Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
Image credit: Secretariat Building at United Nations Headquarters by United Nations Photo/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
25 October 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly vote, which switched the Chinese representation in the UN from “the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek” to those representing the government in Beijing.
During the 1950s and 1960s, PRC allies had attempted to gain the Beijing CCP rulers a seat at the United Nations. However, this had met with strenuous opposition from the then occupants of the “China seat”, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists – one of the founders of the UN in 1945 and also an occupant of a Security Council seat.
What Resolution 2758 doesn’t say
But by the late 1960s, Chiang’s position had become increasingly untenable, Nixon and Kissinger started their move towards normalisation with the PRC, and on 25 October 1971, Resolution 2758, introduced by Albania, passed by 76 to 35 votes, with 17 abstentions, a majority from Africa and Asia. In the following years, more Western countries formally switched their diplomatic recognition to Beijing.
In the subsequent decades, Beijing has left no stone unturned in keeping Taiwan out of any UN organisation. It has even succeeded in getting a small UN committee that decides on names of countries to designate Taiwan as “Taiwan, Province of China.”
The problem is that Resolution 2758 did not decide on the status of Taiwan but only on which government was rightfully representing “China.” In fact, Resolution 2758 doesn’t even mention “Taiwan.” It does mention “the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek”, but certainly in 1971, those didn’t represent the people of Taiwan in any way: the debate was about “who represented China.”
Taiwan’s momentous transition to democracy
However, since the late 1970s, a significant change on the ground took place in Taiwan. This is when the people on the island started to push out the old and repressive Chinese Nationalist regime and made a momentous transition to democracy in the early 1990s under then-President Lee Teng-hui, generally referred to as “the father of democracy in Taiwan.”
This fundamental change in Taiwan should have prompted a rethink by the American, Western European, and other like-minded nations: but despite President Lee Teng-hui’s ardent “Taiwan-into-the-UN” campaigns from 1994 through 2000, and the very supportive efforts by prominent US Senators like Ted Kennedy, Claiborne Pell, and Robert Torricelli, this ran into bureaucratic inertia in the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations.
Rethinking Taiwan’s role in the world
Although in Taiwan, the frustration about being excluded from international organisations like the UN, WHO, ICAO etc., increased over the years, it wasn’t until relatively recently that the issue started to gain attention among US policymakers.
At the beginning of January 2020, the American Ambassador to the UN, Kelly Kraft, stated in an interview with veteran AP reporter Edith Lederer that the world must end Taiwan’s exclusion from such international organisations. Moreover, in a seminar at the German Marshall Fund on 21 October 2021, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Mr Rick Waters, stated that Beijing has inaccurately interpreted a UN resolution adopted in 1971 to exclude Taiwan from the international organisation and its affiliates.
Mr Waters said that “The People’s Republic of China [PRC] has misused Resolution 2758 to prevent Taiwan’s meaningful participation.” It also stated that Taiwan’s exclusion from UN activities “creates an immense cost” to the nation, as well as the bloc’s members, adding that “Beijing is denying the international community the ability to gain valuable contributions that Taiwan offers.”
And then, on 26 October 2021, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken issued a statement expressing strong support for Taiwan’s participation in the UN and other related organisations. Mr Blinken stated, inter alia:
Taiwan has become a democratic success story. Its model supports transparency, respect for human rights, and the rule of law – values that align with those of the United Nations (UN). Taiwan is critical to the global high-tech economy and a hub of travel, culture, and education. We are among the many UN member states who view Taiwan as a valued partner and trusted friend.
As the international community faces an unprecedented number of complex and global issues, it is critical for all stakeholders to help address these problems. This includes the 24 million people who live in Taiwan. Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the UN system is not a political issue, but a pragmatic one.
It is thus essential that the United States, Western Europe, and other like-minded countries like Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, and South Korea push for greater inclusion of Taiwan in international organisations such as the UN itself, the WHO, ICAO, and many other groupings.
A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Gary Schmitt and Mike Mazza of the American Enterprise Institute even argued that — absent far greater Chinese flexibility on Taiwan’s engagement in the UN — Washington should launch a campaign to secure Taiwan’s total membership.
I agree: If we – collectively – take our commitments to human rights and democracy in the world seriously, it is necessary to bring Taiwan in from the cold of international political isolation. Unfortunately, this is a cold into which it had been pushed through no fault of its own but by the actions of two repressive regimes more than fifty years ago.
The people of Taiwan made a momentous transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. The country can contribute in many ways, as elaborated eloquently by Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu in The Diplomat. Therefore, they deserved to be accepted as a full member of the international family of nations.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief-editor of “Taiwan Communique.” He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and current issues in East Asia at George Washington University.