Last month, El Salvador became the third country to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan since the start of 2018 when it declared its intention to establish ties with China. As Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) announced the diplomatic severance, El Salvador’s Foreign Minister Carlos Castaneda was in Beijing signing a joint communique with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

In MoFA’s official statement, it first referred to the country as the “Republic of China” (ROC) – but after this initial reference, it exclusively used the name “Taiwan.” When MoFA referred to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it used only “China.”


Credit: Reuters / TPG

For Tsai Ing-wen, it’s ‘Taiwan’ – except for this August 21 speech following the breaking of ties with El Salvador, in which she used ‘Republic of China, Taiwan.’

After Burkina Faso broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in May 2018, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) did exactly the same, exclusively using “Taiwan” and “China” to refer to the two respective countries.

We reviewed every statement made by Taiwan’s MoFA since the country’s first democratic presidential election in 1996, won by incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) leader Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), and found that the terminology used to refer to both Taiwan and China is indeed sharply political – it has shifted largely depending on the party in power.

ROC? Taiwan? ROC, Taiwan? We’ve heard them all

Lee Teng-hui took office as Taiwan’s president in 1988 before facing the country’s first democratic election in 1996, which he won handily. In his first and only term as popular leader, from 1997 to 2000, Lee mainly referred to the country as “the ROC,” with “Taiwan” only used in a statement once each year.

In 2000, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) ascended to the presidency. During his first term in office, he used similar terminology to his predecessor – mainly “the ROC,” but with occasional uses of “Taiwan” peppered into his speeches and statements. However, during his second term (2005-2008), Chen began to use both terms together with Taiwan at the end – as in “the Republic of China, Taiwan.”


During the presidency of the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), he primarily used “the Republic of China,” but similar to Chen, he would occasionally add in “Taiwan” at the end.

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the DPP, who took office in 2016, also started out by using “the Republic of China” – only switching to the use of “Taiwan” in 2018.


China? Mainland China? Beijing? It’s a partisan affair

During the Lee Teng-hui presidency, China was mostly referred to as “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP),” but was occasionally called China or Mainland China. This pattern continued into the first term of Chen Shui-bian, with “the CCP” being most commonly used.

However, during Chen’s second term, he began to use “China” instead.


During his presidency, Ma Ying-jeou preferred to use the term “Mainland China.” Taiwan’s foreign ministry issued relatively few statements using “the People’s Republic of China” – between 2012 and 2015, MoFA referred to the PRC exactly zero times.

Tsai Ing-wen used “Beijing” as her go-to term after becoming president – but since 2018, she has mostly preferred the term “China.”


Over the past few years, the term “the CCP” has been entirely phased out of Taiwanese political speech. In recent years, the country has been referred to as “China” or “Mainland China,” although Tsai has also heavily used the term “Beijing.”


For Taiwan itself, the two main terms used have been “the Republic of China” and “Taiwan.” The term “the Republic of China, Taiwan,” favored by Chen during his second term in office, has not been used in a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since he left office.

However, when Tsai spoke about breaking diplomatic ties with El Salvador on August 21, the term “Republic of China, Taiwan” appeared once again.


Judging by the numbers, we can conclude that each Taiwanese president has taken their own approach to addressing Taiwan and China – and that Tsai Ing-wen’s recent shift towards favoring the terms “Taiwan” and “China” is unique among the four democratically elected Taiwanese leaders.

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This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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