updated 7/10/2008 11:43:59 AM ET 2008-07-10T15:43:59

A senior Taiwan official has rejected China’s attempts to change the name under which the island will compete in next month’s Olympics, striking a discordant note to the two sides’ recently improved relations.

Vice Chairman Liu Te-shun of the Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei on Thursday said “Zhongguo Taipei” — a name in the Chinese language that strongly suggests that Taiwan is part of China — “is not acceptable to us.”

A month from the Aug. 8 Olympic opening ceremonies, spokesman Yang Yi of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said that “Zhongguo Taipei” is just as valid as an Olympic designator as the previously used “Zhonghua Taipei.”

“Zhongguo Taipei” means “Taipei China” and uses “Zhongguo,” the name China calls itself, implying Taipei is a part of China. “Zhonghua Taipei” uses “Zhonghua” — a more ambiguous word that applies to a deliberately undefined Chinese nation.

The dispute — arcane to many outsiders — goes right to the heart of the battle over Taiwan’s identity, which has been fought over by the sides since they split amid civil war in 1949. It also casts a shadow over recently improved economic ties, in the form of the first direct flights between the old foes in nearly six decades.

China continues to claim Taiwan as part of its territory and says it will attack if the island moves to permanently break from the mainland.

Most Taiwanese oppose a formal declaration of independence, something they made clear in March when they rejected the candidate of a pro-independence party in presidential elections. But they are also strongly against a union with the mainland, fearing it would put an end to their hard-won democratic freedoms.

In his comments on Wednesday, Yang said that Beijing’s Olympic organizing committee would continue to use the “Zhonghua Taipei” name first agreed upon in 1989, but that other Chinese groups could opt for “Zhongguo Taipei” if they wished to do so.

At that time the two agreed that Taiwan could compete at the Olympics under the name “Chinese Taipei” in English, and designated “Zhonghua Taipei” as the Chinese language translation for that term.

Liu rejected Yang’s assertion on Taiwan’s Olympic name out of hand.

“Zhonghua Taipei has been in use for years, and this will not change just because it is Beijing which is holding the Olympics this year,” he said.

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