Taiwan and the United Nations: Is the Tide Turning?

Written by Chieh-chi Hsieh.

Image credit: 04.18 副總統接見「聯合國『非政府組織/公共資訊部門』執委會主席納茲一行」,並於會後合影 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Recent international developments have prompted some to speculate that we are in the midst of a critical juncture for Taiwan’s bid for admission to the United Nations (UN). On the plus side, Taiwan has received considerable international recognition for its successful policy responses toward the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is arguable that this in itself will increase the odds for its campaign to join the UN. In 1971 the Republic of China (ROC)/Taiwan was expelled from the UN as well as all of its affiliated organisation (e.g. World Health Organisation, WHO), based on the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 2758. Although the ROC government has been campaigning to re-enter the UN since 1993, it has enjoyed limited, if any, success.

This year the UNGA is scheduled to take place on the 15 September, and the issue concerning the admission of Taiwan to membership in the UN will surely resurface. To some, the claim that we are in the midst of a critical juncture may seem bold, or even fanciful. Yet, the recent official visit of US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to Taiwan, and the 90-member delegation from the Czech Republic led by the country’s second-highest-ranking elected official, Senate Speaker Milos Vystrcil, are both diplomatic milestones for Taiwan. With US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach scheduled to visit Taiwan on the 17 September, the critical juncture narrative is certainly not without some grounding. Nonetheless, Taiwan’s campaign continues to face a number of obstacles.

Problems facing Taiwan’s Campaign for Admission 

To become a new member of the UN, countries are required to go through four stages: a country submits an application to the Secretary-General; the UN Security Council (UNSC) will consider the application; if agreed, it would be passed on to the UNGA for final consideration; finally, the country would obtain membership when the UNGA resolution is approved. Hence there are two options for Taiwan’s bid for UN membership. The first option is “returning” to the UN as China, whilst the second is “entering” the UN as a new sovereign state. The first option is likely to be untenable given it does not reflect the current mainstream perception on cross-strait relations in Taiwan: 27.7 percent of residents prefer moving towards independence vis-à-vis 0.7 percent in favour of moving towards unification.

As for the second option, it would require the majority of governments to recognise Taiwan as a de jure sovereign state. Under the Chen Shui-bian administration, Taiwan has attempted this approach. Unsurprisingly, it was rejected by the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Moreover, with China long claiming “Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory”, it would be unfathomable if it were not to utilise its veto power in the UNSC.

Another alternative for Taiwan would be pursuing permanent observer status. The chances may seem greater going down this route due to its bypassing the UNSC and requiring the consideration of the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly before it is passed to the UNGA plenary session for further discussion. However, according to the UNGA’s decision 49/426 in 1994, observer status are only granted to “states and to intergovernmental organisations.” Again, this is problematic for Taiwan.

Geopolitik”

If changes were to take place, the first indication would be a geopolitical shift. On this point, the recent political stances of the US, Japan and regional countries, and the European Union (EU) merit our special attention. The most important actor in this process is the US. Since President Trump took office in 2016, through his actions he has demonstrated a willingness to challenge his predecessors’ approaches towards China. Prominent examples are the US-China trade war, that started in July 2018 until it was temporarily suspended this January, and Trump’s decision to officially withdraw from the World Health Organisation (WHO) in July. Likewise, Trump has not tiptoed around the “Taiwan” issue, which China considers as one of its core interests (核心利益). On the military front, the US and Taiwan have concluded seven arm sales agreement under the Trump administration, including the recently approved $620 million US dollar upgrade package for Patriot surface-to-air missiles. Moreover, as tensions across the Taiwan Strait simmered over the past eight months, the US Navy deployed a guided-missile destroyer and conducted seven transits (e.g. USS Mustin: 18 August) through the waterway in this time period. In terms of diplomatic relations, bilateral relation between Taiwan and the US have reached new heights. Notable examples include the unanimous passing of the Taiwan Travel Act and the Taipei Act, the introduction of the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act this July, and the recent official visit of Health Secretary Azar.

