SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 59 of 81 « Previous | Next »

Ma Ying-jeou’s Second Term and Taiwan’s International Participation

Three issues are currently at the forefront of thinking about contemporary relations across the Taiwan Strait: international participation for Taiwan; economic engagements enabled by the 2009 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA); and political dialogue leading to a peace accord. While both the mainland and Taiwan agree to continue working on ECFA and thereby enhancing levels of economic cooperation, they do have different views on the other two issues. From the mainland perspective, the most urgent task is not to push Taiwan for political dialogue, rather, it has to face up the continued requests made by Taiwan on its international participation. Beijing is fully aware that this is a highly sensitive and disputed issue and that any “dodging” or mishandling by the mainland might hurt the people of Taiwan and drive Taiwan away from unification.

International participation for Taiwan is an open, ongoing process which involves many issue areas, ranging from Taiwan maintaining diplomatic relations with its formal partners to participation in United Nations activities to Taiwan’s joining global and regional economic organizations and signing bilateral free trade and economic agreements with other countries.[1] To simplify, there are five dimensions to Taiwan’s international participation: (1) cooperation with those countries having formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan; (2) cooperation with countries that do not have formal diplomatic relations with; (3) bidding for UN membership and participation in UN-affiliated organizations or activities; (4) participation in intergovernmental organizations (IGOs); and (5) participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

At the end of March 2012, following Ma Ying-jeou’s election victory for a second term, Taiwan maintained formal diplomatic relations with 23 countries; had memberships in 32 IGOs (the most well known include the WTO, APEC and ADB); and another 22 quasi-memberships.[2] It is also estimated that about 2185 NGOs in Taiwan have kept up regular participation in international NGOs’ events and other international conferences and activities in social, economic, cultural areas.[3]

In Ma’s first term, Taiwan announced a “diplomatic truce” policy in which he decided to stop competition with the mainland for formal diplomatic partners, and he intentionally gave up bidding for formal UN membership. But still, as cross-strait relations continue to improve, Taiwan would reasonably hope to achieve some “breakthrough” in each of the other four dimensions of its international participation, including developing informal relations with other states; obtaining some form of participation in UN-affiliated agencies; participating in more inter-governmental organizations; and expanding and consolidating its substantial participation in non-governmental organizations.

Perhaps Taiwan’s most notable effort to enhance its international position in recent years has been to seek to participate in two specific United Nations organizations: the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Mr. Wu Den-yih raised this question when he met Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang at the BoAo Forum for Asia in April 2012. Taipei argued that participation in these organizations would defend “the rights and interests of its people” and forge “friendships with other nations and develop initiatives that benefit the world at large.”[4] It would also build up new venues for high level leaders across the Strait to meet regularly and exchange their views on international affairs. This last point is not inconsequential or unrealistic. Chinese President Hu Jintao and former KMT Chairman Lien Chan have had several exchanges in APEC meetings. In the WHA, the health ministers of both sides have met, something that is not possible in a bilateral context.

Still, many political figures in Taiwan have complained about the mainland preventing Taiwan from participating in international events. In 2008, shortly after Ma announced his “diplomatic truce” policy, Tsai Ing-wen, then chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), criticized the policy as “narrow minded” and characterized his overall approach to cross-strait relations as “reckless.”[5] She also pointed out the mainland’s bullying behavior and “suppression” of Taiwan. Su Chi, a KMT policy leader, voiced his complaint in a more positive way, pointing out that the mainland should consider the question of Taiwan’s participation in NGOs, especially as this issue is easier to handle than the sovereignty question. Furthermore, respecting Taiwan’s demands here would eventually contribute to the development of cross-strait relations.[6]

Beijing responded positively on those complains but called for more discussions on terms and conditions, implying that a solution cannot give rise to “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.” Beijing has its own concerns and tactics.

First, there is no doubt that the mainland will be firm on its “one China principle,” making no compromise on the sovereignty issue. Nonetheless, Beijing also acknowledged that cross-strait relations went well during Ma’s first term, so it suggested that the two sides should try their best to avoid having direct confrontation on this matter.

Why is Beijing so sensitive and insistent on this “one China principle”? From the mainland’s point of view, the issue of Taiwan’s participation in international activities, especially those under the auspices of the United Nations, was settled after the passage in 1971 of United Nations Resolution 2758, “Restoration of the Lawful Rights of the People’s Republic of China in the United Nations.” Taiwan’s international participation, no matter in what form, has always been considered as a political problem reflecting the legitimate representation of China in the international community.

