Biding Time: The Challenge of Taiwan’s International Status


Taiwan’s international status has been in limbo for decades. The government in Taipei, which formerly represented China in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), is today left with only approximately 20 diplomatic allies and struggles against long odds to gain access to international organizations. At present Taiwan is not widely recognized as an independent state, but it has been effectively self-governed by the government of the Republic of China (ROC) for over 60 years and has boasted a democratic government for the last 15 years. In its relationship to China it enjoys what is commonly referred to as status quo, an equilibrium which allows for much flexibility but which also curtails Taiwan’s possibilities to become a full-fledged international actor.

Currently, Taiwan’s international situation does not appear to be too dire: relations with China are more constructive than they have ever been before. A “diplomatic truce” has stabilized the number of countries that formally recognize Taiwan. Taiwan has also established informal relations with a large number of other countries. Moreover Taiwan participates in a number of international organizations: for instance, in 2002 it became a full member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) alongside China, and also in 2009 it obtained a seat as an observer in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) highest decision-making body, the World Health Assembly (WHA).

This article provides a long-term overview of the development of Taiwan’s international status as a background for an analysis of current problems and suggestions of policy choices in light of the upcoming presidential election in 2012. A fundamental question is, how much longer can Taiwan uphold its ambiguous status quo in the international arena, and what are the government’s options?

The Development of Taiwan’s International Status

The historic events that led to Taiwan’s ambiguous international status today are commonly known. A civil war in the 1940s between the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the rebel forces of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the Chinese Mainland ended in the retreat of the government of the Republic of China to Taiwan. The island could only be held due to a military intervention of the United States (U.S.). Taiwan, a Japanese colony from 1895 until 1945, had been returned to China after World War II, but controversy broke out in the early 1950s over which of the two governments represented China: the newly founded People’s Republic of China, or the Republic of China that had erected its “wartime capital” in Taipei and was waiting for an opportunity to “reconquer the Mainland.”

Although the ROC upheld its claim to be the only legitimate government of the whole of China for a while longer, and even managed to retain the permanent Chinese seat in the UN Security Council until 1971, throughout the Cold War a growing number of states abandoned Taipei in order to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. Decolonization and Beijing’s close ties to an important number of emerging states helped to eventually tip the balance in the UN against Taiwan. With this, Taiwan lost its seat in most international organizations, until its government decided in the 1980s to attempt to return to many of them.

The idea of “one China,” which is understood and espoused by different countries in different ways, is a major source of Taiwan’s dilemma. Chiang Kai-shek, KMT leader during the Chinese Civil War and president of the ROC until his death in 1975, refused to accept dual representation of the ROC and the PRC in the UN on the grounds that he did not want “to coexist with bandits” – not that Mao Zedong would have been more forthcoming. Chiang believed that the ROC was the only legitimate representative of the Chinese people.

A second element of the “one China” principle was that no country could recognize the ROC and the PRC at the same time, as both claimed to represent China and would break relations with any third state that approached the other side. Therefore, the establishment of the PRC in 1949 and the expulsion of the ROC from the UN in 1971, together with the U.S. reorientation toward Beijing in the early 1970s, resulted in a majority of countries switching allegiance and establishing diplomatic relations with the PRC.

With the realization that diplomatic allies, the more the better, were a precondition for its claim to sovereignty,[1] Taiwan engaged in so-called “dollar diplomacy,” seeking to buy opportunistic states’ loyalty with development aid. As China did the same, a diplomatic war broke out over who could pay more for retaining diplomatic allies.

Today Taiwan is left with 23 diplomatic allies, most of them small developing countries on Pacific islands, in Africa, or in Latin America. This number could finally, for the time being, be stabilized. In 2008 new President Ma Ying-jeou saw that Taiwan was fighting a losing battle with more and more states drawn into China’s orbit as a fast rising power. He proposed a “diplomatic truce” with the Mainland, meaning in part that both sides would stop stealing each other’s diplomatic allies. Since then, no country has switched sides, although Beijing had to actively turn down the approaches of a few.

Taiwan’s options for how to deal with its ambiguous international status in the future are limited and they vary as to their degree of realistic attainability: independence, unification with China, or the maintenance of the status quo, at least until a better opportunity opens up.

