The UN General Assembly is taking place this week in New York. And once again, the only voice that Taiwan will have at this global diplomatic gathering is through their handful of diplomatic allies in attendance. But, for perhaps the first time in living memory, the political climate appears well set for Taiwan to begin to increase their involvement in the UN.
Since 1971, when the People’s Republic of China was admitted at the expense of the Republic of China, Taiwan’s population has had no representation at the world’s premier diplomatic table. Today, that means almost 24 million people living in a flourishing democratic state are unrepresented there. It is a situation which is completely at odds with the UN’s stated principle of universality.
At the same time, a handful of autocrats at the top of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) enjoy a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and the power of veto over all UN decisions at the same time as they oppress the 1.4 billion people living in their country and throw their weight about on the global political stage.
How China is at odds with all UN objectives, and Taiwan is not
The UN has come under sustained criticism in recent years for its lack of action in the parts of the world where it is most needed. Much of this inactivity is down to the fact that the two main forces for destabilization in the world, China and Russia, both hold UN vetoes and regularly use them to block any move which might see the UN intervene in conflicts or human rights issues anywhere. Their motivation is obvious. It is to stop any precedents being set that could then be used against them for their hostile foreign policies and myriad of human rights abuses.
The UN Charter has four main objectives. Those are to maintain international peace and security, to build friendly relations between member states, to achieve cooperation in solving global economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian problems, and to help member states work together towards these common goals.
It is highly debatable whether anyone could put together a convincing argument that Communist China is working towards any of those objectives. Constructing a case for China breaking them is rather more straightforward.
There is also an element of realpolitik at play too. After all, in 1971 China offered a huge marketplace for western goods and companies. This incentivized other countries to turn the other cheek and keep on doing business with them.
To begin with, the defense of this was that if China was allowed to develop economically then political reform would inevitably follow. That is now demonstrably not the case. Indeed in recent years under the leadership of Xi Jinping, quite the opposite is happening, and China has reverted to the authoritarian Communist state of old, complete with a widespread crackdown on freedoms, large-scale oppression against religious, political, and ethnic minorities, and the establishment of Xi as Leader for life.
Despite this, China still sits smugly at the top table, while Taiwan is locked out altogether.
UN hypocritical discrimination against Taiwan
The Taiwanese passport is currently ranked as the 32nd most useful passport in the world. Holders can access 134 countries without a visa, more than twice as many as Chinese passport holders can (60 if you are wondering). Yet, at China’s behest, the Taiwanese passport is not recognized by the UN at all. This means that Taiwanese citizens, professionals, academics, and subject-experts cannot even visit the UN buildings, never mind offer their expertise and guidance in UN policy-making.
The UN will not even admit Taiwanese journalists to report on UN proceedings, a situation which Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has described as “unacceptable discrimination.”
The UN’s stance on Taiwan is a ludicrous and hypocritical one. But despite all of the slap-downs they have received, the Taiwanese Government has continued to push for greater involvement with dignity and restraint. And they have also chosen to implement many UN goals and policy objectives unilaterally.
For example, in an attempt to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Taiwan last year published its own Voluntary National Review illustrating its efforts to achieve goals such as eradicating hunger, alleviating poverty, increasing literacy, and reducing child mortality. Taiwan is already above the basic UN requirements for all these measures, yet continues to do more, despite being under no formal requirement to do so.
Taiwan also provides a huge amount of international development assistance and aid through its International Cooperation and Development Fund (Taiwan ICDF). There is a focus on Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies with some of this funding, but the majority still goes to other countries in need around the world and Taiwan even works on projects with bodies like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
This approach, combined with the international community's growing realization that far from liberalizing and democratizing, the CCP now poses a major threat to global stability, has put Taiwan in a strong position to push for greater involvement in the UN. Indeed, the lay of the land now is such that this is perhaps the best chance Taiwan has of growing its position on the world stage since leaving the UN in 1971.
Taiwan has successfully positioned itself as the antithesis of Communist China. It is a free and democratic state committed to the core UN objectives and seeking to act in the best interests of the whole world rather than the singular interests of the handful of leaders at the top of its ruling party. It has backed this up with concrete, unilateral actions on the international stage. But there is still more to be done.
Can Taiwan take the next step?
Now is the time to push for more recognition in return. And the Taiwanese Government seems to be trying to do that. It is too soon to push for a full seat at the UN table. Such a request would inevitably be denied at the moment. But at this week’s General Assembly, they will push for Taiwanese journalists to be admitted on basic human rights grounds. And they will work with diplomatic allies, civil society groups, think tanks, the media, and Taiwanese expats to push for greater involvement in various UN bodies, such as the World Health Organization.
This is a good start, but these efforts must continue all year round, not just when the General Assembly convenes. Taiwan must seek to leverage its positive relations with democratic states around the world to have them work, either publicly or privately, for greater Taiwanese involvement.
A recent article by former Canadian Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific) David Kilgour is a clear illustration that these countries do view Taiwan as a natural partner. As China becomes a growing global threat, Taiwan needs to be pushing for them to put their money where their mouth is and stand up for Taiwan a bit more on the international stage.
And Taiwan also needs to place greater emphasis on highlighting the various misdemeanors of Communist China and how it is abusing its position at the UN. The CCP’s malign activities are now so common as to barely warrant a mention in many media outlets. That has to change, and it is in Taiwan’s interests for the world to see China in its true colors as often as possible.
The case was summed up neatly in a recent New York Times article by Thomas Gold, a professor of sociology at the University of California. He told the paper, “[Taiwan] really needs to work on public diplomacy to get the word out on what it has accomplished domestically and its contributions to international programs and disaster relief… Even if the U.N. pays it no mind, for ethical and public diplomacy reasons Taiwan should demonstrate its commitment to worthy causes and its actions in support of them.”
He is absolutely right. And the effectiveness of such an approach will be magnified if, at the same time, the opposite is true of China.
If Taiwan can successfully execute a campaign of this nature, it will eventually reap the rewards. These might be a direct result of Taiwan’s own good works, or it might be as a result of China’s malevolent actions. But sooner or later, Taiwan’s time at the UN and as an active participant in the international community will arrive.