In this world, there is a country that is a thriving democracy with a population of 23 million, ranks 18th or 19th in trade, tops the list among the global technology powerhouses, and is placed 14th in the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2016. However, this country is one of the least recognised in the world, is often denied access to most of the international organisations, and whose citizens are often rejected when trying to enter the United Nations just for a visit. This country is the Republic of China, commonly known as Taiwan.

Founded in 1911, the Republic of China (ROC) was the first democratic republic in Asia. Dr Sun Yat-sen led 11 uprisings and finally overthrew the Qing Dynasty, ending the imperial rule. Later, as a winning country in the Allied Forces in WWII, the ROC became one of the founding members of the United Nations in 1945. However, in the civil war between the nationalist government, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), and the Chinese Communist Party, the ROC was defeated, and was forced to relocate from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan in 1949. Two million people moved to Taiwan to start a new life, and the ROC regime has since then taken root on the island of Formosa. 

In 1971, the United Nations adopted General Assembly Resolution 2758, which stipulated that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was recognised as the “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations”. Despite the great efforts from the ROC government, its UN representation was lost to the PRC. However, the official name of “The Republic of China” still exists in Article 23 and 110 of the UN Charter. Many of the ROC’s diplomatic allies switched diplomatic recognition as a result, and now only 22 countries still maintains formal diplomatic ties with the ROC, most of which are small island nations in the South Pacific or the Caribbean that rely heavily on Taiwan’s financial aid. Although many countries, such as the US and Japan, have maintained substantive relations with Taiwan, formal recognition is almost impossible. Despite the pressure from PRC, Taiwan has found an unorthodox way to participate in international affairs. After a few years of hiatus in its Olympics participation, the Republic of China was designated as “Chinese Taipei” by the Nagoya Resolution of the International Olympics Committee (IOC) in 1979, and the ROC national flag and anthem are not allowed at the official events. Odd and ambiguous as the name sounds, it provides a formula for Taiwan’s international participation. The PRC, however, still sees Taiwan as a renegade province, and has never given up the thought of taking over Taiwan.

Since the ROC government moved to Taiwan in 1949, the country was under the martial law until 1987. In 1996, the ROC held the first direct presidential election, so Taiwan finally entered a new phase of democratisation. According to the US-based think tank Freedom House, Taiwan has high levels of freedom and political rights. The people enjoy freedom of speech, press, association and religion. The vibrant civic society and thriving democracy in Taiwan form a sharp contrast to its counterpart across the Taiwan Strait. On top of that, Taiwan’s strengths in economic development and technological advancement have played an important role in the closely connected global supply chain. 

In 2000, Taiwan experienced the first shift in political parties. Under the rule of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwan participated in the World Trade Organization under the name of Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu in 2002, or “Chinese Taipei” in short. Though it was huge step for Taiwan’s international participation, little progress was made in winning greater recognition. In the presidential election of 2008, two referendums regarding Taiwan’s participation in the United Nations were held simultaneously. The DPP proposed that the government should apply for UN membership under the name “Taiwan”, whereas the KMT suggested the return to the UN and participation in other international organisations under the name “Republic of China” or “Taiwan”. Neither of the referendums passed the required turnout, showing the lack of domestic consensus regarding Taiwan’s nomenclature in the international arena. 

Since President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, cross-strait ties started to improve. In May 2009, Taiwan was invited to attend the World Health Assembly (WHA) as an observer under the name of Chinese Taipei, marking a return to the UN-related events after 38 years of departure. However, in 2011, it was reported that the WHA’s internal memo from Beijing addressed Taiwan as “Taiwan, province of China.” This sparked anger among the people of Taiwan, and the ROC government lodged a formal protest with the WHO, asking for correction. The adversity from the PRC towards Taiwan in international affairs still existed. 

In 2013, Taiwan was invited to participate in the Assembly of the 38th Session of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), under the name of Chinese Taipei. The Olympic formula seemed to have become a common practice for Taiwan’s international participation. 

One major reason of Taiwan’s growing international participation during this period might be attributed to the Ma administration’s adoption of the “1992 Consensus”, meaning that both sides across the Taiwan Strait recognised there is only one China, but agree to interpret the meaning of that one China according to their respective definitions. With sufficient exchange and mutual understanding, leaders from both sides of the Taiwan Strait met in Singapore in November 2015. Based on equality and dignity, the official country names, titles, national flags or any symbols related to sovereignty were not used. Instead, the two leaders, Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping, addressed each other as “Mr Ma” and “Mr Xi”, and “leader of Taiwan” and “leader of mainland China”. According to the Economist, “The summit was perhaps the biggest concession on a ‘core issue’ of sovereignty any Chinese leader has made since the early 1980s.” The importance of names in the summit was toned down greatly, an unprecedented gesture of goodwill from the PRC. 

In January 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP was elected, marking the third peaceful transition of political powers in Taiwan. In her much-anticipated inaugural address in May this year, she acknowledged the historical fact of a cross-strait meeting in 1992, but made no mention of the “1992 Consensus”. Cross-strait exchanges came to a halt, and the number of Chinese tourists to Taiwan plummeted dramatically as a result. The first difficulty that the new government encountered regarding Taiwan’s international participation was the delayed invitation to the WHA. The Tsai administration sent the Minister of Health and Welfare to participate. In his speech in Geneva, Minister Lin Tzou-yien mentioned only “Chinese Taipei”, rather than “Taiwan”, the preferred way to address the delegation by many DPP supporters.

The next challenge will be the delayed invitation to the ICAO this September. So far, the receipt of the invitation has yet to be confirmed. In any case, civil aviation is closely related to global aviation safety, and Taiwan should not be excluded in the international network due to political interference. 

In addition, right after the Rio 2016 Olympic Games ended in late August, some legislators proposed that Taiwan should abandon the use of the name “Chinese Taipei”, as this was disrespect for the Taiwanese people, and they proposed changing that to “Taiwan”. 

With all the difficulties ahead, what is the best solution? And what is the best name to address the de facto political entity that has lasted for almost seven decades on Taiwan? 

Perhaps the new administration has yet to find out the answers. Like it or not, and much to people’s dissatisfaction, 

Taiwan’s international participation is closely linked to its ties with the PRC. However, Taiwan’s contributions to the global healthcare system and aviation safety, just to name a few, should not be neglected due to political factors. 

Names do matter, but substantive international participation may matter more. Taiwan absolutely deserves greater space in the international arena.

Betty Chen is the East Asia Special Correspondent for The Sunday Guardian.