Democratization and the Issue of Independence

A new dynamic has developed since the early 1990s: Taiwan’s democratization raised questions about the national identity of the Republic of China. It opened the political spectrum for parties that do not perpetuate the myth that the ROC is in fact China’s government, but which insist that Taiwan has a separate national identity and hence a claim to independence. In short, domestically the consensus in the political system about what Taiwan was or should be in the future disappeared. This development has brought Taiwan to the brink of public referenda on its status, which could have resulted in a declaration of independence.

However, even if Taiwan declared its independence, whether as the Republic of China or as Taiwan, it would still not solve the issue of Taiwan’s international status, as only with recognition of its statehood by other states could it become a full player in the international system of recognized states. A declaration of independence would not substantially increase the number of countries that recognized the government in Taipei, and it might actually harm relationships with a number of friendly states that now entertain informal but close relations.

Most international powers have made statements to express their opposition to such a unilateral change in the cross-Strait relations. The United States and others have vested interests in good relations with China, therefore their long-standing policy is to discourage Taiwanese independence aspirations even when they come in a (barely) disguised form, as in the 2008 referenda on Taiwan’s UN membership. Instead, the United States and other influential powers, such as the EU, support only a peaceful solution in form of a mutually agreed outcome resulting from talks between China and Taiwan. The economic rationale behind this stance is becoming increasingly powerful: China is the biggest foreign creditor of the United States, the EU is looking to China to save the Euro, and most other countries also have intensive trade relations with China.

Moreover, China in 2005 passed the so-called “Anti-Secession Law” where it laid down in writing that “the state [the PRC] shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures” if Taiwan‘s formal secession from China becomes imminent.[2] The security argument is therefore equally important: who would come to Taiwan’s support if it were attacked by China after declaring independence? The United States not only opposes unilateral change in the current status quo, but a large portion of its military capacities are tied up on other battlefields. Furthermore it has been argued that the Taiwan Relations Act gives the United States only the option to defend Taiwan, not a strong commitment.[3] The EU does not possess the necessary military capabilities to intervene in a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and is anyway more focused on its own neighborhood. And who would come to Taiwan’s help in Asia and willingly enter a confrontation with China? Japan may have the necessary military power but would it want to put it to a trial for the sake of Taiwan’s independence? Risking a war would certainly be a losing option for Taiwan.

In short, while Taiwan is struggling to remain on the international map, the door to formal independence to become a full-fledged member of the international system should be closed for the time being. Its only option to attain such a status, it appears, is with prior consent from China – highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, in Taiwanese opinion polls independence receives support from roughly a quarter of respondents.[4] Support for independence rises significantly in the hypothetical case that it would not entail the risk of an attack by China.[5] Domestic political actors have to cater to the sentiments of the large parts of the population that have strong feelings about independence. Thus in Taiwan’s democratic society the issue will remain present, and it will continue to be used and abused for political gains in the domestic context.

Unification: Not an Option – Right Now?

Unification with China, which would definitely clarify Taiwan’s status in international relations, is currently also not a viable option. Among different options for Taiwan’s status, unification with China receives the least amount of support in Taiwan, at the moment coming in around or below the 10 percent mark.[6] In a democratic society, a step like unification could only be taken with the support of Taiwan’s population, which largely prefers to review the question in the future, under changed circumstances.

Unification cannot be ruled out as a possibility for the distant future, in case Taiwan comes under yet stronger pressure from the Chinese side and under the precondition that Taiwan can uphold its autonomy. However, currently there is no proposal on the table which would satisfy both sides, and circumstances would need to change drastically in order to reverse the trend of increasing opposition in Taiwan’s population to the idea of unification. The Chinese offer of “one country, two systems,” which would preserve large portions of Taiwan’s current autonomy and would potentially also allow for Taiwan’s separate participation in certain international organizations, albeit not as a state member, is not acceptable to the Taiwanese voters, at least as long as Taiwan is able to defend its de facto independence.

Some commentators have argued that unification, even if willingly performed by both sides, would not be in the interest of the world. Taiwan and China together would be an even stronger economic powerhouse, and if the Chinese military were no longer focused on Taiwan, it may be free to project its military power more strongly elsewhere in the world.[7]

Status Quo as the Way Forward?

