The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) general debate recently concluded on October 1 in New York City. Taiwan was again conspicuously excluded from sending a delegation to directly participate in the General Assembly as has been the case since 1971. In the lead up to the assembly meeting, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said, “Taiwan deserves to have a role in the United Nations.” Indeed, Taiwan deserves a role on the international stage and there is arguably growing recognition of that need, but what has been holding Taiwan back from the UN? There are various minority views within Taiwan’s public opinion based on historical documents claiming that Taiwan is already tied to Japan or the United Nations, but such approaches can be misleading. A more promising approach starts with the recognition of geopolitical shifts throughout the past five decades and understanding their implications for the future.
Taiwan and UNGA 2018
While Taiwan’s civil society and supporters abroad typically advocate for Taiwan’s UN membership and protest outside the UN, Taiwan’s government took a different approach this year than previous years. This year, rather than to push for UN membership, Taiwan’s government sent its digital minister Audrey Tang and deputy environmental protection minister Thomas Chan to New York while the UN convened. Though these Taiwan officials could not officially participate in UN meetings, they worked on the sidelines to promote Taiwan’s adherence to UN goals.
There is much work to do even on the sidelines, since Taiwan’s international space and even the people of Taiwan’s access to the UN facility is shrinking. Though Taiwan’s passport is accepted for travel to most countries, it is not accepted to access the United Nations in New York, even for Taiwanese tourists who want to visit. Though visitors to the UN from Taiwan cannot use their Taiwan passports, they could in the past enter with a Taiwan Compatriots identification card issued by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Furthermore, though Taiwan students are allowed to intern at the UN, they are not even allowed to say that they are from Taiwan.
On October 12, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it will lodge a protest to the UN in response to a media report that Taiwanese visitors were completely denied entry into the UN headquarters. A Taiwanese reporter tried to enter the UN for a pre-scheduled guided tour when she was refused entry after showing her Republic of China (Taiwan) passport, as is the case in the past. However, she then showed her travel permit issued by Chinese authorities for Taiwanese people—which until recently would work for entry into the UN—but was told those documents were no longer accepted either. She was not the only one, since another Taiwanese visitor with the same Chinese travel permit was also denied entry.
While this is Taiwan’s current predicament, there is a five-decade long history of Taiwan’s dwindling international space and access to the UN. While scholars typically blame Taiwan’s domestic politics, or obscure legal documents, the most important reasons for Taiwan’s situation are the geopolitical shifts.
Internal reasons in 1971
Chiang Kai-shek has been blamed for Taiwan’s current predicament. This is because Chiang was determined to retake China, and was unwilling to accept a “two-state solution” that would have allowed the PRC to take the Security Council seat, while the ROC would remain within the UN as Taiwan or Formosa. In wanting everything he risked losing everything, and in 1971, this led to UN Resolution 2758 transferring the UN seat from the ROC to PRC. In the face of this eventuality, the Taiwan delegation did indeed voluntarily “leave” the United Nations by literally walking out in 1971. However, even if Chiang acquiesced to the two-state solution in order to have Taiwan remain in the UN, this would have likely only been a short-term solution. Taiwan would probably have lost the UN seat to China in the long-term due to China’s growing international political clout and influence in the following years.
International and cross-Strait reasons
To the question of what is limiting Taiwan’s international space and holding Taiwan back from participating in the UN, the answer is simple: the cross-Strait situation. However, this does not answer why China was unsuccessful in doing so before 1971, and how successful China will continue to be in the future. Geopolitical shifts explain China’s success in the past, and whether it will continue to be successful in the future as it seeks to limit Taiwan’s international space.
In Taiwan’s case, geopolitical shifts in the early 1970s that led to the ROC transitioning out of the UN are due to two key factors: 1) growing support for the PRC among the international community, which was 2) compounded by the growing number of countries in the world at the time. Quite simply, China was effective in making political inroads and gaining support in regions such as Africa and South Asia. The post WWII period was a time of decolonization and what scholar Samuel Huntington called the “second wave” of democratization. As the number of countries in the world expanded from less than 100 to 193 today, China strategically picked up increasing numbers of countries to its side for UN votes. Based on these geopolitical shifts, even if Taiwan did not “leave” the UN, it had little hope of staying in the UN in the long-term.
