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.
Taiwan has also recently made some small but significant gains in economic cooperation with its neighbors. Taipei signed two quasi-free trade agreements (FTAs) with New Zealand and Singapore in July and September of 2013, respectively. The purposefully-named Agreement between New Zealand and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu on Economic Cooperation (ANZTEC) was the first quasi-FTA Taiwan signed, and thus carries great political significance despite New Zealand’s low level of trade with Taipei. The Agreement between Singapore and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu on Economic Partnership (ASTEP) carries even more weight, as trade with Singapore constitutes 4.9 percent of Taiwan’s total bilateral trade. Despite the conclusion of these two important agreements, intervention from Mainland China and questions surrounding Taiwan’s international personality continue to restrict Taipei’s ability to sign FTAs with other countries.
If Taiwan is to make further progress in its quest for greater international participation, it must rely in part on its friends and allies. Within the bounds of the “one China” policy, the U.S. has played a key role in facilitating Taiwan’s participation in the international community. U.S. strategy seeks to build a political consensus among relevant parties, including Mainland China, to allow Taiwan to join IGOs in an appropriate capacity on a case-by-case basis and participate meaningfully in a wide range of international activities.
Yet much more needs to be done to enable Taiwan’s voice to be heard in international organizations. Actions by Taiwan, Mainland China, and the United States can help to expand Taiwan’s role in the international arena in ways that promote better ties among the three parties. As the player with the most at stake, Taipei should undertake a series of initiatives. First, Taiwan should emphasize with Beijing the linkage between Taiwan’s ability to participate actively in international organizations and the attitude of the people of Taiwan toward the Mainland’s intentions toward the island. Simply put, Beijing’s constant squeezing of Taiwan’s international space causes Taiwan’s citizens to resent the Mainland and believe that it harbors hostile ambitions.
Second, Taipei should continue to seek the support of other countries in expanding its international space. Though Washington has been an invaluable ally, broader and more active support is needed from countries that are on the decisionmaking bodies of IGOS in which Taiwan seeks to expand its participation. Third, Taiwan should consider focusing its energies on joining regional organizations along with its efforts to join UN-affiliated organizations. It should seek to join organizations that are important and relevant for its citizens, as well as those in which Taiwan can make a significant contribution. Examples include seeking membership in the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT) and observership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Fourth, Taiwan should attach priority to making the necessary economic adjustments that will enable it to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Fifth, Taiwan should continue pursuing bilateral trade agreements with other countries, targeting TPP stakeholder countries, which may facilitate a path to joining the TPP in the future.
For its part, Mainland China should devise policies to implement its pledge that a “reasonable arrangement” be reached on Taiwan’s international space. While Beijing can be expected to oppose Taiwan’s membership in organizations requiring statehood for members, Mainland China should publicly state that it supports observer status for Taiwan in any organization relevant to Taiwan. In addition, Beijing should signal unqualified support and assistance for Taiwan to participate in the regional economic integration process. Moreover, Beijing should officially notify the WHO that the 2005 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is no longer the basis for Taiwan’s participation in WHO organizations and events, and eschew similar MOUs to restrict Taiwan’s potential participation in other organizations.
As for the United States, in consultation with Taiwan, the PRC and other countries, Washington should seek to revise or amend the charters or rules of membership for key international organizations so that Taiwan can join in some capacity without raising sovereignty matters. Legal obstacles to Taiwan’s expanded participation can thereby be removed and opportunities can be created for non-sovereign entities to become observers or gain some official standing. This would not fully resolve the issue of Taiwan’s international space, but it would be a helpful interim measure that would enable Taiwan to increase its participation while its international status remains ambiguous.