Resolution 2758 and the Fallacy of Beijing’s UN “One-China Principle”

Resolution 2758 and the Fallacy of Beijing’s UN “One-China Principle”

Resolution 2758 and the Fallacy of Beijing’s UN “One-China Principle”

On October 25, 1971, 73 members of the United Nations participated in a pivotal vote over three draft resolutions to consider the matter of China’s seat in that international body, as well as the UN Security Council.  Ultimately, the General Assembly adopted the 23-power text (commonly referred to as the “Albanian Resolution”) with a vote of 76 yes to 35 no, with 17 abstentions, “recognizing that the representatives of the Government of the People’s Republic of China are the only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations and that the People’s Republic of China is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.” Notably, the Assembly did not proceed to vote on the third resolution that was sponsored by 19 countries including the United States (commonly referred to as the “US Resolution”). [1]

Since its adoption, Resolution 2758 has been utilized by the PRC as the basis to prevent Taiwan’s meaningful participation—both its government and its people—in the UN system without Beijing’s assent. According to the PRC, “Resolution 2758 of the UN General Assembly has restored the lawful seat of the People’s Republic of China at the UN and affirmed the one-China principle [emp. added] at the Organization, which has been strictly observed across the UN system and widely respected by UN Member States.”

While UN Resolution 2758 did indeed dispose of the question of who had China’s seat in the United Nations, the resolution itself makes no explicit mention of Taiwan, nor of the territorial or population scope of China. A plain reading of the adopted Resolution makes this point abundantly clear and a careful reading of the considerations within the Assembly debate clearly shows that the resolution, as adopted, disposed of neither the critical question of Taiwanese self-determination nor the status of Taiwan. It was for this very reason that, on the former issue, Saudi Arabia submitted a separate resolution “expressing the view that the whole question revolved around the right of self-determination and that the Assembly had neither the right nor the power to compel the people of Taiwan to merge with the mainland.” [2] As Ambassador Robert O’Brien, the 28th National Security Advisor and chairman of GTI’s US-Taiwan Task Force, stated: “[Resolution] 2758 relates solely to the occupancy of the China seat at the United Nations. Nothing more.”

Moreover, the resolution made no disposition on the status of Taiwan—much less recognize it as a part of China. Again, a fact of the matter is that the adopted Albanian Resolution did not even mention Taiwan. Indeed, some countries tried to suggest that the Assembly take on this issue during the debate over the resolution but it was ultimately not addressed. [3] Till this day, these conflicting positions have never been reconciled despite Beijing’s distortions and even though senior leaders in Beijing knew full well of this at the time. Four days before the resolution was adopted, Henry Kissinger, who was then serving as the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, met with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (周恩來). According to a memorandum of the conversation with Kissinger and Zhou on October 21, 1971, Zhou recognized this issue:

The question is that in the other resolution [Albanian Resolution] it calls for the restoration of all lawful rights of China in the United Nations, including its seat in the UN.

In that resolution it is not possible to put in a clause concerning the status of Taiwan, and if it is passed, the status of Taiwan is not yet decided.

These outstanding issues were largely sidestepped for four decades until they came to a head in 2007, when then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared: “In that resolution [Resolution 2758], the General Assembly decided ‘to recognize [that] the representatives of the People’s Republic of China are the only legitimate representatives of China to the United Nations. In accordance with that resolution, the United Nations considers Taiwan for all purposes [emp. added] to be an integral part of the People’s Republic of China.’” This overly broad interpretation, however, runs counter to both the original text of the resolution and the considerations of actual debate over the resolution, as well as the fact that the PRC never exercised sovereignty over Taiwan.