However, there have been minority views of political activists in Taiwan and abroad based on the Treaty of Shimonoseki, United Nations San Francisco Charter, and through referendum:
Searching for basis #1: Treaty of Shimonoseki
One minority view is that Taiwan is still part of Japan based on a treaty from over a century ago. The Treaty of Shimonoseki signed on April 17, 1985 was a peace treaty between China and Japan and suggests that Taiwan is part of Japan. Specifically, in Article 2, the wording states, “China cedes to Japan in perpetuity and full sovereignty the following territories, together with all fortifications, arsenals, and public property thereon: […] (b) The island of Formosa, together with all islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Formosa.” Yet, this argument neglects that the Sino-Japanese Peace Treaty of 1952 nullified the Treaty of Shimonoseki and confirmed the transfer of Taiwan to the ROC government at that time.
Searching for basis #2: The United Nations Charter
The Republic of China (Taiwan) was the first to sign the UN Charter in San Francisco. There were two main parts of the UN Charter where the ROC was mentioned. In chapter V, article 23: “The Security Council shall consist of eleven Members of the United Nations. The Republic of China, France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America shall be permanent members of the Security Council.” Furthermore, in chapter XIX, article 110 on ratification and signature of the UN Charter: “The present Charter shall come into force upon the deposit of ratifications by the Republic of China, France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America, and by a majority of the other signatory states.”
One view is that since the UN Charter is still valid, and it still states the Republic of China and not the People’s Republic of China, therefore Taiwan should be part of the United Nations. However, this view neglects the fact that later in 1971, UN Resolution 2758 transferred the UN seat from the ROC to the PRC.
Searching for basis #3: Referendum
During the Chen Shui-bian Administration in 2003, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan passed a bill to allow national referendums on constitutional and sovereignty issues, which inspired hope that Taiwan can enlarge its political space through domestic votes. It was enough to prompt then-PRC President Hu to warn then-President Bush that President Chen was “brazenly” pushing a referendum to secure Taiwan’s admission to the UN. Even Chen’s predecessor former President Lee Teng-hui observed that, “UN membership is not a legal issue, it is a political issue,” and that Taiwan’s power pales in comparison to China’s. Lee continued that Taiwan must rely on friends like the United States and Japan, so Taiwan cannot afford to alienate them through controversial political moves such as through referendum. Furthermore, this neglects the China factor and broader underlying geopolitical shifts.
No easy solutions in the current geopolitical context
These unconventional and minority views—Treaty of Shimonoseki, UN Charter, referendum—do not take into account Taiwan’s current geopolitical environment in assessing what is possible. However, these ideas could someday be valuable as the historical and legal basis of a reconceptualization of Taiwan’s sovereignty. Just as the geopolitical environment shifted against Taiwan leading up to 1971, it could shift in Taiwan’s favor in the future. This is likely why some voices within Taiwan still hold on to the hope of UN membership.
It turns out that Taiwan did officially “leave” the United Nations when Chiang Kai-shek ordered the Taiwan ambassador to the UN to walk out. Yet, it is unlikely that Taiwan would have been able to stay much longer if it did not leave on its own, considering UN Resolution 2758 had passed in the PRC’s favor. Today, it is hard for Taiwan to push back against Beijing to gain more diplomatic allies, to reverse the current trend of Taiwan losing its allies. Beijing has more diplomatic and economic clout.
Yet, in the current geopolitical context, even in the absence of UN membership Taiwan can still maintain its presence on the international stage. Taiwan can and should continue to try to participate in international organizations as an observer or where statehood is not a requirement. It can continue to rely on informal though important diplomatic relations with the United States and the rest of the world. Taiwan should continue to emphasize its shared liberal values and freedoms with other democracies.
The main point: Any effective efforts at involving Taiwan in the United Nations should be based on a clear-eyed understanding of history—particularly international support for China in the 1970s as well as proliferation of the number of countries at that time—as well as the current and future geopolitical environment.