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Taiwan’s Failure at the UN

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 24, 2008

    Will Taiwan ever participate in the United Nations? Pessimist views have started flowing after the rejection of Taiwan’s fresh bid for ‘meaningful participation in international agencies’ at the UN on September 18, 2008. This proposal was submitted by sixteen “diplomatic allies” of Taiwan to the UN Secretariat on August 14, 2008. Blocking Taiwan’s new attempt, a UN subcommittee decided that it would not let the 63rd UN General Assembly (UNGA) consider their request for permission to join ‘UN activities’.

    Reacting to the UN subcommittee’s decision, Andrew Hsia, the Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in Taiwan, said that “overall, we are not surprised…we hoped Taiwan’s bid would be included on the agenda, we understand that it is very difficult at this stage.” While this marks the sixteenth such failure in a row, speculation abounds if this signals the end of Taiwan’s dream for an ‘effective UN participation’ or chance of getting into the UN. This is important given Ma Ying-jeou’s “modus vivendi” diplomatic strategy which is more moderate and pragmatic in nature. Under this strategy, Taiwan approached the UN in August 2008 to consider its “meaningful participation” in “affiliated agencies rather than full UN membership.” For the Taipei government, ‘meaningful participation’ means that “the country has autonomy to decide when and what activities it wishes to join at global level, instead of relying on the mainland.” This proposal was also significant partly because of the fact that Taiwan’s three diplomatic allies - Nicaragua, the Solomon Islands and Honduras - are members of the UN General Committee, the highest number of Taiwan’s allies on the committee since 1993.

    From 1993 onwards, Taiwan has annually attempted to persuade the General Assembly to include in its agenda deliberation of the issue of UN representation for its people. Previously, Taiwan lost its UN membership to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1971, and Beijing has blocked its past fifteen attempts to return to the world body. Taiwan’s status quo relationship with the mainland has impeded its efforts to participate in international bodies on various occasions. This year with the victory of KMT, the Taiwan government decided to co-sponsor a proposal entitled “Need to examine the fundamental rights of the 23 million people of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to participate meaningfully in the activities of the United Nations specialized agencies.” Following this proposal, Ma Ying-jeou’s government decided to approach the UN to grant it “participation” status specifically in global bodies like World Health Organisation (WHO), International Maritime Organization (IMO), etc. According to the Taiwan government, this petition was “functional and technical in nature apart from being moderate and non-confrontational.” Broadly, the government approached the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) under the following grounds.

    First, as the most important multilateral platforms for dealing with global issues, UN specialised agencies should accept and support Taiwan’s participation based on the principle of ‘universality’. While UNGA Resolution 1258 (XXVI) already recognises the PRC as the only legitimate government of China, it failed to address the issue of Taiwanese people taking part in UN activities. Second, by denying participation to Taiwan in specialised agencies like WHO and International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN would be neglecting the rights and “welfare of its 23 million people.” Third, Taiwan being the eighteenth largest economy of the world, the international community will benefit with Taiwan’s participation and its economic strength. Fourth, participation in UN specialised agencies would help both the mainland and Taiwan put aside their political differences and strengthen co-operation, which will eventually result in peace in the Asia-Pacific region.

    Unlike during the reign of the previous Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government when Taiwan was in a high-profile push for a ‘full membership” under the name of ‘Taiwan’, the current approach is different. Taiwan’s priority now is to aim to join the World Health Assembly (WHA), the annual session of the WHO, and other “non-political” agencies covering health, environment and climate issues. Taipei’s contention remains that it should have more space within the international community to tackle issues such as climate change and food shortages. Moreover, in the cross-strait dynamics, the current proposal is supposed to be a brilliant strategy employed by Ma Ying-jeou which goes beyond the regular “One-China” politics or “sovereignty” issue. The Kuomintang government had already called on the mainland authorities to display “wisdom and flexibility” to allow Taiwan to carve out its own international space. However, the UN General Committee dismissed this bid after a “one-on-one” debate with a strong objection from the PRC.

    While the UN representative of the Solomon Islands argued in favour of Taiwan, PRC’s Ambassador to the UN, Wang Guangya, insisted on Taiwan’s ineligibility to take part in any UN activities independently following UN Resolution 2758 (XXVI) of October 25, 1971. A few days before the meeting, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang had also expressed reservation by stating that “the UN and its agencies are intergovernmental organizations composed only of sovereign states…” Legally, what really obstructs the UN from taking action in favour of Taiwan is the legal decision of the 1971 General Assembly resolution, which declares the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the “only lawful representatives of China” at the United Nations. As a result, the UN has even barred in the last four years Taiwanese doctors from accessing WHO information. Journalists from Taiwan have been declined on-the-spot coverage of the news of its specialised agencies on the ground that ‘Taiwan is not a state recognised by the UNGA’.

    For Taiwan, the current failure at the UN could well mean its diplomatic subjugation. Many call it a “personal diplomatic failure” of Ma Ying-jeou, criticising his government for pursuing a “foreign policy of surrender”. Already Ma Ying-jeou has come under severe criticism for his extreme moderate approach on cross-strait affairs. After years of strained Taipei-Beijing ties, Ma Ying-jeou had asked the mainland to allow Taiwan to join specialised international agencies, while promising not to claim independence during KMT rule. The KMT government made its move after stating that it would neither ask to “return” to the UN to retake the PRC seat, nor will it apply to “join as a new member”. Interestingly, it was the KMT government which started Taiwan’s UN campaign in 1993 for the first time.

    At the moment, it seems Taiwan has lost its political ground to get into the UN. The KMT’s next course of action remains unclear. Many reports have appeared that Beijing is using generous financial packages to woo Taiwan’s 23 country allies to rethink their ties with the island. In fact, one of its allies, the Dominican Republic, did not take an open stance this time to support Taiwan’s fresh bid for ‘UN affiliation’. However, Taiwan’s current hope of getting into the world body rests with the verbal support of the United States. Though the US did not openly support Taiwan’s case this time, it has long been a supporter of Taiwan’s “meaningful participation in UN special agencies”. Assuring that the US would continue to work with like-minded countries to help Taiwan achieve this goal in future, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) official Lawrence A. Walker stated that “such participation would enable the international community to better address pressing global challenges.”

    Whatever assurances may come from the US, a realistic case for Taiwan’s future participation in UN may only be possible under two circumstances: an assurance from the mainland or a reform in the UN General Assembly regulations. While it may be difficult for Taiwan to bring about an international consensus for reform at the UNGA, the immediate choice remains one of creating a domestic consensus between the DPP and KMT and then try convincing the mainland that it has nothing to lose by supporting Taiwan’s case for ‘UN affiliation’. However tiny this step may seem, the KMT government has no other option but to act along these lines.