Taiwan’s government took a bold step by sending Digital Minister Audrey Tang and Deputy Environmental Protection Minister Thomas Chan to the recent UN General Assembly (UNGA) to promote Taiwan’s adherence to UN goals on the sidelines of this key intergovernmental organization (IGO) meeting. Since the UNGA concluded just a little over a month ago, this is an opportune time to take stock of past practices and consider how Taiwan may approach the UNGA next year. Attending unofficial meetings on the sidelines of intergovernmental organization gatherings can help Taiwan gain exposure to senior officials from many countries all at the same time and at the same place. What if Taiwan sends more of its ministers for unofficial meetings at the next UNGA? More could be better, especially if there are opportunities to engage in substantive informal discussions with others on global concerns such as public health (World Health Assembly), international policing (INTERPOL), and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief.
More than a series of formal meetings, the UNGA is an opportunity to informally meet with many other foreign leaders through side meetings. Heads of states such as presidents and prime ministers from around the world famously gather each year for the UNGA. For the formal agenda, these leaders or their ambassadors take turns giving speeches in front of the entire general assembly as part of the “general debate,” which in this past instance was held from September 25 to October 1, 2018. They are often joined by other most senior officials in their governments such as foreign ministers and defense ministers, which present a valuable opportunity for Taiwan officials to travel to New York City to interact with other leaders and senior officials for informal large gatherings and one-to-one meetings outside of the UN venue.
Unofficial events and side meetings
Major IGO gatherings such as the one at the UN are not solely comprised of formal speeches, meetings, and events inside the UN facility. From my personal experience as a former US adviser to the United Nations General Assembly, perhaps half of the UNGA are the official meetings, but the other half are the unofficial meetings held in hotels meeting rooms within a few blocks from the UN. While Taiwan officials could have difficulty gaining entry into the UN facility, they should have far less trouble going into nearby hotels for meetings if they are invited.
There could be many meetings held around Manhattan for Taiwan officials to attend and interact with their counterparts during the 2018 UNGA. A number of meetings were held off-site away from the UN offices on topics related to economic stability, global finance, refugees, social movements, community service, and renewable energy. Taiwan is already involved in each of these areas, and could be more involved on the sidelines of the UNGA.
To take public health as an example, Amref Health Africa held a healthcare meeting focused on Asia located inside the Millennium Hotel at One UN Plaza. There was a meeting about antimicrobial resistance held at the Roosevelt Hotel. The government of India co-sponsored an event focused on uniting every woman and every child at the Westin Grand Central.
In addition to these large off-site gatherings, I have personally organized small one-on-one meetings in hotel suites on the sidelines of the UNGA, which was a standard practice among UN delegates. While I was a political-military officer at the US State Department, I was assigned to be a US adviser to the United Nations for the September 2012 General Assembly. My time in Manhattan during the UNGA was split between attending the general debate inside the main hall of the UN, organizing side meetings for US senior officials held in hotels around the city, and writing reports back to the State Department headquarters and diplomatic posts.
Example of planning a UNGA side meeting
An example of what one could expect on the sidelines of the UNGA is a one-on-one meeting that I planned between the head of my bureau at the State Department with the Mongolian defense minister. In the months leading up to the UNGA, I worked with the Mongolian Embassy and my colleagues at the State Department Bureau of East Asia and Pacific, Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs (EAP/CM) and the Pentagon Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy (OSD/Policy) to set the time, date, and location of the meeting. I also communicated regularly with my diplomatic counterparts at the Mongolian Embassy since it was important to give one another early warning about expectations for the meeting, especially what topics each side would raise so we could better prepare our senior officials.
When the time arrived that day, I left the general debate at the UN headquarters and met with my then-State Department boss. We then walked over together to the nearby hotel suite specified by the Mongolian Defense Minister’s staff for our meeting, and held a standard 30-minute meeting in the living room area of the hotel suite. Immediately after the meeting ended, I went to a US State Department temporary facility set-up at a nearby hotel to send an internal message back to my bureau, EAP/CM, OSD and relevant embassies about meeting outcomes.
This meeting I planned on the sidelines of the UNGA is one example of how officials can hold substantive informal side meetings at local hotels in Manhattan without having to step foot into the actual UN facility. While it is not the same as being permitted to enter the UN facility, this could be another way for Taiwan to carry out informal diplomatic relations, which are very important since Taiwan does not enjoy formal diplomatic relations with most of the world. A large IGO gathering is a convenient way to see many top foreign officials in a short-time span. Therefore, Taiwan’s government should consider stepping up this aspect of its informal diplomacy. Furthermore, Taiwan’s efforts would be supplemented by its valuable Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office near the UN area in Manhattan.
Practical way forward with TECO support
Once Taiwan’s government decides to move forward with plans, then it can rely on its Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Manhattan for diplomatic support. Taiwan’s TECO office in Manhattan is in a prime location in Midtown East, just blocks away from the UN facility. For the convenience of UN representatives, most of the informal events and side meetings would also be held in the same Midtown East area. This TECO office provides Taiwan officials with an important office location to coordinate meetings and communicate back to Taipei.
While this TECO office is a convenient planning hub for Taiwan’s officials, it is less realistic to use the office for one-on-one meetings with foreign officials based on self-constraints such as the US government’s “Taiwan guidelines” or other countries’ “one-China” political sensitivities in their relations with the People’s Republic of China.
A suggestion for a practical way forward is to plan the UNGA trips for Taiwan’s ministers and senior officials after they secure several meetings with key foreign counterparts at equivalent levels. Perhaps move forward after confirming at least three to five substantive meetings. As far as time and cost, it would not make sense to send senior Taiwan officials until there are meaningful meetings planned.
Political sensitivities and other constraints
Another recommendation for increasing the possibility of more meetings is to keep meetings low-key, quiet, and off-the-record. If Taiwan’s meetings on the sidelines of the UNGA become a conspicuous public announcement–possibly to score publicity points for domestic politics–then there is a good chance that Taiwan’s interlocutors would cancel.
In addition to US foreign policy and other countries’ “one-China” political sensitivities, another constraint may be the US State Department. The US State Department is the ‘gatekeeper’ in approving travel to New York City for those foreign officials attending the UNGA, since it approves or denies visa requests. The US State Department would find it curious if it receives many visa requests from Taiwan’s ministers and senior officials that happen to match up with the UNGA dates since Taiwan’s officials are not formal participants at the UN. It may therefore require discussion between US diplomats with Taiwan officials to clarify plans for informal meetings, and an internal US government deliberation and policy decision to approve the visas.
A second consideration is that sending many of Taiwan’s ministers and senior officials to the UNGA might not be desirable since many of them would be needed at home to manage their government ministries.
While the recent United Nations General Assembly ended a month ago and the next one is a year away, it is not too early to consider how to improve Taiwan’s exposure at this important IGO meeting. While Taiwan may not be able to attend formal meetings at the UN facility due to Taiwan’s lack of official UN representation, Taiwan would benefit from sending senior officials to the large gatherings and one-on-one meetings on the sidelines of the UNGA.
The main point: Taiwan sent its digital minister and deputy environmental protection minister to attend informal side meetings at the recent UN General Assembly, and it should consider sending more ministers and senior officials to the next one. Though Taiwan’s officials would not attend formal UN meetings, they would benefit immensely from the informal large gatherings and one-on-one meetings on the sidelines of the UNGA.