Taiwan taps on United Nations’ door, 50 years after departure
Some countries seem more willing to engage Taiwan amid concern over Beijing’s power, but that does not mean the island is about to come in from the cold.
Taipei, Taiwan – Fifty years ago on October 25, the Republic of China (ROC) – the official name for Taiwan – was formally expelled from the United Nations by a vote of the General Assembly and replaced by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had taken power in Beijing at the end of the country’s civil war in 1949.
The ROC government had fled to the island of Taiwan with millions of refugees as the communists took power but continued to hold the seat of “China” at the UN and was a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power. Despite being exiled, officials in Taipei had the support of the US thanks to fears in the West that communism might sweep through Asia.
The ROC had promised to return by the 1970s, but by then it was clear to many UN members its government no longer represented the hundreds of millions of people living across the Taiwan Strait in the now-communist controlled People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The “Resolution on Admitting Peking,” also known as Resolution 2758, called for member states to “restore” the rights of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing as the “only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations.” After years of trying at the behest of Chinese ally Albania, the resolution finally passed in the General Assembly.
Since then, Resolution 2758 has become one of the most defining documents in the modern history of Taiwan.
But while it once concerned UN representation, it has now been broadly interpreted to support China’s claims to Taiwan and isolate the democracy internationally, said Margaret Lewis, a professor at Seton Hall University Law School in the United States whose research focuses on China and Taiwan.
“The PRC government has, as a practical matter, been effective in blocking Taiwan’s participation in UN-affiliated entities, but this is not dictated by Resolution 2758: the resolution is about representation, not participation. Meaningful engagement by Taiwan in UN-affiliated entities is consistent with the letter and spirit of Resolution 2758,” Lewis said.
Today, Taiwan only has 15 diplomatic allies left, whittled down from 22 since the pro-Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016. She was returned to power in a landslide four years later.
Tsai’s presidency has also coincided with Taiwan losing its observer status at UN-affiliated bodies like the World Health Assembly (WHA) – the governing body of the World Health Organization. It has similarly been excluded from the International Civil Aviation Organisation since 2013, due in part to pressure from Beijing to remove any hint that Taiwan might not be a province of China.
Despite this broad interpretation of Resolution 2758, it does not in fact refer explicitly to either “Taiwan” or the “Republic of China.” Instead, it calls for the UN to “expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek,” a reference to the ROC’s paramount leader who ruled in China and then Taiwan from 1928 until his death in 1976.
But personal rule by the Chiang family and Taiwan’s draconian martial law period ended more than 30 years ago. Since its democratic transition in the 1990s, the vast majority of Taiwan’s citizens see themselves as “Taiwanese” – members of a de facto independent state and not Chinese exiles, according to regular polling.
A key difference between Taiwan now and when it lost its seat is that in practice it is also no longer claiming to represent territorial China, said Julian Ku, a professor in constitutional law at Hofstra University in New York.
“That’s the big difference that’s from the world in 1971 when the ROC did claim it was going to be the legitimate government for all of China,” said Ku. “It’s hard to remember the world in that context – but that’s also why there was very little sympathy for ROC at that time because it seemed like they were making implausibly ridiculous claims and excluding one billion people from the UN.”
But the exiled ROC government increasingly found itself at odds with a new world order of the 1960s, and the emerging decolonisation movement and more countries began to recognise the People’s Republic of China.
“As years went on more and more countries were sympathetic (to Beijing) and there were different reasons for this. The very obvious political reality was the PRC held the majority of China and the US was the only power that was pushing everyone to stick with the ROC. After a while it was fighting a losing battle,” said James Lin, an assistant professor of international studies and expert on Taiwan at the University of Washington.
“In the 1950s, non-aligned countries and more neutral third parties immediately recognised the PRC. Some US allies held out for a little bit. The big change was France in 1964 and many of its former colonies in Africa, particularly West Africa, followed the French lead. They were in the ‘no’ category in 1963 and then in ‘yes’ category 1965.”
The writing was on the wall for the ROC when in July 1971 then-US Secretary Henry Kissinger secretly visited Beijing, paving the way for former US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit the following year.
By October 1971, the ROC was out of the UN and eight years later the US broke off diplomatic relations.
Modern-day Taiwan’s quest to now return to the UN, even as an observer, has few contemporary parallels. The UN has struggled with recognition of exiled governments, going as far as to maintain recognition of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime into the 1990s due to Cold War politics. These days it is grappling with whether to recognise the exiled government of Myanmar or the Taliban in Afghanistan.
One of the closest parallels to Taiwan – the now-recognised state of Palestine – had one advantage in that it was allowed to choose its own name and constitution. Taiwan is currently unable to apply under a name like the “Republic of Taiwan” or the “Republic of Formosa” because of its complex relationship with Beijing.
Under the so-called “1992 Consensus” Beijing and Taipei came to a kind of compromise that held there is one China but does not define who governs it. If Taiwan were to finally free itself from the legacy of the ROC government, it would be considered a breakaway province by Beijing and set off a military conflict. For this reason, polling shows most Taiwanese are happy with the uneasy status quo where they are independent in all but name.
The UN leadership, for its part, seems to have taken Beijing’s side for now.
In 2007, then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that Resolution 2758 still applied to contemporary Taiwan despite its vague wording and references to Chiang.
He told member states at that time it was “not legally possible to receive the purported application for membership” from Taiwan’s representatives.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have provided a glimmer of hope for Taiwan, at least in the realm of health-related agencies like the WHA and WHO.
Recognising Taiwan’s success at battling the virus, it received significantly more support this year to return to the WHA as an observer – even winning the endorsement of the powerful G7 nations to have a seat at the table. COVID-19related issues have also led Taiwan to find new allies and cement emerging relationships in places such as Europe, where its presence before 2019 was limited.
Foreign minister Joseph Wu will travel to Europe this week where he is scheduled to visit Slovakia, and the Czech Republic and speak at a forum in Rome. Lithuania and Taiwan are also due to open what amount to de facto embassies in their capitals before the end of the year.
The US approach also appears to be evolving.
Over the weekend the State Department revealed that officials from the US and Taiwan had had a “discussion focused on supporting Taiwan’s ability to participate meaningfully at the UN” including “ways to highlight Taiwan’s ability to contribute to efforts on a wide range of issues”.
China has reacted angrily to countries that have sought to build a closer relationship with Taiwan, and has been stepping up political and military pressure on the island for months – in October mounting a record number of sorties into its air defence identification zone.
At the weekend Beijing again reiterated its interpretation of Resolution 2758 – that it explicitly recognises “one China” and the government in Beijing as the sole representative of the whole of China.
But where an authoritarian ROC once raised eyebrows for claiming to represent China, in some corners of the world the reverse is now true after decades of separation and political change.
For now, however, China’s influence at the UN General Assembly means that the democracy of 23 million people is unlikely to be able to come in from the cold.