Can Taiwan Find Its Voice?

Taipei's quest for greater participation in the international community has reached a critical moment.

Taiwan’s ambiguous international status has long complicated its ability to participate in international organizations in which the rest of the world shares information and makes critical global decisions. The island’s 23 million people cannot reap the benefits that derive from full membership in most international organizations, and are unable to fully contribute their well-developed knowledge, skills, and resources to issues that directly affect them, such as civil aviation regulations, natural disaster response and recovery, and regional economic cooperation. Being barred from international economic organizations erodes Taiwan’s international competitiveness and hinders economic liberalization of the domestic economy as well as its further regional integration.

Since the 1990s, the issue of international organization membership has been an important component of Taipei’s foreign policy and has broad domestic support. In 2007 and 2008, opinion polls commissioned by the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) found that 77.3 percent of respondents favored Taiwan’s joining the UN and some of its affiliated organizations.

The greatest obstacle to an expanded role for Taiwan in international organizations emanates from Beijing, which vigorously opposes Taiwan’s participation in most international activities. Mainland China is fearful that, as the island’s global participation independent of the mainland continues to grow, Taiwan could use its increased space to push for de jure independence. This fear exists despite the fact that Beijing’s considerable economic and political influence in the world makes it extremely unlikely that Taipei could leverage its presence in international organizations to achieve independence. The mainland’s anxiety is rooted in part in its experience with former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian, who forcefully sought to expand Taiwan’s international space. Beijing viewed Chen’s policies as part of his pro-independence agenda, which posed a threat to its claim of sovereignty over Taiwan as well as the CCP’s domestic legitimacy.

The mainland has two preconditions for handling Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and activities: First, it insists that any arrangements not create a situation of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan” in the international community. Second, it insists that Taipei consult with Beijing, which essentially means that Taiwan must win mainland China’s support for its entry into international organizations on a case-by-case basis.

Since Ma Ying-jeou assumed the presidency in Taiwan in May 2008, cross-strait ties have stabilized and improved significantly. Nineteen agreements have been signed on a range of economic and practical areas. Cross-strait flights now number 670 per week and 2.5 million mainland Chinese tourists visited Taiwan in 2012. Despite the shift from high tension to pragmatic cooperation across the Taiwan Strait, however, Beijing has continued to block Taiwan’s bid to join the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Moreover, the mainland continues to put pressure on international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) to compel many NGOs from Taiwan to change the nomenclature they use to participate, or be barred from involvement.

In June 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly told KMT Honorary Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung that the issue of Taiwan’s international space could be dealt with through talks between both sides on an equal footing. Yet no breakthrough has been made despite Taipei’s insistence that this high priority issue be addressed.

Despite pressure and opposition from Beijing, Taipei has made strides in developing an extensive network of “quasi-diplomatic” and informal relations with many governments, gaining membership in a number of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and NGOs and increasing its participation in others. Today, Taiwan has full membership in 38 IGOs, observership in 15, and other forms of official participation (i.e. associate member, cooperating non-member, etc.) in another 4. The United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, and many countries in the European Union support a larger role for Taiwan in the international community. Since 2009, Taiwan has been invited to attend the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO). Nevertheless, Taipei’s ability to engage in various WHO working groups and technical activities remains limited. Taiwan’s health experts are frequently denied permission to participate in WHO technical meetings. Offers by Taiwan to contribute to WHO-organized health promotion programs around the world have frequently been rejected.

In one of the most recent examples of progress in expanding its international space, Taiwan participated in the 38th International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly in September 2013 as an invited guest of the ICAO Council president, which fell short of its hope to become an observer. It remains to be seen whether the island’s participation will be sustained and whether its Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) will be able to have timely access to the ICAO’s database and annexes which contain critical information on flight safety and environmental protection.