Senior US Officials Push Back against the PRC “Misusing” UNGA Resolution 2758

Senior US Officials Push Back against the PRC “Misusing” UNGA Resolution 2758

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Senior US Officials Push Back against the PRC “Misusing” UNGA Resolution 2758

The status of Taiwan and its lawful representation on the world stage have long been points of political contention and international dispute. Further complicating the matter, all parties to the dispute hold different interpretations. At best, the issue remains “unsettled” as a matter of international law—a position that the United States has consistently taken since the end of World War II. [1] In the absence of any holding international disposition on the question of Taiwan’s status and coupled with the island’s democratization beginning in the 1980s, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has exploited the existing legal ambiguity by initiating a political campaign to rewrite Taiwan’s status at the United Nations and legalize its “One-China Principle.” 

Through willful mischaracterization of UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 by conflating that with Beijing’s own position that “[t]here is but one China in the world, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, and the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China,” the PRC has been engaged in a political warfare campaign to legalize its “One-China Principle” in the international system. While the United States maintains an agnostic stance on sovereignty over Taiwan, in the face of the PRC’s systemic challenge to the rules-based international order and coercive activities directed at squeezing Taiwan’s international space, senior US State Department officials have begun to push back against Beijing’s distortion and misuse of UNGA Resolution 2758. 

UN Resolution 2758: A Brief History

On October 25, 1971, 73 members of the international body participated in a vote over three draft resolutions to consider the matter of China’s seats in the United Nations and on the UN Security Council. Ultimately, the UNGA adopted the “Albanian Resolution,” “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.”

While UNGA Resolution 2758 settled the question of who would occupy 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 UNGA debate underscores clearly that the resolution, as adopted, disposed of neither the critical questions of Taiwanese self-determination nor the status of Taiwan—much less recognized it as a part of China, as Beijing now wants the world to believe through its “One-China Principle.” 

Since its adoption, however, the PRC has used UNGA Resolution 2758 as a fictitious legal measure to bar Taiwan, without Beijing’s consent, from meaningful participation—both its government and its people—in the UN system. 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.”

Yet, senior leaders in Beijing knew full well at the time of its adoption that UNGA Resolution 2758 did no such thing. According to a memorandum of the conversation between Henry Kissinger, who was then serving as the assistant to the president for National Security Affairs, with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (周恩來) on October 21, 1971, Zhou recognized the issue of the non-disposition of the Taiwan issue in the Albanian Resolution:

“The question is that in the other resolution [the Albanian Resolution] it calls for the restoration of all lawful rights to 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… Of course, countries who support the Albanian Resolution haven’t thought of this side of the question… [W]hat we are worried about is that if our legitimate rights in the United Nations are restored, while the status of Taiwan is left hanging in the air, we will have to consider this matter.” [2]

Pushing Back Against PRC Distortion of UNGA Resolution 2758

More than 50 years after the passage of UNGA Resolution 2758, the issue of Taiwan’s legal status remains “hanging in the air” and “unsettled” as a matter of international law. There has neither been an internationally accepted common definition nor a valid legal instrument for that disposition. 

In effect, the issue of Taiwan’s status was conveniently sidestepped for decades within the UN system. However, this first came to a public and controversial head in 2007 when then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon mistakenly declared: “[i]n accordance with that resolution [2758], the United Nations considers Taiwan for all purposes to be an integral part of the People’s Republic of China.” [3] This overly broad interpretation runs counter to both the original text of the resolution and the considerations of actual debate over the resolution—as well as the stubborn fact that the PRC never exercised sovereignty over Taiwan.

The startling declaration by the senior UN leader took the United States by surprise—in part perhaps because it had revealed the growth of the PRC’s political clout in the UN system and early signs of the United Nations drifting toward Beijing through its misinformed adoption of the PRC’s misleading interpretation of Taiwan’s legal status. This interpretation was also mysteriously reflected in UN-Habitat’s document on standards. The gross mischaracterizations of Taiwan’s status forced the US Secretary of State to instruct the US Permanent Representative to the UN Secretariat to démarche the UN Secretariat to clarify the United States’ position on the matter.

