It’s again the time of the year when Taiwanese diplomats and representatives are snubbed in Geneva when global public-health officials convene for the annual World Health Assembly (WHA), at which Taiwan is consistently denied its own seat as Beijing seeks to browbeat the self-governing island’s international presence. 

But Taiwanese Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung has found himself in a furor from some Taiwan-independence advocates after filing an official but perfunctory complaint with the World Health Organization expressing Taiwan’s outrage and dissatisfaction. That was because he signed the letter with the title “Republic of China Minister of Health and Welfare.”

So, what’s in a name?

Beijing’s adamant demand has always been that only by using “Taiwan, Province of People’s Republic of China (PRC)” would Taiwan be allowed to attend the WHA as an observer.

The Taipei-based Liberty Times says the issue at stake is that in the face of Beijing’s obstruction, the official name that Taiwan chooses, Republic of China (ROC), is baffling and can only complicate the situation.

The existence of two Chinas can be something of a perplexity to other nations, to the extent that there have been a host of gaffes. In one episode, a diplomatic ally of the island played Beijing’s national anthem at a ceremony to welcome the Taiwanese president at the time, Ma Ying-jeou.

Republic of China (Taiwan), Taipei’s stopgap name to distinguish itself from the People’s Republic of China and which appears on the cover of its passports, is even more confounding.

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Cover of a Taiwanese passport still carries the name ‘Republic of China’ (left) and some pro-independence Taiwanese have opted to cover it with stickers bearing the name ‘Republic of Taiwan’ as well as their own designs of Taiwan’s emblem. Photo: Facebook
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A file photo of a National Day celebration by Taiwan’s embassy in the African kingdom of Swaziland. Photo: Handout

Lawmakers in the ruling, independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party are not big fans of the name ROC either, arguing that it may well play into Beijing’s hands, as the name is a tacit admission that both Taiwan and the mainland belong to China, either ROC or PRC.

Calling oneself by one’s own name, that Taiwan is Taiwan, should be nothing to be afraid of, and it would not inflict any additional damage, Liberty Times urged in an op-ed.

It’s reported that the US, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Germany and Australia endorsed Taiwan’s participation in this year’s WHA, and none of them referred to it as ROC or bothered themselves with all the ticklish connotations of the name.

Washington switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, but in the same year then-US president Jimmy Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act – meant to secure the island’s safety and to maintain regional stability – into law.

A US State Department official dispatched to the island afterward to set up the American Institute in Taiwan as Washington’s de facto embassy was famously quoted as saying that “China is China and Taiwan is Taiwan.”