TAIWAN, ONE OF Asia's most vibrant countries/territories/regions/economies/entities (take your pick), is in some ways like a society preserved in amber. It is formally known as the Republic of China, which Beijing insists disappeared in 1949, when the People's Republic of China was proclaimed. It retains the constitution of the Republic of China as well as its many institutions. Taiwan is trying to rid itself of historical baggage, but it isn't easy. Take the example of Mongolia. It was 800 years ago when the Mongols swept out of their desert steppes, penetrated the Great Wall, and conquered China and went on to attack countries in Europe. But the Mongol dynasty - the Yuan - lasted barely 80 years. And Mongolia itself - Inner Mongolia as well as Outer Mongolia - became incorporated into the Chinese empire. It remained a province of China until 1921 when, with the backing of the Soviet Union, it declared independence. In 1945, at the behest of the Soviet Union, the Republic of China agreed to accept the outcome of a referendum and the Mongols voted overwhelmingly for independence. The following year the Chinese government, headed then by Chiang Kai-shek, acceded to Mongolia's independence. Three years later, when the People's Republic of China was proclaimed, it, too, recognised the independence of Mongolia. In 1961, Mongolia joined the United Nations. It is recognised today as a sovereign, independent country. End of story. A fiction created Or is it? In 1953, the by then exiled Chiang Kai-shek decided to abrogate the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty of 1946 under which the referendum for Mongolian independence had been carried out. With the abrogation of the treaty, the Kuomintang argued, Mongolia reverted to Chinese sovereignty since the treaty under which the referendum had been held was no longer valid. The fiction was created whereby Mongolia was again part of mainland China, even though the Chiang government did not control Mongolia or any part of the mainland. Until very recently, Taiwan formally claimed Mongolia as part of its territory, even though not a single country in the world recognised such a claim. While Chen Shui-bian was mayor of Taipei, he visited Mongolia and became friends with the then prime minister Janlaviin Narantsatsralt. Taipei and Ulan Bator, the Mongolia capital, were proclaimed sister cities, despite the lack of diplomatic relations between the respective national governments. When he won the presidential election in 2000, Mr Chen wanted to establish diplomatic relations with Mongolia or, at least, pragmatic working relations, but found the going difficult. There are some in Taiwan even today who argue the constitution defines Mongolia as part of China and any move to recognise Mongolia's separate existence would be unconstitutional. Aimed at workers? President Chen wanted to allow Mongolian workers into Taiwan, but he then learned this would entail a revision of the Statute for Relations Governing the Relations of People Across the Taiwan Strait - because the statute defined Mongolians as mainland Chinese and mainland Chinese are generally not allowed to work in Taiwan. The statute had to be redrafted and, last February, Mongolians were defined under Taiwan law as non-Chinese. The statute which defined the mainland as areas controlled by the Chinese communist government and Outer Mongolia, was amended to areas controlled by the Chinese communist government. As foreigners, Mongolians now are eligible for visas to visit Taiwan. This was done ostensibly so that Taiwan could import Mongolian workers. Mongolia, however, has not signed international agreements to export workers. Besides, Taiwan has a ceiling of 300,000 for imported workers. It is more than able to reach that ceiling with workers from the five countries with which it does have agreements on import of workers - Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. After much legal manoeuvring, Taiwan and Mongolia reached agreement last month to establish representative offices in each other's capitals. Taiwan opened its office in Ulan Bator in September. Mongolia is expected to open its unofficial embassy in Taipei in a few months. The establishment of unofficial relations with Mongolia is being hailed in Taiwan as a breakthrough. It certainly is a major achievement, considering that Taiwan lives in a museum, and has to be careful not to break too many antiques while it tries to adjust to the modern world.