Although the United States’ pushback in 2007 was notable for its break from past practices, it did not stop Beijing from exercising its growing political clout in the United Nations to shape the outcome it preferred. As a German Marshall Fund study meticulously documented, the PRC continued “to force its views on nomenclature relating to Taiwan within the UN. This includes withholding UN accreditation from NGOs and civil society groups that do not refer to Taiwan as a part of the PRC in their organizational materials or on their websites [and] the PRC and its representatives have altered historic UN documents to change references of ‘Taiwan’ to ‘Taiwan, Province of China.’”  

To be sure, the démarche and ensuing public statement are vital for setting the record straight, but since then the US government’s attention to this matter has suffered from benign neglect at best and indifference at worst. Only more recently has the US government recognized the growing challenge and begun to push back against the PRC’s distortion of UNGA Resolution 2758. This resumed in earnest with the Trump Administration and was, to its credit, carried forward by the Biden Administration, as evidenced by a series of congressional testimonies and public statements made recently by senior officials from the US State Department. 

In the face of the PRC’s systematic misuse and distortion of UN Resolution 2758, during a Congressional testimony on US policy towards Taiwan on April 30, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink stated:

“We do believe that China’s misusing—UNGA resolution 2758. They try to somehow say…that the UN adopted China’s so-called “One-China Principle.” And our position is categorically: 2758 didn’t constitute a UN institutional position on the ultimate political status of Taiwan; has no bearing on countries’ sovereign decisions about their relationships with Taiwan; and it doesn’t preclude Taiwan’s meaningful participation in UN bodies.”

The State Department’s China coordinator and deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Mark Lambert, also called on allies and like-minded partners to collectively push back against the PRC’s mischaracterization of UN Resolution 2758, which Beijing has deliberately misused to bar Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the UN system.


In the absence of any holding international disposition regarding the question of Taiwan’s legal status, the United States’ position to only “acknowledge” the Chinese position that Taiwan is a part of China and to not take a position on sovereignty over Taiwan have only contributed to the ambiguity. The PRC has exploited this legal gray area and has been actively engaged in a political warfare campaign to rewrite Taiwan’s status at the United Nations and legalize its “One-China Principle” by conflating it with UNGA Resolution 2758 while the United States sat on the sidelines and watched, until now. 

According to a recent study conducted by Jacques Delisle and Bonnie Glaser, the dangers of accepting the PRC’s imposition of its “One-China Principle” in the UN system are as such:  

If Beijing wins acceptance of its position, it could more credibly claim that the use of force or coercion to achieve unification of Taiwan would be lawful. The PRC could also more plausibly argue that some—but not all—measures by the United States and others to prevent or deter such an outcome would be unlawful. Acceptance of the PRC’s views on Resolution 2758 also would weaken the UN’s integrity and increase the challenges facing the rules-based international order.

It is in this context that State Department official Mark Lambert’s recent warning and call to action to allies and like-minded partners snaps into clear view:

“The two immediate issues are: press for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in bodies where sovereignty is not prerequisite, and the two obvious ones are in Geneva at the World Health Assembly and in Montréal at ICAO. But I think going beyond that, starting a dialogue about just how important Taiwan is to science and technology, to [the] global economy, and what is at stake here. […] We need to stay focused and we can’t give up. The stakes are pretty high.”

During the 1971 proceedings concerning China’s seat in the United Nations, then-US Ambassador to the United Nations George Bush filed an explanatory memorandum that the existence of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China was an “incontestable reality.” Irrespective of which side the United States has diplomatic relations with (Washington had diplomatic relations then with the ROC), that objective reality remains valid today—accepting the PRC’s mischaracterization of UNGA Resolution 2758 as endorsing its “One-China Principle” would mark a change in the “status quo”—and US policy must actively and consistently push back against that distortion.

The main point:  In the years since UNGA Resolution 2578 was adopted, Beijing has exploited legal ambiguity surrounding Taiwan’s status in order to conflate a misinterpretation of the Resolution with its own “One-China Principle.” In order to resist the PRC’s campaign to rewrite history, the United States needs to continue taking an active role in contesting these claims and assert that accepting the PRC’s conflation of the two is a change in the status quo.

The author would like to thank Ya-Hui Chiu Summer Fellow Jonathan Harman for his research assistance.

[1] L/EA Robert I. Starr to KA/ROC Mr. Charles T. Sylvester, July 13, 1971, Legal Status of Taiwan, L:L/EA:RIStarr:cdj:7/13/71 ex 28900.

[2] US Department of State Office of the Historian, “41. Memorandum of Conversation, Beijing, October 21, 1971, 4:42-7:17 p.m.”

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