By the late 1980s, having lost most of its diplomatic allies and having been ousted from the bulk of international organizations, Taiwan’s government needed to become creative in order to remain on the political map. Lee Teng-hui’s government introduced the idea of “flexible” or “pragmatic diplomacy” which stipulated that, first, if formal relations with other countries were not possible, then Taiwan should make an effort to entertain substantial relations – meaning close relations without diplomatic recognition. Second, Taiwan should attempt to participate in international organizations while being flexible on name and membership status issues.

As for the substantial relations with other countries, according to the website of the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), Taiwan currently has its own informal representations in 57 countries,[8] while 49 countries maintain offices in Taiwan.[9] The names and levels of competence of these representations vary considerably both on the Taiwanese as well as on the foreign side, and they all stop short of being formal embassies, although many of them fulfill similar functions.

MOFA’s website also lists 32 international organizations in which Taiwan is a member. Taiwan joined three quarters of them after 1987, when it started its policy of overture to international organizations.[10] This statistic highlights the flexibility that Taiwan has applied to its pursuit of international participation: in most of these organizations Taiwan has not entered as a state member, but for instance as a separate customs territory, a fishing entity or a non-sovereign regional member. Also, some of these organizations are not actually intergovernmental but admit research institutes or sector-specific interest associations.

As indicated above, Taiwan only rarely has been able to join or retain its membership under the name “Republic of China.” It therefore sports a wide variety of names, such as “Chinese Taipei,” “China (Taiwan),” or “Taipei, China,” many of which were only grudgingly accepted by Taiwan for the sake of staying in the organization. Notably, China is also present in only some of these organizations. China’s entry into an organization, if Taiwan was previously a member, has mostly resulted in a change of name and/or membership status for Taiwan.

Some of the most prominent organizations in which Taiwan is a member are the WTO, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). But it has been relatively easier for Taiwan to enter organizations which follow a functional logic and deal with a particular issue-area of international relations, for instance international trade or fisheries management. In these cases, Taiwan can plausibly argue that its absence from the respective organizations hurts not only Taiwan itself but is also detrimental to the optimal functioning of the organization and therefore undermines the concerted efforts of the other members. In other words, Taiwan sometimes manages to appeal to a very specific and important interest of the other members to allow for Taiwan’s participation.

While this argument about the cost of excluding Taiwan is certainly convincing, the cost of excluding China when it refuses to exist side by side with Taiwan in a specific international organization is even larger. In other words, when faced with the choice of either including China or Taiwan―with the latter being by comparison the smaller economic power, the less important polluter, a defender of human rights and democracy, and an entity that tries to live up to international standards so it will be acknowledged as a responsible stakeholder―other states or international organizations will pick the side whose absence would have a much greater downside: China.

However, Taiwan and other international actors have tried to circumvent this situation of mutual exclusivity by creatively searching for compromise formulas for Taiwan’s participation. Therefore the MOFA website also lists 19 organizations in which Taiwan participates “as observers [sic] or other status.”[11] In the WHO, for instance, Taiwan is an observer to the meetings of the WHA, although its invitation has to be renewed annually.[12] “[O]ther status” refers to associate membership, corresponding membership and cooperating non-membership.

Participation in international organizations has the advantage that, in the fields of competence of the organization in question, Taiwan has access to information, can learn to adhere to international standards and solve disputes, and can also contribute with its own input. In terms of genuine benefits it is a win-win situation both for the organization and for Taiwan. Taiwan can also increase its visibility as an international actor, portray itself as being cooperative, especially in comparison to China, and strengthen its contacts with other countries through networking within the organizations. Furthermore, Taiwan’s participation in international organizations creates a venue, although still limited, for high-level contacts with China. On the highest level, 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, which is not possible in a bilateral context.

At the same time, China still tries to curtail Taiwan’s participation by insisting on name changes and by refusing to compromise in most cases; it does not accept the idea that Taiwan’s participation in one organization can be a precedent for similar participation in another. Instead China emphasizes that any decisions concerning Taiwan’s participation in international organizations have to be taken in a case-by-case approach.

