Taipei’s lobbying to include the 24-million democratic island nation of Taiwan in the upcoming UN General Assembly this month in New York will most likely upset China. With the continuing support for Taiwan’s “meaningful participation in the UN system” and other international organizations (IOs), the United States’ engagement in Taiwan Strait relations may also take another turning point in the Sino-American rivalry and the Indo-Pacific defense posture.
With the fresh memory of the infamous slogan of “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow,” the United States and the global community are looking anxiously at the volatile Taiwan issue. China’s relentless military intrusions into the island’s airspace with continuing naval exercises in and around the Taiwan Strait are worrisome for not only the immediate stakeholders but also the whole international community.
President Xi Jinping’s stated mission of “national reunification,” which would culminate in Taiwan’s “return” to the Chinese “motherland,” has always been the undercurrent of these simmering tensions. Beijing’s comprehensive plans for Taiwan encompass not only the threat of a possible armed attack but also a long-term consistent campaign of isolating the democratic island nation in the international space.
Countering the Beijing strategy to block the Taipei government’s meaningful participation in IOs, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated its diplomatic campaign for inclusion in the United Nations ahead of the UN General Assembly. Taiwan has been excluded from the UN for more than fifty years.
Is Taiwan a “Renegade Province” of China?
As a result of China’s over two decades of civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, Mao Zedong’s communist forces seized power over the mainland, announcing the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949. The nationalist forces of the defeated Republic of China (ROC) led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek were forced to evacuate to the island of Taiwan.
Since then, both governments—the one in Beijing and the one in Taipei—have considered themselves the sole legitimate authority of all of China. Discrediting Taipei’s democratic ROC government, Beijing calls Taiwan a “renegade province.” It should, however, be noted that the current Taiwanese authorities are a continuation of the government of the ROC, which was established long before the intermittent civil war periods between 1927 and 1949. Indeed in 1911, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of the Nation” and the founder of the Chinese Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang, known by the acronym KMT), became the first president of the ROC after the collapse of millennia-old China’s dynastic empire. If it were not for the victory of Mao and his comrades, the world would today perceive the Chinese communists merely as rebels.
Despite losing the civil war in 1949, the ROC (Taiwan) kept the “China seat” in the United Nations for the next two decades. It was not until 1971 that the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 2758 in which it dismissed the representatives of the ROC from the seat, inviting the representation of the communist PRC in their place.
China’s Effective Disinformation Campaign
Whenever the issue of the return of the Taiwan representation to the UN is brought up, China triumphantly pulls the 1971 resolution out from its sleeve. According to Beijing, the UN resolution confirmed—once and for all—that “Taiwan is part of the PRC.” In fact, however, the claims of the Chinese authorities are based on manipulation.
UN Resolution 2758 recognizes the PRC as the “only lawful representative of China.” However, it does not resolve the statehood of Taiwan. It neither mentions the “Republic of China” nor “Taiwan.” It only states the removal of “Chiang Kai-shek’s representation” from the United Nations. In other words, the carefully drafted resolution does not authorize Beijing to represent Taiwan in the UN system and it does not state that Taiwan is part of the PRC.
Chiang Kai-shek—the head of the Nationalist government in China (1928–1949) and later in Taiwan (1949–1975)—has long been gone. Since then, Taiwan has become a flourishing democracy in the Indo-Pacific. Today, the presidential, parliamentary, and local elections are held in Taiwan. The thriving Taiwan’s democracy—ranked best in all of Asia—is among the top ten strongest “full democracies” in the world.
Taiwan also has a powerful partner: the United States. Even though Washington ceased its official relations with Taipei in order to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1979, U.S. presidential administrations have maintained unofficial relations with Taiwan and guaranteed its security as confirmed by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, three U.S.-China joint communiqués of 1972, 1978, and 1982, and the Six Assurances. Nevertheless, with its stated “policy of ambiguity,” the United States deliberately avoids making legally binding declarations as to whether it would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese attack.
In all this, is membership in the UN really necessary for Taiwan? Or, perhaps, are Taiwan’s efforts to return to the UN an unjustified provocation against Beijing in the midst of Sino-American rivalry and increasing military posture in the Indo-Pacific?
Not to Provoke the Chinese Dragon?
The serious consequences of Taiwan’s exclusion from the UN system and other IOs are best evidenced by the events of the coronavirus pandemic. Due to the lack of Taiwan’s presence in the World Health Organization (WHO), for example, Taiwanese experts could not share their experiences from the previous fight against the SARS epidemic in 2003 on the WHO forum. Moreover, because of the continued pressure from China, Taiwan experienced a wide range of problems with the purchase of vaccines.
On the other hand, Taiwan was ranked as one of the countries that performed best in controlling Covid-19 infections. In fact, it was Taiwan that first informed the WHO about the mysterious transmissions of the new virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. Thus, it will not be an exaggeration to claim that Taiwan needs the UN, and the international community needs Taiwan. For the United States and the rest of the world, Taiwan’s participation is “not a political issue, but a pragmatic one.”
For years, Taipei has been trying to obtain membership or at least observer status in the UN family of organizations. However, despite the wide support of the United States, Japan, and the European Union countries, China has kept the door closed for Taiwan in many IOs.
China’s World Order, Replacing the United States
The rising China has been consistently and actively strengthening its position in the UN system and other IOs. Beijing has increasingly been placing Chinese nationals in IOs as well as influencing other member states and supporting their nationals if they were favorably aligned with Beijing’s strategic goals. For example, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus—the current director general of WHO and former minister of foreign affairs and minister of health of Ethiopia—was suspected of following China’s policy during the coronavirus pandemic.
China’s influence kept growing in IOs as the United States has until recently been neglecting the UN agencies. After five years of absence, for example, the Biden White House rejoined the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in July 2023. Meanwhile, China had space to replace the United States not just with its pressure and influence, but also the financial leverage coming from membership dues. In the absence of the United States, China became the largest contributor to UNESCO’s annual budget.
By taking control of UN funds and modifying the language of international documents as Beijing sees fit, China has slowly been changing the international order from within. The aim of these actions is to impose on the world the vision of the Communist Party of China, which depreciates the importance of universal human rights—e.g., equality among all as well as the freedom of speech and religion.
Everything considered, the global support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the UN is far more than just a matter of the international presence of the shining democratic island nation. It is about counterbalancing China’s growing influences in IOs and countervailing threats to democratic values and freedom worldwide.
Dr. Patrick Mendis, a former American diplomat and military professor in the NATO and Indo-Pacific Commands during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, is a distinguished visiting professor of transatlantic relations at the University of Warsaw in Poland.
Dr. Antonina Luszczykiewicz, a former Fulbright senior scholar at Indiana University in Bloomington, is an assistant professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.