Washington risks Beijing ire over proposal to rename Taiwan’s US office

US-China relations updates

The Biden administration is moving towards allowing Taipei to change the name of its representative office in Washington to include the word “Taiwan”, a move likely to trigger an angry response from Beijing.

Multiple people briefed on internal US discussions said Washington was seriously considering a request from Taiwan to change the name of its mission in the US capital from “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” (Tecro) to “Taiwan Representative Office”.

Kurt Campbell, White House Asia adviser, has backed the change, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions. One said the request had wide support inside the National Security Council and from state department Asia officials.

A final decision has not been made and would require President Joe Biden to sign an executive order, said people briefed on the matter.

Changing the name of the office would anger China, which views Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory, and pile more pressure on increasingly fraught relations between Washington and Beijing.

The US and Taiwanese governments did not comment on Taiwan’s request. But the Chinese embassy in Washington said it “firmly opposes” any US official interaction with Taiwan.

“It must stop any official interaction with Taiwan, refrain from sending any wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ forces or attempting to challenge China’s bottom line, and properly and prudently handle Taiwan-related matters, so as not to seriously damage China-US relations and cross-Strait peace and stability,” said an embassy spokesperson.

A name change would be a breakthrough in the efforts of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to roll back changes forced by Beijing since she took office in 2016. Between 2017 and 2019, seven of Taipei’s missions in countries without diplomatic recognition, including Nigeria, Jordan and Ecuador, had “Taiwan” or “Republic of China” forcibly removed from their names by their host countries under pressure from Beijing.

In July, Taiwan opened an office in Lithuania called the “Taiwanese Representative Office”. It angered China, which recalled its ambassador to Vilnius and told Lithuania to recall its ambassador to Beijing.

On Thursday, Biden held his second call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping since becoming president in an effort to break an impasse in the Sino-US relationship after previous top-level meetings produced little progress.

The White House said the two leaders had a “broad, strategic discussion” and that Biden had “underscored the United States’ enduring interest in peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and the world”.

Taiwan is a source of tension between the two powers. One person involved with the request to change the name of Taiwan’s mission in Washington said Taipei discussed the issue with the US at the end of the Trump administration but made a formal request to the Biden administration in March. A senior Taiwanese official said Taipei had been urging the change for some time. 

Washington does not treat Tecro as an embassy because it switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. China opposes international representation under its official name — Republic of China — or its geographic one because it thinks that bolsters its claim to be a sovereign country.

Two people briefed on the US debate about the name change said a sticking point was whether the change was a symbolic gesture that would exacerbate tensions between China and both the US and Taiwan for little real gain.

Senior US and Taiwanese officials were due to hold a round of sensitive talks known as the “Special Channel” in Annapolis, Maryland, on Friday. The Taiwanese delegation includes its national security adviser and Joseph Wu, its foreign minister who cannot visit Washington because of US restrictions on top Taiwanese officials visiting the capital.

The “Special Channel” meeting, which has been traditionally kept under wraps to avoid antagonising Beijing, will mark the first time the Biden team has engaged in high-level, in-person talks with Taiwan.

Biden has taken a hawkish stance on everything from China’s crackdown on the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement to its persecution of Uyghurs. Tensions over Taiwan have also risen as China has flown more warplanes into Taiwan’s “Air Defence Identification Zone”.

Bonnie Glaser, a Taiwan expert at the German Marshall Fund, questioned the push to change the name, saying the US and Taiwan should “focus their energies on meaningful actions that strengthen Taiwan’s security, not symbolic steps to poke China”.

But Randy Schriver, an Asia official in the Bush and Trump administrations, said the US should consider the request. “There’s no issue too small for Beijing to complain about, but we should give some deference to our friends in Taiwan in terms of how they want to be represented.”

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