As if the status of Taiwan were not confusing enough to the outside world, inconsistency from President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration as to how the country should be referred to on the international stage often compounds the problem.
In most instances, the Ma government has been content with Taiwan participating in international events under the designation “Chinese Taipei.” In fact, the administration has depicted such a designation at the WHO’s World Health Assembly (WHA) as a great accomplishment and a direct result of its “flexible” diplomacy.
Officials in the Ma government like to tell us that how the nation is referred to at international events is not as important as its ability to participate in the first place.
However, there have been other occasions in which the government took offense at the use of “Chinese Taipei.” The latest such instance involves the country of origin given to the Taiwanese production Seediq Bale (賽德克巴萊), which premiered last week in Venice, Italy.
Following complaints by Taiwanese officials over the initial designation of the movie as a “China, Taiwan” production, festival organizers decided to go with the Olympic formula and, likely expecting this would close the matter, changed the name to “Chinese Taipei.”
No sooner had the change been made on the event Web site than Taiwanese authorities said the concession was still unacceptable and that the country of origin should be “Republic of China” or “Taiwan.”
One could hardly blame festival organizers for wondering why a government that in previous instances had portrayed the use of “Chinese Taipei” as a diplomatic coup would now be irate when the exact same designation was adopted.
At least two considerations could explain this behavior. One is that at forums such as the WHA, Taiwan was in a position of weakness and the price of admission was the dilution of its name in a way that was regarded as permissible by Beijing, which acts as a gatekeeper when it comes to Taiwan’s participation. Had Taipei insisted on Taiwan participating under the name “ROC” or “Taiwan,” it is unlikely Taiwanese officials could even have entered the building in Geneva, Switzerland.
Given that Taiwan already had participated at previous film festivals, it did not need to make similar compromises to be allowed in. Another factor is that the name controversy over the highly anticipated movie occurs as the campaign for the January presidential and legislative elections is about to begin. No doubt the elections are forcing the Ma camp to show determination on Taiwanese identity and it calculated that the cost of doing so in terms of its relations with Beijing would be relatively benign.
For those who know little about the complexities and contradictions that surround Taiwan’s sovereignty, such inconsistency must be puzzling to no end and could easily make Taiwanese officials come across as perennial malcontents.
Whether Ma’s flexible diplomacy and willingness to compromise on how Taiwan is referred to will succeed in the long term at ensuring this nation maintains its international space remains to be seen. Regardless, there is no doubt that such flip-flopping on the name issue is sowing confusion abroad, much as a strobe light makes it difficult for the onlooker to clearly size up an object in motion.