5 Times the US Government Calls Taiwan a Country

5 Times the US Government Calls Taiwan a Country
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
What you need to know

It's not that hard, airlines.

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The PRC has lately been on a campaign against menus -- the type that let customers select their country of origin or their destination when ordering hotel rooms or plane tickets.

Companies around the world from Marriott to Quantas have bowed to the wishes of China and its growing financial clout, a trend which the White House has denounced as "Orwellian nonsense."

But the U.S., which ended official diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, is supposed to hold its tongue when it comes to calling Taiwan a country and Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) a president, despite both those things being evidently true.

American politicians keep to to a strict playbook on Taiwan, using creative turns of phrase such as "this economy's beautiful landscape and people" and "Leader of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen."

Occasionally, though, the U.S. government slips up and calls Taiwan a country, such as these instances:

At least one recent bill before Congress

On March 14, U.S. Representative Bill Foster of Illinois and 16 co-sponsors introduced House Resolution 782, titled "Expressing support for designation of March 14, 2018, as 'National Pi Day.'"

The Archimedes-loving congresspeople felt that "learning about Pi can be an engaging way to teach children about geometry and attract them to study science and mathematics."

But most importantly for cross-Strait relations, they warn that "American children in the fourth and eighth grades were outperformed by students in other countries [our italics], including Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan."

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Children at risk of falling behind students in countries like Taiwan share a moment with the dog 'Petey' at MS 88 middle school in Brooklyn, New York on Aug. 10, 2017.
The Department of Homeland Security

In explaining the United States' visa waiver program, in which citizens of 38 countries can travel to the U.S. visa-free for 90 days, Taiwan is clearly included as a country across the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) website.

The DHS even explains why they call Taiwan a country, citing a provision of the Taiwan Relations Act which allows the U.S. to treat Taiwan as a country for legal purposes. They state, "All references to 'country' or 'countries' in the Visa Waiver Program authorizing legislation ... are read to include Taiwan. This is consistent with the United States’ one-China policy, under which the United States has maintained unofficial relations with Taiwan since 1979."

The DHS was backed into a corner on this semantic issue -- when the visa waiver program was passed in 1986, Taiwan was not included. Since 2012, Taiwanese citizens have been allowed entry under the program by an executive action, which does not allow changes to the law itself, including the term "country."

Chinese passport holders still require visas, even for short visits.

The US State Department

The Trafficking in Persons Report in the past hasn't been kind to Taiwan -- the country was downgraded for six years in its ranking because the U.S. State Department, which issues the report, said that, "Taiwan is primarily a destination for women and girls, mainly from the People's Republic of China, who are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation."

They also call out the migrant labor brokerage system, a system that remains in place today, saying, "Most trafficking victims are workers from rural areas of Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, employed through recruitment agencies and brokers to perform low-skilled work in Taiwan’s construction, fishing, and manufacturing industries, or to work as domestic workers."

But one thing stands out -- on the State Department's website, Taiwan has been listed as a country for the past 17 years.

The Department of Defense

Dana W. White, a former foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain, Wall Street Journal columnist and publicist for Fox News, was tapped by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to be the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. In her biography on the Department of Defense website, one of her previous jobs is listed as the "Taiwan Country Director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense."

She seems to be the only person on the DoD website to have claimed this specific title, and its exact wording varies across the site. Current Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian & Pacific Security Affairs David F. Helvey was once "Director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia" in the same department.

Multifarious menus

Of the websites of 16 U.S. executive branch departments, 13 list Taiwan as a country somewhere in a dropdown menu or publication. You may not be able to bring a horse with bird flu from Taiwan to the U.S., but the Department of Agriculture (USDA) sure did call Taiwan a country.

The Executive Office of the President (EOP) and the Department of Labor (DoL) lack any clear reference to Taiwan's nationhood. The website of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been inaccessible from Taiwan all week.

These are presumably oversights on the part of the web designers, not the sort of policy statements that can be inferred by the DHS or DoD listings. Case in point: the Department of Education makes numerous references to "Taiwan, Province of China," and only a few to Taiwan as a country.

But if American companies are being pressured into changing some dropdown menus to appease the glass hearts of the Chinese government, couldn't they just refer up to their own federal government as a way out?

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Editor: David Green