by Milo Hsieh

Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

TAIWAN’S POLITICALLY ambiguous status has made it difficult for many to hold discussions about it. For one, different narratives compete for influence in serious discussions on Taiwan, especially between the governments of Taiwan and China. While most of the time one’s choice of the term makes little difference in the discussion on Taiwan, other times minor differences—even just a single word—can have deep implications.

Photo credit: Taiwankengo/WikiCommons/CC

Given Taiwan and China’s high-context culture in communicating to one another and to the rest of the world, often times one must be especially careful with the precision of language. This guide seeks to list how different terms are used to imply different meanings.

1. “Reunification” Versus “Unification”

THE TERM “reunification” is often used by China, particularly to reflect upon its intentions toward Taiwan. While it may seem a shared term historically used by both the Kuomintang and the Communist regime, the difference primarily rests on the assumption on whether Taiwan is historically a part of China.

“Reunification” suggests so. While for a majority of Taiwan’s post-war history, “reunification” has been set as a goal of the KMT to take China back and return to power, that goal laid on how the regime historically considered itself the rightful representative of China. Until 1972, the Republic of China, as opposed to the People’s Republic of China, represented China in the United Nations Security Council. Today, “reunification” continues to be used by China mostly, primarily to legitimize its claim over Taiwan.

“Unification” somewhat pushes back on this assumption, since native Taiwanese were disenfranchised before democratization efforts of 1990-6. Under this assumption, efforts by China to take over Taiwan or its intention to do so is efforts of “unification,” with an accusational hint at PRC’s expansionist, imperialists tendencies. Different terms with the same connotations such as “annexation” (吞併), are also often used by groups with stronger sentiments for Taiwanese nationalism.

Objectively, Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895 after the defeat in the Sino-Japanese war. Taiwan was a territory under the Qing dynasty and did not enjoy much development or attention, nor did the Qing control all of the island of Taiwan. Under Japanese colonial rule and the KMT authoritarian regime, Taiwan developed from overseas territory to the urbanized society it is today.

Chiang Kai-shek. Photo credit: Historical photo

It is also important to know that this difference is exclusive to the discussion in English since there is only one version of the Chinese term “Tongyi” (統一). Some in English also prefer to use the term “annexation” as a stronger term in order to push back against Chinese claims regarding unification.

2. “One China Principle” versus “One China Policy”

THE “ONE CHINA PRINCIPLE” (一中原則) is advocated by China – that there is only one China, and Taiwan is a part of China. “One China Policy” (一中政策), however, is the formulation of solutions on Taiwan framed by the US and governments around the world that do not officially recognize the ROC.

It is important to note that in the Three Communiqués as well as in the Taiwan Relations Act that neither the One China “Principle” and “Policy” were mentioned, though in all three communiqué state that the United States “acknowledges” that there is only one China. Yet “acknowledge” is different from “recognize.” While the former makes notice of the Chinese position in an “I hear you” manner, the latter would suggest an acceptance of such a position. The US has never “recognized” Taiwan as a part of China.

The use of the word “principle” thus has developed into other concepts on Taiwan, such as the existence of a “red line.” But this “red line,” thought to be a point of where PRC would be provoked to militarily invade Taiwan, is often ambiguous and usually defined by China itself.

In short – the difference in the two is that while a “principle” would be an unchangeable and inflexible core interest, a “policy” is one that can adapt and change to adjust to ever-changing cross-strait relations.

3. The Mainland” Versus “China”

SIMILAR TO THE first point, the two terms “Mainland” and “China” are used by groups with different interests. While the “mainland” (大陸) is used both historically and in modern time by the KMT, the term assumes Taiwan to be an inherent part of China. A version, “the inner land” (內地), is also used colloquially primarily by China.

For many unwilling to discuss under this assumption, the term “China” is used to suggest that Taiwan is by its own a separate and independent entity from China. “Communist China” (中共) is used to refer to the CCP regime and often used by the ROC military to suggests a continuity in the hostility between the PLA and ROC military. “Cina” (支那), an archaic term used in the past, is also periodically used as a colloquial and derogatory term to refer to China and the Chinese people.

Portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square. Photo credit: Poco a poco/WikiCommons/CC

“Chinese mainland” (中國大陸), as a term used in the Chinese discussions, is often more commonly used as a midway point between the two, denoting the de-facto separation between the government of China and Taiwan. “The side across the strait” (對岸) is used similarly in this context to directly refer to China without making an explicit political statement in Taiwan.

4. The Difference Between the “Republic of China” and “Taiwan”

THE EXISTENCE of the institutions of the ROC has become an increasingly significant political issue since democratization. While on paper the ROC constitution still claims all of China, the reality is that the ROC is unlikely to ever act on the claim.

One could think of the ROC and Taiwan as two separate entities. The difference is that while the people and diverse identity groups of Taiwan make up the Taiwan nation and the identity of “the Taiwanese,” the institutions of ROC is its current instrument of governance. In the language of international relations language, the ROC is a state, and Taiwan is a nation. Together, they would make up the Westphalian concept of a “nation-state.”

In Taiwan, there is an on-going discussion over whether Taiwan as a de-facto independent entity should shed the ROC institutions. Those associated with the Pan-green camp usually keep a distance from the use of the ROC and work towards its reformation and abolition, though once in elected office many, including President Tsai, maintain careful use of ROC state institutions.

Those  Taiwan’s continued de-facto independence but may not call for outright independence typically maintain that the ROC institutions must be preserved and that the ROC itself is an independent nation. The military also makes more references to the defense of ROC rather than Taiwan.

Throughout the past years, international recognition of the ROC recognition has declined. Taiwan only has a handful of allies recognizing it as ROC, with unofficial relations more prevalent. The relations between the US and Taiwan, as maintained through the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, is one nominally maintained between the US and Taiwan rather than the ROC.

Photo credit: Presidential Office/Facebook

To the United States, the ROC ceased to be recognized as a nation-state after January 1st, 1979, with the Taiwan Relations Act later governing this relationship starting on April 10th of the same year. Interestingly, while the UN expelled ROC representatives in 1972, UN resolution 2758 merely referred to them as the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek, and not of Taiwan or the ROC.


THOUGH THE use of language is easily confusing, it’s important to know which side advocates what form of language. China commonly uses “reunification” of the Taiwan “province” as accordance with the “One China Principle,” yet the US does not have a cohesive use with the exception of the “One China Policy” Notably, experts and officials working on Taiwan in Washington, DC uses different versions, depending on one’s background and experience, and this does not preclude instances in which Washington is itself confused about its vocabulary.

Nevertheless, it is important to note pick a term that relates to one’s position. To discuss Taiwan’s effort in maintaining its sovereignty, democracy, and de-facto independence from China using China’s version of terms is to defer to China’s narrative and assumptions.

At the end of the day, the obscurity of some of these nuances and the necessity to understand the long, complex, and ambiguous situation of the US-Taiwan-China trilateral dynamic perhaps is a side effect of the “strategic ambiguity” doctrine adopted by the US. It remains a question whether this ambiguity will change as the Taiwan Relations Act passes its 40 year anniversary earlier this month.

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