February 02, 2018 | Judith Norton
The US 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 US Department of State assert that there are no changes to US-Taiwan relations and both sides reaffirmed ties. But the removal of the flag is puzzling because there are different flags representing the ROC and Taiwan. So the removal of it could send different signals to Taiwan's KMT, Taiwan's DPP, and China, all of which could have different interpretations of the action, however trivial it may appear, which could prove detrimental to the evolving US-China-Taiwan dynamic.
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”. Further, the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asserted that China 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 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 US State Department reaffirmed U.S.-Taiwan relations. The US State Department’s spokesperson stated that 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).
The uproar over the removal of the flag is interesting because there are different flags representing the ROC and Taiwan. 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 raise Taiwan's proposed flag.
The puzzling issue is what was the purpose, if any, of removing the ROC flag from US government’s websites? If the removal of the flag was a gaffe, so be it. Fix it.
Otherwise, this seemingly trivial move could cause significant problems in US-China-Taiwan relations because in the cross-strait dynamic flags matter because they represent different national identities and fundamentally different political goals.
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 further bolster Taiwan’s standing as an independent and sovereign state, the DPP tends to minimize national symbols associated with the ROC. These national symbols include the ROC flag. For example, on National Day on Taiwan last year the DPP government under President Tsai Ing-wen minimized national symbols and even eliminated flying the national flag. The missing flag at Taiwan’s national day is the same flag the U.S. government removed from its websites.
The DPP prefers to downplay national symbols representing the ROC in order to advance Taiwan as a separate entity from China not bound by a complicated history entangled in concepts such as ‘one China’ and the 1992 Consensus and completely free to practice unfettered democracy both now and in the future.
The DPP rejects the plans of China and the KMT to reunify / unify the two sides of the Taiwan Strait under any system. Although it wants to advance cross-strait economic and cultural ties, it prefers to remain politically separated from China indefinitely.
For this reason, the DPP has a separate flag. It’s green. And it represents Taiwan which represents a separate political entity from China, not the ROC which represents unification with China.
China does not recognize the ROC, the ROC (Taiwan) or Taiwan as a country. For China, the island is a rogue province that China wants to reunify under the political formula of “one country, two systems”, as practiced on Hong Kong and Macau now. This 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. Further, it wants the political parties in power to introduce reforms that advance cross-strait relations toward reunification.
For the ROC, especially the Kuomintang (KMT), which is one of the ruling political parties on the island, it wants to unify with China but under the system of democracy and rule of law. Prior to the unification, it wants to China to implement reforms. 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. And when it is out of power, the KMT works to maintain cross-strait 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. As mentioned, the DPP holds power. And it rejects the plans of China 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 China indeterminately. More saliently, it prefers to creep away from the concept of the ROC and embrace the concept of Taiwan.
Removal of the ROC flag from U.S. government websites may seem like a non-event here in the west. But the implications could be huge because the two political parties on the island and China all hold different perceptions on what just happened.
For Taiwan’s KMT, it could perceive the action as delegitimizing the ROC including its established position to promote unification with the mainland under the system of democracy and rule of law.
For Taiwan’s DPP, it could interpret the development as an opportunity to promote Taiwan, not the ROC, and more actively endorse the status quo which advocates for Taiwan's ongoing political separation from China.
For China, it could read the move as US support for Taiwanese independence forces, which are more active on the island nowadays. In response, China could more aggressively oppose U.S. national interests in the region and beyond.
All in all, it is unclear what happened here. The removal of the flag on the surface appears to be a trivial move, but going forward the implications could be significant for US-China-Taiwan relations.