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One flag less -- the lonely lobby of Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Photo by Chris Horton)
Tea Leaves

Taiwan: Asia's 'uncountry'

For one of Asia's most vibrant democracies, it is always 1984

The White House did not mince words in a statement in early May criticizing Beijing for threatening to punish airlines that do not list self-ruled Taiwan as belonging to China.

"This is Orwellian nonsense and part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies," the statement read. If anyone understands the meaning of "Orwellian," the Taiwanese do.

Home to 23 million people, Taiwan has its own constitution, democratic government, military, currency and customs regime. Yet Taiwan, officially governed by the Republic of China government that lost China's civil war in 1949, resides in a unique diplomatic purgatory. It resembles a country, but cannot be called one. It is an "uncountry."

When I flew to Taipei from the U.S. a few weeks ago, George Orwell's concept of "doublethink" -- the simultaneous acceptance of irreconcilable views -- was on full display, chiefly thanks to threats from Beijing about the consequences of any change in Taiwan's status.

I flew with China Airlines, which, despite its name, is Taiwanese. Dozens of young Taiwanese returning from an athletics event wore warmup suits emblazoned with "Chinese Taipei" -- the name used by Taiwan in international competitions. Before arriving in Taiwan, flight attendants handed out Republic of China entry forms to visitors.

Travelers unfamiliar with Taiwan might have wondered where the plane was headed. Taiwan? China? Chinese Taipei? International media coverage of Taiwan rarely clarifies such questions; most publications avoid referring to Taiwan as a country, reflecting Chinese sensitivities and Taipei's awkward diplomatic position.

Taiwan's tiny official diplomatic footprint shrank further in May, when the Dominican Republic announced it would switch relations from Taipei to Beijing, which refuses to recognize countries with official relations with Taiwan. Now only 19 countries recognize Taiwan.

Most reports covering the Dominican Republic's decision reduced Taiwan to an "island." Sometimes it is merely referred to as a "place." Coverage is often framed through the viewpoint of the CCP, which seeks to annex Taiwan, calling it a "breakaway" or "renegade" province, even though communist China has never ruled Taiwan. The CCP points thousands of missiles at Taiwan, yet claims that Taiwan "provokes" Beijing.

The White House statement on "Orwellian nonsense" is the latest manifestation of a growing pro-Taiwan sentiment in Washington. This is a byproduct of the recognition that America was mistaken in thinking that engaging China economically would catalyze political liberalization, and that a low-key U.S. approach to Taiwan would be reciprocated in Beijing, maintaining an ill-defined cross-strait status quo.

Change is in the air. In March, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act after both houses of Congress passed it unanimously -- an almost unimaginable development in these partisan times. The TTA encourages U.S.-Taiwan diplomatic exchanges at the highest levels.

At an April hearing by a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on U.S.-Taiwan relations, Representative Steve Chabot said of Taiwan: "It's a country -- and I don't say that word by accident -- it's a country that is a strong ally of the United States." At the same hearing, the idea of inviting Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to speak before a joint session of Congress was mooted twice.

Trump's new national security adviser, John Bolton, has advocated recognizing Taiwan as a country in response to Beijing's occupation of islands in the South China Sea. Speculation is rife in Taiwan that Bolton may attend the June opening of a new American diplomatic compound (not an embassy -- more doublethink) in Taipei, assuming he has not been fired via Twitter before then.

Trump's administration -- including many of his appointments to the State Department, such as new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- are viewed as friends of Taiwan, allowing observers there to exhale after a period in which his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had been influencing China policy, cultivated close ties with Cui Tiankai, Beijing's ambassador in Washington.

Tsai has carefully avoided language that Beijing could use to portray her as seeking formal independence, even though Taiwan has been functionally independent since 1949. Meanwhile, former presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian are advocating a change to Taiwan's referendum law to allow a vote on its status -- a major red line for Beijing.

It is easy to see the potential for problems in either approach, evoking Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" more than Orwell's "1984." Avoiding confrontation with China could lead to greater erasure in the international arena. Alternately, mobilizing Taiwan's democracy to show the world that it has no desire to become part of China could potentially set off a sequence of events that leads to just that.

Chris Horton is a Taipei-based writer.

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