The global coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak that was first reported in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 has brought into sharp relief the inadequacy of a United Nations-led multilateral system that continues to exclude Taiwan and its 23.7 million people. At the heart of Taiwan’s inability to both participate in emergency meetings and to receive and share timely information as a member of the community of nations is United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758. Passed on October 25, 1971, UNGA 2758 stipulates that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations.” (That same year, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) decided to pull the Republic of China from the UN over his refusal to countenance the existence of “two Chinas.”).
Various countries, as well as a number of heads of specialized UN agencies, have adhered to a strict understanding of the Resolution to resolve that Taiwan, over which the PRC argues it has sovereignty, ought not to have a seat at the table and should instead, like any other province or Special Administrative Region of the PRC, receive its information from Beijing. The PRC’s influence over several UN agencies, where in recent years it has succeeded in installing its own people, added to lack of understanding among officials and governments of Beijing’s politicization of global issues as part of its designs on Taiwan, accounts for the general silence that has characterizes the response by the international community to an exclusion that otherwise should, for its egregiousness, cause major concern.
Besides leaving out 23.7 million Taiwanese in the cold, this blind spot in the international system exposes millions of global citizens who, every year, visit Taiwan or transit its airspace—a major hub in the Indo-Pacific region. Adherence to UNGA 2758 and, as Beijing maintains, its inherent “One-China” principle, has also resulted in Taiwanese carriers being barred entry into countries (as Vietnam and Italy initially did) that had shut the door to travel from the PRC. It did not matter that UNGA 2758 never stipulated that Taiwan falls under the jurisdiction of the PRC: politics, rather than common sense, prevailed. Such subservience to Beijing prompted Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), to tell a press conference on February 2 that the leadership at the World Health Organization (WHO) “lives in a parallel universe.”
When confronted with the argument that, in times of crisis such as that which currently poses a threat to the international community, ways should be found to allow Taiwan to participate in emergency meetings, officials, scientists, and governments have fallen back to UNGA 2758 or believed Beijing’s propaganda to the effect that it is looking after the wellbeing of “Taiwanese compatriots.” Upon being shown that such rhetoric is misleading, agencies have on occasion reacted by accusing its critics of spreading “fake news” or orchestrating a campaign of disinformation. This is what the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) did in late January, resulting in ICAO communications officials blocking several dozen Twitter accounts within a matter of days, including those of well-known academics and journalists. The unfortunate incident prompted the US Department of State to issue a stern statement on February 1:
The United States is deeply concerned about actions taken by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to suppress freedom of expression and curtail important discussion of Taiwan’s legitimate role in international issues. Blocking Twitter users who make reference to Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, particularly given the global response to the coronavirus crisis, is outrageous, unacceptable, and not befitting of a UN organization. Taiwan has a relevant and credible voice on transnational health issues, and the United States has long supported its active engagement in international venues, including ICAO, where its expertise can be beneficial. We call upon ICAO to immediately and permanently reverse its practice of blocking discussion of Taiwan on its Twitter properties and make clear publicly its understanding that freedom of expression must always supersede the political insecurities of member states.
Although various governments had made the case for Taiwan’s inclusion in international organizations prior to the outbreak of 2019-nCoV, the severity of the outbreak, along with memories of the impact that the politicization of health had had on information sharing during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003, compelled governments to be more vocal in their support for Taiwan. Within the space of 24 hours, both Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated on the record in late January that Taiwan should be granted participation at specialized international agencies as required to ensure the safety of its citizens and to plug any gap in the global monitoring system.
In the first instance of a Canadian prime minister publicly stating that it is Canada’s policy to support Taiwan’s participation, Trudeau said, “We believe that Taiwan’s role as an observer in World Health Assembly (WHA) meetings is in the best interest of the international health community and also is an important partner in the fight against this [2019-nCoV] epidemic.” The following day, Abe stated that “It will be difficult to maintain health and prevent further infections in this region if [Taiwan] is excluded for political reasons.”
Whether calls by heads of state will result in a policy change at the UN regarding Taiwan’s participation remains to be seen. What is certain is that stubborn adherence to a UN Resolution enacted nearly half a century ago, or the contention that Taiwan should accept its fate because Chiang Kai-shek decided to pull out of the UN in 1971, without mention of the fact that Chiang was a dictator who did not arrive at this decision via democratic means, is as myopic as it is dangerous in the current geopolitical context. In other words, it is grand time the international community adapted to reflect reality: and the reality is that leaving out the world’s 20th largest economy and a country with a population equal to that of Australia, is foolhardy.
Since 2016, a number of countries—including the United States, Canada, Japan, and European states—have worked behind the scenes to ensure Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” (meaning, as an “observer”) at various specialized UN agencies, such as the World Health Assembly’s annual WHA, ICAO, Interpol, and others. Despite the welcome support, such efforts failed to counter Beijing’s influence at the global body, which it exploited as part of its punitive efforts against Taiwan and the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration.
Countering Beijing’s grip on UN institutions could help ensure fairer treatment for Taiwan by the global body. In late January, Foreign Policy reported that the US Department of State had appointed Mark Lambert as special envoy to counter Chinese influence at the UN. Beyond this, alternative measures to ensure Taiwan’s participation must be considered. This includes, as Michael Mazza proposed in the previous issue of the Global Taiwan Brief, imposing costs on China for refusing to shift its policy on the matter, as well as using carrots and sticks at the UN (stopping or increasing funding to UN institutions) to bring about change.
Another option, and one that would become necessary if the above measures failed to bring about a change of heart at the UN, would be for a grouping of member states to create a mechanism outside the UN through which Taiwan could access and share relevant information under the purview of specialized agencies. Already, Taiwan and some of its democratic partners have when necessary adopted ad hoc measures to share information from UN institutions with Taiwan. This occurred during the 2009 World Games in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, and again during the 2017 Taipei Summer Universiade. In the latter case, important information on the whereabouts of suspected international terrorists, which Taiwan could not access due to Beijing’s interference at Interpol, was communicated to Taiwan’s law enforcement via the UK and Europol. And in a welcome development, on Feb. 8 the WHO announced that Taiwanese health experts would be able to participate online in a forum on the coronavirus held by the global body in Geneva on Feb. 11-12. Rather than rely on ad hoc information sharing agreements with Taiwan, a more permanent mechanism should be implemented to normalize communication with Taiwan. Beijing would likely express displeasure at the creation of such a body, but absent not sharing information with a number of countries, there is little that it could do to prevent its implementation.
What should not be done, however, is to create an alternative to the UN system, however disillusioned many may have become with the global body. Splitting the planet into two camps would go counter to the aim of ensuring that every country and region has the ability to tap into and to contribute to global monitoring systems.
The main point: In today’s hyperconnected world, the international community cannot afford to create unnecessary blind spots in the global monitoring system. Leaving Taiwan out in the cold based on decisions made nearly half a century ago or over the insecurities of the regime in Beijing imperils us all. Barring membership of Taiwan at UN institutions, alternative mechanisms must be considered.