Also, Beijing learned a lesson in fighting against separatist forces in Taiwan during the Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian periods (1988-2000 and 2000-2008). When Lee Teng-hui became the leader of Taiwan in 1988, he publicly stated that the basic policy of Taiwan was that “there is only one China, not two.” However, beginning in the early 1990s, Lee gradually deviated from the “one China principle” and began to provide support for the separatists. Chen Shui-bian, who succeeded Lee, helped the rapid development of the “Taiwan independence” forces and the spread of the “Taiwan independence” ideology. Their effort in carrying out the activities for “expanding the international space of survival” was considered by mainland China as aimed at creating “two Chinas.”

Fighting against international “separatist forces” has never ended even after Ma won the election in 2008. At the beginning of Ma’s first term, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations released a statement saying, “The United States has long supported meaningful participation for Taiwan in these specialized agencies [of the United Nations], including in the World Health Organization (WHO).”[7] In 2009, 15 UN member countries supported Taiwan’s participation in UN special agencies. From the mainland’s point of view, such statements represent “meddling in Chinese domestic affairs.”

Comparatively speaking, Beijing actually worries more about the probing activities by Taiwan with non-formal partners and some IGOs than it does about such foreign interference. To some extent, Ma’s “diplomatic truce” only sought to prevent the mainland from taking away more small countries from Taiwan. While only 23 countries have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and because the mainland can effectively block Taiwan from membership in UN agencies, Taiwan has established substantial business and commercial offices in more than 120 other countries. Indeed, Taiwan has been very aggressive in seeking to improve the substance of its relationships with many of these countries. Taiwan’s efforts include seeking to elevate representative offices into embassy- or consulate-level offices; to display “national flags” at international conferences and events; and to request high level political honors and courteous receptions during transit. Economically, the mainland also worries that Taiwan has tried to improve its political status through economic engagement with the United States, Japan, the European Union, and Singapore and other ASEAN countries. Taiwan’s international visibility has strengthened its political and economic contacts with other countries. Helping Taiwan improve its international reputation and enhancing its visibility might lead to a bitter result for Beijing: with Taiwan’s gaining of more confidence and international recognition, will Taiwan’s self-identity be strengthened? If so, a weakening of Taiwan’s connection to “one China” would create a strategic dilemma for Beijing.

To express this thought in a different way, the mainland is willing to help Taiwan to “share international honor” under the condition of the one China principle. However, the mainland is aware that Taiwan has developed its own perception of the world and, thus, Beijing needs to be fully alert to Taiwan’s long-term ambition of joining the UN and its agencies. Beijing may help Taiwan become a member or get access to some UN agencies, such as the WHO, for now, and to the IMF and World Bank in the future. But it would also try to deliberately curtail Taiwan’s possibilities to become a normal member of the international community or a full-fledged international actor. That is to say, Beijing is willing to pay more attention to the negative public sentiment on Taiwan about being excluded from international society, but it hopes that helping expand “Taiwan’s international space” would further stabilize the cross strait relations and build up mutual trust for political dialogue – it should not drive Taiwan and the mainland farther apart.

The “Six-Points” proposition to Taiwan, made by Chinese President Hu Jintao on December 31, 2008, clearly states that he understands the issue and general public sentiments in Taiwan. The mainland government is willing to allow “Taiwan's 'reasonable' participation in global organizations.”[8]

Can the two sides work out new deals on international participation in Ma’s second term? Are there mutually acceptable ways that China and Taipei can defuse potential tension over this issue? The underlying issue for the two sides to work out is specific terms or formulas for Taiwan.

Right now, at the IGO level, Taiwan uses four names: Chinese Taipei (Taipei, China or Taiwan, China); Taiwan; ROC; and other names such as “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu.”[9] In the future, Ma’s top preference would be “Republic of China” or “Taiwan,” while his lowest preference would be “Chinese Taipei.”[10] From the mainland’s point of view, there are technical difficulties in working out the right “identities” for Taiwan. ROC and Taiwan are not acceptable; Chinese Taipei or other arrangements might be discussed. For example, Taiwan wants to gain observer status at ICAO and UNFCCC in the near future. Both organizations, however, are UN-associated specialized agencies, and membership is, in principle, based on UN membership.[11] From November 1971, China has been represented within the ICAO by the Government of the PRC. Special arrangements must be made to invite Taiwan to participate. The Charters need to be revised or special arrangements need to be made to allow Taiwan to participate, most likely as an observer.

