A China Airlines passenger jet sits on the tarmac at Hong Kong’s airport. The carrier's name may be counterproductive to Taiwan's quest for its own identity. Photo: WikiMedia

Ever since the retreat of Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist (Kuomintang, or KMT) forces to Taiwan after their defeat in China’s civil war (1945-49), Chiang’s Republic of China (ROC) and Chairman Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) have struggled to control the island’s territories and the hearts and minds of its people.

While Mao patiently remarked of Taiwan in 1975: “A hundred years hence we will want it, and we are going to fight for it.” In 2013, current Chairman Xi Jinping told a senior envoy from Taiwan: “We cannot hand those problems down from generation to generation.”

Chairman Xi has consolidated his power domestically in recent years and projected that power to ratchet up pressure on Taiwan, send Chinese military planes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, conduct multiple military exercises near Taiwan, and circumnavigate the island with bombers and destroyers.

The PRC has also actively sought to limit ROC identity on the diplomatic front by poaching seven of Taipei’s allies since the pro-Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen assumed office in 2016.

Beijing has also conducted an international campaign of “namefare” – using economic trade and investment ties to pressure international airlines, global retail stores, and financial firms to forgo the mention of “Taiwan” on their products and websites.

Taiwanese identity grows

Yet these provocative anti-Taiwan actions have only served to push Taiwanese toward a less conciliatory anti-Beijing stance and bolster a long-simmering sense of identity. Taiwanese identity has also developed separately as a counter-reaction to a Chinese identity increasingly associated with Beijing’s persecution of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, in the South China and East China Seas, on the borders with India, and the unconvincing mantra of “one country, two systems” imposed on Hong Kong and on offer to Taipei.

According to a poll released in May by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact-tank based in Washington, DC, some two-thirds of adults in Taiwan now identify as solely Taiwanese, with just 4% seeing themselves as only Chinese. Other recent polls, such as those taken by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation and National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, have yielded similar results.

Legislative efforts

On July 22, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan unanimously approved a resolution for a phased plan to relabel China Airlines and better emphasize “Taiwan” on the country’s passports and the business cards of its Foreign Ministry.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), along with “pan-green” affiliated parties, had called for the resolution to help address recent confusion after protective masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) donations were delivered by China Air to other nations. Taiwanese have also been mistaken for Chinese nationals at immigration desks, despite the addition of “Taiwan” below “Republic of China” on passports in 2003.

The use of “China” and “Chinese” when naming entities in Taiwan (including the professional baseball league) has long played to the aspirations of the “one China” crowd while the failure of “Taiwan” to take hold broadly has robbed others of their dignity.

In 2003, Beijing pressured several airports to deny landing rights to a China Airlines plane that had painted the words “Taiwan – Touch Your Heart” on its fuselage. The plane never left the hangar and the reference to Taiwan was painted over.

In 2016, Taiwan’s parliament authorized the attachment of “Taiwan Republic” stickers to Taiwan passports, and some Taiwanese were subsequently denied entry to China, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore.

Time to regain some dignity?

With China facing a hardening international backlash on several more important fronts such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, and the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, driven in large part by a US administration that is increasingly anti-China and pro-Taiwan, the next few months could be an opportune time for Taipei to expedite its phased plan over name changes and claw back some dignity for its people.

Looking ahead to the US elections in November, it is uncertain whether any additional assertions of de facto independence by Taipei will have a similar level of support from a potential Joe Biden administration.

While opposition parties like the KMT may be resistant to dropping historic naming ties to China, their reluctance to react to a growing sense of Taiwanese identity threatens to make their party obsolete. For the majority of Taiwanese, who are reluctant to disturb the peace and advocate to maintain the status quo, Beijing’s increasing belligerence toward the island nation can no longer constitute peace nor the status quo.

While Taipei will argue that the name changes are necessary to dispel any confusion between the two countries, Beijing will view these efforts as calculated steps toward asserting de jure independence and claim the changes have “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”

Yet the moves are so modest, and the worldwide anti-China rhetoric now so staunch, Beijing will be hard-pressed to calculate a proportionate tit-for-tat response that won’t anger Taipei, hurt the feelings of the Taiwanese people, and draw the increasing ire of the international community.

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei. Twitter@ForeignDevil666