.
Initially, the government of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) followed a cautious approach. For example, it merely asked that the issue of representation of its 23 million people be put on the agenda of the UN and that Taiwan be granted "meaningful participation" in the WHO through observer status.
However, this soft approach didn't go anywhere and earlier this year, the DPP government rightly put the issue more clearly on the table, and asked for full membership in both the WHO and the UN under the name "Taiwan."
An election of the DPP's Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) as president would help continue Taiwan-centric policies. Hsieh may utilize different tactical approaches, but his long-term vision is very much the same as Chen's and is rooted in the new-found Taiwanese identity, which was suppressed during the four decades of KMT rule.
What will happen if the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou (
He portrays himself as "moderate" and "flexible," especially in cross-Strait relations, and castigates the DPP and its "scorched earth diplomacy" for leaving Taiwan "utterly isolated within the international community."