BY JUDITH NORTON | PRESS ITEM
The U.S. government continues to remove the Republic of China (ROC Taiwan) flag from government websites. This time, both the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Department of State asserted that there are no changes to U.S.-Taiwan relations while both sides reaffirmed ties. But the removal of the flag is puzzling because there are different flags representing the ROC and Taiwan. The U.S. government's removal of the flag tends to send different signals to Taiwan's KMT, Taiwan's DPP, and the PRC, all of which could interpret the removal differently; however trivial the removal may appear, it could prove detrimental to the evolving U.S.-China-Taiwan dynamic in subtle ways.
The U.S. has removed the Republic of China (ROC Taiwan) from several government websites, which the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called the actions “unthinkable and unacceptable”. Furthermore, the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asserted that the PRC has engaged in ongoing efforts to restrict Taiwan’s space in the international realm, including on the “free” internet; in effect, it is suggesting the U.S. could be bowing to mainland Chinese pressure to conform to the “One China Principle” which asserts that Taiwan is a part of China.
Following the incidences and outcry, both the ROC Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department reaffirmed U.S.-Taiwan relations. The U.S. State Department’s spokesperson stated the U.S.’s Taiwan policy “has not changed”. And the U.S. “remains committed to” the “one China” policy based on the three joint U.S.-China communiqués and the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
DIFFERENT FLAGS, DIFFERENT IDEAS
The uproar over the removal of the flag is interesting specifically because different flags represent different ideas. Those who want to unify with China raise China’s flag and the ROC's flag. Those who support Taiwan and its indefinite political separation from the PRC tend to raise Taiwan's proposed flag.
The puzzling issue is what is the purpose, if any, of removing the ROC flag from U.S. government’s websites? This seemingly trivial move could cause significant problems in U.S.-China-Taiwan relations because China and Taiwan will interpret the move differently. In this dynamic and in this current political environment, flags matter because they represent different national identities and fundamentally different political goals.
THE DPP'S POLITICAL GOAL
Since taking office in 2016, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has actively promoted what it perceives is the status quo and Taiwan’s political reality: an independent and sovereign country. It fosters what most observers label as “Taiwanese independence”, though the reality is far more complicated than that and reaches as far back as the early 1990s when then President Lee Teng-hui (KMT) introduced constitutional reforms that effectively separated Taiwan from China.
In order to bolster Taiwan’s standing as an independent and sovereign state, the DPP tends to minimize national symbols associated with the Republic of China (ROC Taiwan). These national symbols include the ROC flag (white sun, blue sky, and red field). For example, on National Day on Taiwan last year the DPP government under President Tsai Ing-wen minimized national symbols and even minimized flying the national flag on stage while delivering her speech. This is the same flag the U.S. government removed from its websites.
The DPP prefers to downplay but not yet abandon national symbols representing the ROC (Taiwan) to advance Taiwan as a separate political entity from the PRC. It prefers that Taiwan be not bound by a complicated history entangled in concepts such as ‘one China’, as well as the 1992 Consensus. Further, the DPP wants Taiwan to be completely free to practice unfettered democracy both now and later.
The DPP rejects the plans of the PRC and the KMT to reunify / unify the two sides of the Taiwan Strait under any system. Although it wants to advance PRC-Taiwan economic and cultural ties, it prefers to remain politically separated from the PRC indefinitely.
For these reasons, the DPP has a separate flag. It’s green not white, blue, and red. And it tends to represent Taiwan as a separate political entity from the PRC, not the ROC which represents unification with the PRC.
THE PRC WANTS REUNIFICATION
The PRC does not recognize the ROC, the ROC (Taiwan), or Taiwan as a country. For the PRC, the island is a rogue province that the PRC wants to reunify under the political formula of “one country, two systems”, as practiced on Hong Kong and Macau now. Its reunification plan means the ROC national authorities would be demoted to local authorities.
In the meantime, China wants the ruling authorities on the island to verbalize the phrase “1992 Consensus". This phrase represents not only China’s interpretation of ‘one China’, that is the “One China Principle” which is the national reunification strategy, but also a rejection of Taiwanese independence. In addition, the PRC wants the political parties in power to introduce reforms that advance cross-strait relations toward reunification.
THE ROC'S KMT WANTS UNIFICATION
The Kuomintang (KMT) is one of the ruling political parties on the island. It wants to unify with the PRC but under the system of democracy and rule of law. Prior to the unification, it wants to China to implement reforms that favor the development of democracy and rule of law. In the interim, when the KMT holds political power it works to advance cross-strait relations in the economic, cultural, social, and even the political realms. When the KMT is out of power, it works to maintain ties between the PRC and the ROC (Taiwan) ties through party-to-party exchanges with the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The trouble is the KMT does not hold political power on Taiwan today. The DPP holds power. And the DPP rejects the plans of the PRC and the KMT to reunify / unify the two sides of the strait under any system. Although it wants to advance cross-strait economic and cultural ties, it prefers to remain politically separated from the PRC indeterminately. More saliently, it prefers to creep away from the concept of the ROC to embrace the concept of Taiwan.
The removal of the ROC flag from U.S. government websites may seem like a non-event in the U.S. But the implications could be huge, particularly because the DPP and the KMT, the two major political parties on Taiwan, and the PRC could all hold different perceptions of what the removal means and, based on their respective interpretations, take action.
For Taiwan’s KMT, it could perceive the U.S. government's action delegitimizes the ROC position, including its established position to promote unification with the mainland under the system of democracy and rule of law, in favor of the PRC's position to achieve reunification in accordance with the "One China Principle".
For Taiwan’s DPP, it could interpret the development as an opportunity to promote Taiwan, not the ROC, and more actively endorse the "Dynamic" status quo which advocates that Taiwan remain politically separated from the PRC indefinitely.
For the PRC, it could read the move as U.S. support for Taiwanese independence forces, which are more active on the island nowadays, or it could see the move as support for the "One China Principle".. In response to the former interpretation, PRC could more actively counter U.S. national interests in the region and even beyond.
It is not clear what happened here. The removal of the flag from U.S. government websites on the surface appears to be a trivial move, but the implications going forward could be significant for trilateral relations, as well as for how the U.S. and the PRC cooperate on other regional issues.