On TECRO's proposed name change: China, Taiwan, and the ruse of pragmatic moderation

News broke earlier this week that the United States is considering approving the Taiwanese government’s request to change the name of its thinly veiled embassy in the US from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office to the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office.

This makes sense: any steps away from the obscurantist nonsense by which Taiwan is excluded from the family of nations is, in my opinion, substantive progress.

Yet as with all common-sense Taiwan-related proposals, this proposal generated considerable controversy. The controversy is of course not about whether the proposed name change would be accurate, nor about whether Taiwan is an independent nation deserving of respect.

Rather, the controversy is about whether this decision to change the Taiwanese embassy’s name would result in China launching a war. Sigh.

Now, I certainly don’t have high expectations for the CCP and its levelheadedness. My already decidedly low expectations have only been ever further lowered by revelations in recent years of the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang and the unfolding destruction of Hong Kong’s political and legal systems.

Yet even with these abysmally low expectations, even I don’t think that the Chinese Communist Party is insane enough to launch a war against Taiwan just because they changed the name of their representative office.

Let’s imagine for a moment how the history books might write that one: “after existing as an obviously independent entity for decades on end, with their own government, elections, currency, military, and unofficial diplomatic relations the world over, never having been ruled for even a single day by the Chinese government, Taiwan’s decision to change the word “Taipei” to “Taiwan” in the name of its US representative office was the final straw that launched World War III.”

It is also worth remembering earlier declarations that American military aircraft landing in Taiwan would result in an invasion: a claim whose baselessness was demonstrated earlier this year when US military aircraft landed in Taiwan and all China did was whine that “it must not become routine.” What a joke!

Let us, however, set aside our skepticism and actually take at face value for a moment the Chinese government’s threats that a step like this would result in war.

Wow, that would actually be pretty psychotic, right? If the CCP is actually so irrational that it wants to risk world war over the naming of a bureaucratic office, I would argue that this indicates not the importance of abiding by China’s wishes, but rather the importance of ignoring its ultimatums. After all, if you yield on this, what will be next?

The real risk here, then, is not war, but rather pseudo-pragmatic capitulation rendering us perpetual hostages to China’s twisted delusion that Taiwan is part of China. We have played that game long enough.

If the United States rejects the proposed name change under China’s threats, it might seem that we are being pragmatic and avoiding escalation, but we would be in reality very unpragmatically encouraging further escalation in the form of increasingly petty demands from China to maintain its obviously failed myth of sovereignty: ain’t nobody got time for that.

Earlier this week I was reading Lewis Loud’s latest book 如水赴壑—香港歷史與意識之流, which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in Hong Kong history. One thought provoking point that Loud raises is his analysis of the tendency of Hong Kong residents nowadays to seek pseudo-rational self-condemnatory explanations for the city’s tragic situation under the National Security Law (pg. 82-85).

We all know these well tread lines of argument: well, maybe if we had not opposed the National Education Program… or if we had gone ahead and accepted the 2014 electoral reform proposal… or if only there had never been pro-independence parties… or if only we had gone along with the extradition amendments… or perhaps the anti-extradition protests should have remained 100% peaceful.

Human beings feel the need to find an explanation for every misfortune that befalls us. It is then only natural that the National Security Law and its tragic impact on Hong Kong society would provoke such a search for some sort of explanation, and that we accordingly seek answers in what was done wrong: not enough compromise, too oppositional, too confrontational…

Loud points out, however, that such explanations drastically over-estimate the degree of control that the Hong Kong people have had over the unfolding of events, while misunderstanding as primarily reactive the Chinese Communist Party’s repeatedly demonstrated and unwavering drive for ever further control in all matters.

The reality is that the Chinese Communist Party has been trying to enact a politically restrictive law on the city to smother its vibrant political and cultural scenes since the first Article 23 controversy nearly two decades ago: a proposal that literally came out of nowhere (other than, of course, the CCP state’s own perpetual paranoia and desire for further control). Its 2003 failure did not lead the Party to change its mind, but rather to try again and again.

Considering this reality, Loud tells us that there is nothing that the Hong Kong people could have done differently that could have produced a different endpoint.

The lesson that we should take away from Hong Kong’s fate for thinking about Taiwan is quite simple: we cannot be worrying endlessly about how our increasingly normal diplomatic relationship with Taiwan will impact China’s behavior. Such worries drastically over-estimate our own ability to manage and control the CCP'’s all too clearly demonstrated aggressive tendencies. The only genuinely pragmatic way to discourage these aggressive tendencies is to ensure that the military balance of power is such that the CCP clearly sees that any such aggression will result in its own defeat and collapse.

In sum, all of the heated discussion about TECRO’s name change and its potential to spark a war completely misses the point. The best way to counter China’s baseless claims on Taiwan is through a two-fold strategy: (1) strengthening open and normal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, shattering China’s myth of sovereignty and affirming the democratic world’s support for Taiwan’s independence, and (2) continued military training and innovation to ensure that the militaries of the world are 100% ready to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion.

Anything less would be very unpragmatically rewarding and thus encouraging China’s aggression.