Three ways to suppor Taiwan’s UN membership

Written by Thomas J. Shattuck.

Image credit: United Nations Headquarters by versello/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fifty years ago, with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758, the United Nations admitted the People’s Republic of China and expelled the Republic of China (Taiwan). Since then, Taiwan has been internationally isolated and prevented from fully participating on the international stage. As Beijing continues its coercive campaign against Taipei and U.S.-China competition intensifies, Taiwan’s international participation has become a significant issue centred around the United Nations. President Richard Nixon may provide a pathway for how the Biden administration should approach this problem: His administration attempted to have Beijing and Taipei seated in the UN as “dual representatives” as a compromise bargain. While the “dual representatives” compromise would likely fail now as it did then, it does provide a useful rationale for U.S. executives who seek to expand Taiwan’s international participation. The Biden administration has three potential pathways in bolstering or supporting Taiwan’s UN membership, from the current minimalist push in its ad hoc observer status to a middle-ground to become a permanent observer in the UN General Assembly, to a maximal approach pushing for full membership.

Minimalist Approach: More of the Same

Historically, the United States has attempted to work within Taiwan’s current limited international space to help it receive yearly “renewals” at UN-affiliated organisations and meetings.

Since 2016, Beijing has blocked Taiwan’s participation as a guest or observer due to President Tsai Ing-wen refusal to accept the 1992 Consensus. Even despite immense international support after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Assembly (WHA) would not invite Taiwan as a guest. As a result, Washington has attempted—in vain—to advocate for Taiwan’s participation. This approach has failed for the last four years; Washington needs to work more forcefully towards achieving a majority in the WHA to approve Taiwan’s participation or membership. As Michael Mazza and Gary Schmitt recently argued, World Health Assembly membership only requires a majority vote, and such membership could open more doors for Taiwan within the UN system. That is the most basic and minimal goal that Washington should seek to achieve, but it is not enough. Ironically, the WHO recently approved Taiwan’s Medigen COVID-19 vaccine for international trials even though it is not a member.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken recently released a statement arguing for Taiwan’s inclusion in these organisations as it would only serve to help the world: “That is why [the United States] encourage[s] all UN Member States to join us in supporting Taiwan’s robust, meaningful participation throughout the UN system and in the international community.” However, under this approach, the Biden administration will need to actively whip votes within UN-affiliated organisations to get Taiwan a seat as an observer or guest. Given the growing backlash that Beijing is facing internationally for its aggressive posture and the increasing support that Taiwan has seen internationally, there is a wave that Washington and like-minded partners and allies could tap into to make this approach more successful. Countries are now openly connecting Taiwan’s security and international participation to their own security.

A Middle Ground: Permanent Observer Status

Moving beyond the yearly battles for guest or observer status, the United States has another option: advocating that Taiwan become a “permanent observer state” in the UN. This status would not afford Taiwan the ability to vote in the UN. Still, it would give Taipei a seat at the table in all UN-affiliated organisations and at the General Assembly.

The UN has a process to allow “States and intergovernmental organisations whose activities cover matters of interest to the Assembly” to receive this status. For a state to receive this status, the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly, which deals with the UN’s legal opinions, makes a legal determination before the application moves to a majority vote at the General Assembly. Importantly, this process bypasses the Security Council.

The Biden administration should begin a campaign for Taiwan to receive permanent observer status since it would solve the yearly issues in the minimalist approach. Palestine received this status by a majority vote in the General Assembly as its membership application stalled in the Security Council. This process requires that the United States have enough influence on the Sixth Committee to allow the application to get to the General Assembly for a vote and whip enough votes for the application to pass. It would also require Washington to forcefully reject the ongoing misuse and misinterpretation of Resolution 2758 by Beijing and UN officials.

Beijing would likely threaten countries and governments supporting Taiwan in this way. It would even perhaps sanction key individuals and enact further economic coercion by limiting the import of more Taiwanese goods. It would also likely ratchet up its military coercion by conducting air exercises in the Taiwan Strait and crossing the median line on a scale greater than the controversial drills conducted on October 1-4, 2021, during which nearly 150 Chinese military aircraft breached Taiwan’s southwestern air defence identification zone. Diplomatically, Beijing would likely offer even greater incentives to Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies to encourage them to switch diplomatic recognition.

The Long Game and a Hard Fight: UN Membership for Taiwan

The maximalist approach for the United States would be to replay the Nixon game plan and push for dual membership. This process, in which Taiwan submits a formal application as the Republic of China to avoid the issue of declaring formal “independence,” will likely fail because the UN requires the Security Council to approve/reject all new membership applications. Beijing would also likely increase its military and economic coercion against Taipei and any countries supporting the application. A UN bid by Taiwan would escalate the already tense cross-Strait atmosphere and the U.S.-China relationship.

What Should the United States Do?

When considering the three approaches, exerting more pressure on UN-affiliated organisations to allow Taiwan guest/observer status and advocating for Taiwan to become a “permanent observer state” are the two most likely paths for success. However, the first would be a continuous campaign as Taipei would need to fight for inclusion at every meeting. That dynamic makes it unsustainable and puts Taiwan at the whim of a potential slim and wavering majority each year. Therefore, getting Taiwan a permanent seat within the UN—short of the unattainable full membership—should be the goal for the United States and its allies and partners. Getting that status would not be easy and would likely take many years of legal interpretation battles and even longer to achieve a majority vote to bring Taiwan in this way.

There is a path forward to increase Taiwan’s participation in the international system. Oddly, the Biden administration could look to the Nixon administration to provide a historical precedent for supporting Taiwan.

Thomas J. Shattuck is the Deputy Director of the Asia Program and a Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is also a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Foreign Policy Initiative and the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program.

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