According to a recent media report, the Biden administration is evaluating Taiwan’s request to change the name of its mission in the United States from Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) to Taiwan Representative Office, with the proposal receiving a broad support within the National Security Council. While such a name change may seem trivial, it actually has important implications and should be avoided. This move would simultaneously undermine the logic of the United States’ informal relationship with Taipei and would not advance American interests or significantly strengthen the relationship between the United States and Taiwan.
When the United States ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan (formerly the Republic of China) and extended diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China in 1979, it recognized the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole government. legal rights of China and are committed not to maintain cultural, trade and other informal relations with the Taiwanese people. The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), enacted in 1979, established a nonprofit corporation known as the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) to carry out the United States’ informal relations with Taiwan and enabled Taiwan to establish a similar instrument in the United States.
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This immediately raised the question of what Taiwan would call its AIT counterpart. The two sides agreed on the North American Affairs Coordinating Council (CCNAA), a name that revealed little about the organization’s purpose. Officials in Taipei became frustrated with the name cloudiness, protesting that Americans did not understand what CCNAA stood for, and ultimately demanded that the office be renamed. When the Clinton administration undertook a comprehensive review of U.S.-Taiwan relations in 1994, it questioned whether to allow Taiwan to change its name. The Clinton administration agreed to do so and both sides chose the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representation Office (TECRO), a name that has endured for nearly three decades.
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Even with this adjustment, the word Taiwan was intentionally omitted. The reasoning was that if the United States allowed the inclusion of the word Taiwan in the name, it could be misinterpreted as supporting the independence of the islands. TECRO’s wording also made it clear that the organization would focus on economic and cultural affairs, consistent with the TRA’s provision that the United States would maintain cultural, trade and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.
If the Biden administration allows Taiwan to rebrand TECRO as Taiwan’s representative office, it would undermine the logic of the unofficial nature of the US-Taiwan relationship. Removing the reference to economic and cultural ties and adding the word Taiwan would implicitly upgrade the status of the office to something more akin to an embassy. Such a move would also strengthen the hand of those in Taipei who advocate further steps to make the relationship more official, such as allowing the Taiwanese president to travel to Washington, DC.
Some would argue that renaming the office won’t start a war with China, so the United States should move forward. But this is not a sufficient way to measure whether the United States should undertake a given policy. Instead, the United States should keep in mind whether a policy sends conflicting messages to Taiwan regarding the American position on Taiwanese independence and emboldens those in Taiwan who advocate independence. It should also consider whether a proposed policy is intellectually consistent with America’s one-China policy and sends the appropriate signals to its own bureaucracy. The fact that TECRO is such a unique name makes members of the US government who do not regularly work on US-Taiwan relations wonder why it is different and what is unique about US-Taiwan relations. It has a useful disciplinary effect on the government.
China will surely oppose this move, and while Beijing should not have a veto on US policy towards Taiwan, it would be a diplomatic fault to ignore how China is likely to react. China will likely interpret the name change of Taiwan’s US office as yet another data point that proves it’s a question of when, and not whether, the US recognizes Taiwan as an independent country. If Beijing concludes that time is not on its side and the unification window is closing, then it is more likely to use force against Taiwan.
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Allowing Taiwan to rename its office is also a purely symbolic move that would occur when the United States and Taiwan are expected to focus on substantive issues. To put it another way, there is nothing that a newly appointed office would allow the two to do that cannot be done within the current framework. Instead of spending energy on token issues, the United States and Taiwan should work on a bilateral trade deal, collaborate on supply chain security, and improve deterrence in the Taiwan Strait.
Faced with an increasingly assertive China and a military balance that is rapidly changing in favor of Beijing, the United States and Taiwan cannot afford to privilege symbolism over substance. The Biden administration should resist the name change of the Taiwan office in the United States and instead focus on the important and demanding agenda that lies ahead.
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