The annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is currently underway in New York City. This year marks the 45th year anniversary of Republic of China’s (ROC) last year as a member. When the ROC held a seat in the UN as an internationally recognized sovereign state, it was counted as one of the prestigious five members of the UN Security Council, and prided itself in being a founding member of the global organization. Even today, the people of Taiwan (ROC) are still actively pursuing a path into the United Nations and other more prominent high-politics organizations, such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC). While worthy of praise, a bottom-up approach that extends Taiwan’s international space and presence through mid-level functional organizations and international grassroots public service organizations could be more effective.
Every year around September hundreds of Taiwanese-Americans hold a “U.N. for Taiwan” protest in Times Square. This year was no different, and the event was held on September 14, 2016. A cofounder of the movement remarked: “Every year, we’re going to shout, we’re going to fight, and we’re gonna be heard.” Relatedly, when Taiwan weightlifter Hsu-Ching Hsu won the island’s first Olympic gold, she saluted a flag that was barely recognizable to her or her compatriots during the medal ceremony. Taiwan’s Olympic flag is a compromise solution acceptable to Beijing that allows Taiwan to participate under the moniker “Chinese Taipei” and hence not the official flag of Taiwan. It is one of many conspicuous symbols which demonstrate Taiwan’s constrained international space.
Taiwan struggles to participate in international organizations that operate in the realm of high-politics due to geopolitics. This is because the People’s Republic of China (PRC) does not want other countries to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country. In light of the current global political environment, Taiwan’s leaders should turn their focus toward mid-level functional organizations and grassroots organizations since there is a stronger case for the United States and other countries to support its participation in specific functional areas, and less reason for the PRC to exclude it.
Examples of mid-level organizations include the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), World Health Organization (WHO), ASEAN Investor Forum and others. They embody specific functions—law enforcement, public health, passenger airline flight safety, regional business, and others—where the world would benefit from Taiwan’s active participation in specific ways, and vice versa.
Taking Interpol as an example, Taiwan’s efforts in cracking down on international criminal networks would provide a public good that benefits all other countries. Recently on March 18, 2016, United States President Obama signed a bill for the United States government to help Taiwan gain observer status at Interpol, after Congress voted and approved it as Public Law 114-139. Membership would allow Taiwan to gain access to Interpol’s 24/7 global police communications system that provides real time information on criminals and global criminal activities.
In addition, Taiwan’s bid for observer status at Interpol also demonstrates that Taiwan’s pursuit of mid-level functional organizations is more likely to receive political support from the United States and the rest of the world, in contrast to participation in the U.N. or other high politics organizations. President Obama’s Interpol bill requires the United States Secretary of State to develop a strategy to obtain observer status for Taiwan, for the State Department to communicate with the Interpol office in Washington, DC, to request observer status for Taiwan, and to actively urge Interpol member states to support Taiwan’s participation. Similarly, Taiwan is already an observer in the WHO, and plays a part in the ASEAN Investor Forum and other organizations.
However, Taiwan should have more success actively engaging in less high-profile global organizations such as the Global Environment Facility, Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia, International Organization for Migration, Conference on Disarmament, International Energy Forum, International Customs Organization (Taiwan is involved as non-member), and hundreds of others relevant to Taiwan as listed in the latest 2015-2016 Yearbook of International Organizations.
At another level, through grassroots organizations, Taiwan has even more promise and even fewer political constraints when participating in epistemic communities—defined as transnational networks of knowledge based experts. These communities include professionals and professors in the sciences and other academic disciplines. In politics, the leading thinkers and professors, such as Stephen Walt (Harvard), John Meirsheimer (Chicago), and Bob Jervis (Columbia) all attend the annual American Political Science Association (APSA) academic conference. At APSA, a group of professors from National Taiwan University, National Chengchi University and other schools in Taiwan have formed the Taiwan Studies Group, which Stanford academic Dr. Kharis Templeman leads. Taiwan’s top political scientists mix with United States-based professors to discuss global issues, influence each other’s views and build deep professional relationships through this group at APSA. These professors teach the next generation of leaders, write policy articles for publication, and governments call on them for their analyses and advice.
In addition, global public service organizations are another form of grassroots organization that hold the most promise for Taiwan’s free participation. Taiwan shares international values and norms such as human rights and humanitarian work. Organizations such as Kiwanis, Amnesty, Rotary, and Lions are blossoming in Taiwan. They connect people in Taiwan to each other in performing public service, to work together for a good cause; in turn, they connect Taiwan to club members in other countries through international meetings and conferences.
Famous heavy-metal lead singer, now legislator, Freddy Lim was the director of Amnesty International in Taiwan. He recently traded his gothic stage makeup for a business suit after winning a seat in Taiwan’s legislature as a member of the New Power Party in early 2016. Lim is emblematic of a younger, more dynamic generation of political leaders in Taiwan.
Taiwan should redouble efforts to build from membership in grassroots organizations to those at the mid-level and upward. Compared to high politics like the UN and Olympic Committee, the PRC’s influence in excluding Taiwan diminishes with the mid-level and grassroots organizations. In addition, the U.S. government and other countries should be more supportive of Taiwan in these organizations.
Exactly 45 years ago on October 25, 1971, Taiwan lost its crucial vote in the UN and left the organization. That day was a tumultuous scene at the UN General Assembly when Taiwan Ambassador Liu Chieh walked out of the hall with his delegation for the last time, made even more dramatic with representatives of various countries friendly to the PRC cheering, singing, and shouting, and a Tanzanian delegate dancing in the aisles. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN at the time, George H. W. Bush—who would later become the 41st U.S. president—rushed over to Taiwan Ambassador Liu as he was walking out and put his arm around Ambassador Liu’s shoulder in solidarity as they walked together.
Taiwan benefits the most—and provides the most benefit to the rest of the world—through functional organizations, epistemic communities, and public service organizations. Taipei should receive the strongest U.S. and international support, and enjoy the most success at the mid and grassroots levels. Moreover, Taiwan should consider turning their focus and resources toward mid-level functional organizations and grassroots organizations since there is less reason for the United States and other countries to withhold support for its participation in specific functional and grassroots areas. It would be unimaginable if they did.
The main point: Taiwan’s leaders should turn their focus toward midlevel functional organizations and grassroots organizations since there is a stronger case for the United States and other countries to support its participation in specific functional areas, and less reason for the PRC to exclude it.