The rationale with any modicum of validity for this interpretation is if one believed that the Republic of China (ROC) somehow ceased to exist in 1949—this is Beijing’s position. This flies in the face of the facts and has not been the position of the United States and many other countries. The fact of the matter is that the ROC did not cease to exist in 1949 or 1971 (for an excellent explanation of this logic, see Richard Bush’s article “Thoughts on the Republic of China and its Significance”). While Taiwan was still under a one-party dictatorship in 1971, there may be more basis to assume that “representatives of Chiang Kai-shek” could apply to any successive leader of the ROC; after Taiwan evolved into a full-fledged democracy with direct presidential elections, any elected representative of Taiwan could not conceivably be described as a representative of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石). The myth that ROC does not exist is a political construct—not a legal one—and obscures the objective reality that not only is there a vibrant democracy in Taiwan, but there are two mutually non-subordinate governments across the Taiwan Strait then and now.

In August of this year, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) laid out his government’s argument plainly: “The resolution contains no mention of a Chinese claim of sovereignty over Taiwan, nor does it authorize the PRC to represent Taiwan in the UN system. […] By falsely equating the language of the resolution with Beijing’s ‘one China principle,’ the PRC is arbitrability imposing its political views on the UN.”

The PRC’s continued misrepresentation of Resolution 2758 are reflected in countless official statements about how Taiwan is neither eligible to become a member of the United Nations, nor be able to meaningfully participate in any of its affiliated organizations without Beijing’s acquiescence. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) stated: “We fully believe that the UN and its members will continue to understand and support the just cause of the Chinese government and people to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity, oppose secession and achieve national reunification [sic].” Furthermore, according to Zhao, “the UN and its vast membership recognize the fact that there is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory,” and other countries “respect China’s exercise of sovereignty over the island.” These statements misrepresent the Resolution, as there was no disposition on the matter of sovereignty.

It is within this context that the significance of Congressman Gerry Connolly’s (D-VA) introduction of the “Taiwan International Solidarity Act” in April 2021 snaps into view:

(10) United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758 (XXVI) established the representatives of the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations. The resolution did not address the issue of representation of Taiwan and its people in the United Nations or any related organizations, nor did the resolution take a position on the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan or include any statement pertaining to Taiwan’s sovereignty.

(11) The United States opposes any initiative that seeks to change Taiwan’s status without the consent of the people.

Further underscoring Beijing’s persistent distortion and misuse of UN 2758, Ma Xiaoguang (馬曉光)—the spokesman for the PRC State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO)—stated in response to the introduction of the Act: “The resolution fully embodies the one-China principle upheld by the UN […] it completely settled China’s representation in the UN ‘politically, legally and procedurally.’” While implicit in the positions taken by the United States but not affirmatively stated since 2007, consistent with the language of the Act and in practice by successive administrations, Ambassador Kelly Craft, who served as the US ambassador to the UN under the Trump Administration, stated it clearly: “Obviously we really are pushing for them [Taiwan] to be back into the U.N., or have a role in the U.N. health assembly.”

Taiwan’s continued exclusion reflects the constant tension between the principle and practice of the United Nations. Because the Assembly could not agree on a broad scope for its decision on the Resolution, the final action only disposed of the narrow question of who held China’s seat on the Security Council and representation in the international body. By virtue of the fact of Foreign Minister Wu’s argument, it is not contesting Beijing’s seat in the United Nations. And as then US-Ambassador to the United States George Bush stated during the 1971 proceedings on the US resolution that “reflect[s] […] incontestable reality” that two mutually non-subordinate entities exist.

After half a century, the issue remains, at best, unsettled. As stated presciently by the delegation of El Salvador, which opposed the adoption of the Resolution: “The people of Taiwan will have to emerge from the impasse they find themselves in and say what they want to do with their island.” [4]

The main point: Beijing maintains that UN Resolution 2758, which in 1971 shifted China’s UN seat from the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek to the PRC, also recognized Beijing’s “One-China Principle” and that Taiwan is a part of the PRC. This is false reading of the text of the resolution and considerations of the Assembly debate, which did not recognize Taiwan as falling under PRC sovereignty.

[1] Marc J. Cohen and Emma Teng, eds., Let Taiwan Be Taiwan (Washington, D.C.: Center for Taiwan International Relations, 1990), 124.

[2] Ibid., 121.

[3] Ibid., 121.

[4] Ibid., 158.