In the past, the mainland and Taiwan have compromised and worked out some deals regarding Taiwan’s participation in IGOs. For example, the mainland helped Taiwan join the WTO Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) in 2008. In the same year, Taiwan also participated in APEC and the WHA.

In Ma’s second term, it seems that neither side can impose its will on the other, so it is highly unlikely that Taiwan can use the names “ROC” or “Taiwan” to participate international IGOs or NGOs. Although Beijing would not see Taiwan’s observership as a serious threat to the “one China principle,” it does not want to offer too much compromise to Taiwan too soon. The underlying political calculation is that Beijing does not want to lose political control and put itself into an awkward position of having to perform a synchronized swimming routine with Taiwan every time it brings up the international space issue. In this sense, Beijing simply can not get rid of the specter of Taiwan’s permanent separation – even if it is only an informal separation, and not de jure, separation.

It seems that the best approach for Taiwan’s international participation would be tacit cooperation on specific organization(s) first, and then negotiated cooperation on a larger scale participation.

If the two sides work closely, Taiwan may follow the APEC formula (Taiwan joined in 1991 under the name of Chinese Taipei) and work out a deal at the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC). It may follow the WHA model (which it joined under special invitation) and join UNESCO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) and the UN International Maritime Organization (UNIMO). Or, it may follow the WTO model (which it joined under the name of “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu” which was also used by Taiwan to join GATT in 1992) and join more IGOs in the future.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. The Brookings Institution does not have an institutional viewpoint on any policy issue.


[1] Yu Xintian, Taiwan’s Expanding International Space Reconsidered, internet resource: http://cn.chinareviewnews.com/doc/1009/0/1/9/, visited March 20, 2012.

[2] Taiwan is an observing member of 16 IGOs, an associate member of two IGOs (CGPM, 2002, GBIF, 2001), a corresponding member of one IGO (OIML1997), and a cooperating non-member of one IGO (ICCAT1972). See internet resource at: http://www.mofa.gov.tw/Official/Home/InternationalOrg/?opno=e5d5cd5d-fc61-468f-957b-ffa7f7c5dcc3;  visited March 25, 2012.

[3] Wu Rongquan, “ROC International Participation in NGOs: Current Situation and Perspectives,” (吳榮泉: 我國非政府組織國際參與之現況與展望), http://www.taiwanngo.tw/files/15-1000-16913,c104-1.php?Lang=zh-tw; visited May 4, 2012.

[4] Government Information Office, “Participation in International Bodies,” http://www.taiwan.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=44620&ctNode=1922&mp=999, visited March 25, 2012.

[5] Rich Chang, “Tsai warns against Ma’s diplomacy policy,” Taipei Times, August 10, 2008, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2008/08/10/2003419938, visited May 4, 2012.

[6] Zhang Yongtai, “Post Election Issues: Taiwan’s International Space,” (选后议题: 台湾国际空间), Voice of America, January 20, 2012, http://www.voanews.com/chinese/news/20120120-REACTIONS-ON-TAIWAN-137745658.html, visited April 2, 2012.

[7] American Institute in Taiwan, “Statement on Taiwan's Meaningful Participation in UN Specialized Agencies,” United States Mission to the United Nations, September 17, 2008, http://www.ait.org.tw/en/officialtext-ot0812.html, visited May 4, 2012.

[8] Chinese and English versions of the speech can be found at http://wenku.baidu.com/view/b2d870d8a58da0116c1749ff.html.

[9] Chinese Taipei is used in APEC and ADB; Taiwan in AAEA (1998) and Egmont Group (1998); ROC in APO (1961), AARDO (1968), FFTC/ASPAC (1970), CABEI (1992), and ASCA (1994); special entity in WTO (2002), ICN (2001), and AITIC (2008).

[10] “Cross Strait Consensus: Taiwan as an Observer Participates in WHA,” Chinese Review, April 13, 2009, http://www.chinareviewnews.com; visited April 5, 2012.

[11] On ICAO, see e.g. H. Volger, “ICAO – International Civil Aviation Organization,” in H. Volger (ed.), A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations (2002), 274-275; K. Hailbronner, International Civil Aviation Organization, in: R. Bernhardt (ed.), Encyclopedia of Public International Law, vol. II (1995), 1070-1074. Talmon, Stefan A. G., The Recognition of the Chinese Government and the Convention on International Civil Aviation. Chinese Journal of International Law, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2009; Oxford Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1/2009. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1325180.

SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 59