Together with the US, the Japanese government also supports broadening Taiwan’s international engagements. In a virtual meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in July, Prime Minister Abe discussed the importance of Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly (WHA), while both leaders reaffirmed the importance of the “Quad” alliance between Australia, the US, Japan and India. In addition, other countries in the region such as New Zealand have also supported Taiwan’s participation in the WHO.

As for the EU, it has long adhered to the One China policy. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 and the official visit of Senate Speaker Milos Vystrci may induce a change in attitudes and perceptions. For instance, when President Tsai initiated the so-called “mask diplomacy” this April, European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen praised Taiwan’s ‘gesture of solidarity’ on behalf of the EU. Although one could question the effectiveness of Taiwan’s mask diplomacy in Europe, the country’s successful experience in containing the pandemic and its humanitarian assistance initiative have been praised and received recognition from many EU countries amid the crisis.

The official visit of Milos Vystrci is another crucial milestone that may allow EU countries to reevaluate their relations with Taiwan. The first reason for this is Vystrci’s “I am Taiwanese” statement – which echoes the late John F. Kennedy’s famous statement “ich bin ein Berliner” to cast a spotlight on West Berlin’s status as an outpost of freedom and democracy. Although circumstances of the two are not entirely identical, Vystrci’s statement underscores the importance of shared values in cultivating long-standing relationships. The second reason is China’s ill-manned response towards Vystrci’s visit may serve to amplify support for Taiwan. For instance, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated in a press conference in Berlin that Vystrci’s actions are a “blatant provocation” and he would pay a “heavy price”. German Foreign Minster Heiko Maas responded with “threats don’t fit in here”, whilst other EU members such as France and Slovakia have openly expressed solidarity with the Czech Republic. Finally, Germany has showed signs of hardening its position toward China after the proposal to draft Hong Kong’s National Security Bill was announced late May. A recent example is the newly announced Indo-Pacific policy guidelines on 2 September that would allow Germany to play a more active role in shaping the international order in the Indo-Pacific.

De Jure State ?

Will the US government recognise Taiwan as an independent sovereign state and would this induce a domino effect internationally? This is unlikely. The first and foremost obstacle is the amorphous quality of the post-bipolar international political system. In contrast with the Cold War era, when the world was mainly divided between the US-led free world, the USSR-led communist camp, and the Non-aligned bloc, the contemporary international political system is less clear-cut. Hence, we cannot expect allies of the US to follow along with its every decision, including recognising Taiwan as an independent state. An obvious example of this is the EU’s stance on not withdrawing from the WHO. Instead, they urged the US to reconsider its own decision to withdraw.

On another point, China’s economic clout and its economic relations with other countries have developed considerable since the Cold War era. For instance, statistics show that as of 2018, China continues to be Japan’s largest trade partner, and is the destination of 19.51 percent of its total exports. China is also Germany’s largest trade partner with the trade volume reaching € 206 billion in 2019, and it is the second largest trade partner with the EU as a whole. Although some observers predict that Berlin would continue its hardline position against China, especially in the post-Merkel era, this does not in any way equate to a switch of official diplomatic recognition. In addition, Asia-Pacific countries such as New Zealand have clearly stated that the country’s support of Taiwan’s participation in the WHO as an observer earlier this year is “only related to its health response to COVID-19”.

Although the probability for Taiwan’s admission to the UN is extremely low, a new model for Taiwan’s international engagements might emerge. Yet, the platform for this pursuit would not be at the UNGA. Instead, it would more likely take place at the WHA when it reconvenes later this year. The uncertain factor would be the official withdrawal of the US government from the WHO – the government with the potential to be the most important and influential supporter for Taiwan’s bid. Yet, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic still affecting most countries around the globe, Taiwan’s successful experience in containing the pandemic, as well as a series of humanitarian aid programmes through which it provided much needed medical protective equipment, would underpin its bid for participating in the WHA as an observer. If this is the case, Taiwan’s participation in the WHA will give the country another resource to draw from when biding for future involvements in other international and regional organisations.

Chieh-chi Hsieh received his PhD from the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick (UK). He also holds an MSc degree in International Political Economy at the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science. You can follow him on twitter @DrHsiehCC

This article is part of a special issue on Taiwan’s application to enter the United Nations.

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