Downsides of Reliance on Flexibility

While Taiwan’s flexible approach to maintain a certain level of international presence has been successful, it also has had the negative consequence of cementing Taiwan’s ambiguous international status. Other countries have become comfortable dealing with Taiwan on a less-than-formal basis. While Taiwan placed its hopes on the idea that its incremental approach would help other countries to become accustomed to Taiwan’s presence as a positively contributing member of the international system so that they eventually step-by-step fully accept Taiwan as a peer, in reality such relations do not seem to have any prospect of resulting in statehood recognition. Relations with Taiwan on an informal basis or its participation in international organizations with less-than-state membership fulfils other states’ objectives sufficiently so that in a cost-benefit calculation they do not consider it necessary anymore to argue with China about the need to establish better relations with Taiwan.

More specifically, Taiwan’s approach to international organizations appears to have carried Taiwan into a cul-de-sac. Taiwan’s achievement of being invited to the WHA as an observer seems to have created a precedent for other countries on how to deal with Taiwan’s attempts to participate in international organizations, namely to leave any decisions to bilateral consultations between Taipei and Beijing.

This is an important change from earlier policies: in the WTO the other members decided themselves about how to integrate Taiwan in the organization and only partly responded to China’s concerns; China was not given an explicit say in the matter of Taiwan’s accession. In the case of Taiwan’s accession to the WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement in 2008, other members helped to broker a deal between Taiwan and China, China’s concerns about implications of sovereignty for Taiwan were thoroughly taken into account. In the WHO, on the other hand, other members merely expressed their desire for a better inclusion of Taiwan in the workings of the organization, but it was left to Taiwan and China to work out a compromise. As this has produced a relatively satisfying outcome in the WHA, other international actors show little interest in pushing for Taiwan’s participation in, for example, the state-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). So far the U.S. government and the U.S. Congress have shown limited support,[13] in the EU only the European Parliament has explicitly endorsed the Taiwanese campaigns.[14]

What appears to be forgotten is that such a stance makes any progress for Taiwan’s participation dependent almost entirely on China’s goodwill. In the WHA case Taiwan held good cards: the 2003 epidemic of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had made the need for Taiwan’s integration pressing, China had been under much international pressure for its mishandling of the epidemic and needed to show a more progressive attitude about public and global health issues, and Beijing appears also to have wanted to boost Ma Ying-jeou’s domestic reputation by throwing him the bone of WHA observer status. These motivating factors are absent in Taiwan’s new efforts to join ICAO, UNFCCC, and others.

Outlook on Policy Choices

The KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have to navigate between difficult choices concerning Taiwan’s international relations. Their policy options are contingent upon Taiwan’s international environment, the quality of cross-Strait relations, and Taiwan’s domestic context. Maintaining the status quo through expanding Taiwan’s contacts with other countries and its presence in international organizations is still Taiwan’s best option for the time being. However, time has become Taiwan’s enemy. With growing economic interdependence and the military balance tipping in China’s favor, while the world’s major economies are in debt to China, China’s power to force an outcome to its liking is growing. Taiwan can only bide its time and increase its international standing in the hope that future leadership generations in China will be open to a better compromise than what is already on the table.

If it hopes to increase Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, Taiwan’s government should seek to again internationalize this issue. The government should continue to highlight to states that maintain friendly relations with Taiwan that the reliance on China’s goodwill alone does not promise rapid progress and might lead to suboptimal results, as China is currently under no concrete pressure to offer a good deal to Taiwan. At the same time, the government can also intensify its efforts to emphasize that the trans-border problems it is targeting – air traffic and emissions – are only growing while Taiwan is prohibited from contributing to their solution. If a compromise on Taiwan’s participation in the respective international organizations were reached before the presidential and legislative elections in January 2012, it would potentially help the KMT to remain in power and help assure four more years of relatively harmonious relations with China, a development that other states have seemed to welcome since President Ma’s inauguration in 2008.

In the international context, it is important that the United States show more convincing support for Taiwan’s participation in certain international organizations. After all, Taiwan’s recent attempts have been moderate and reasonable, but China does not have much incentive to budge if there is not a certain level of international pressure. Moreover, the United States remains Taiwan’s best friend in the international arena and the largest global power, and its actions set the benchmark for the level of support of others. A supportive U.S. stance has the potential to push others to emulate the U.S. policy, above all the EU, which comprises a growing number of countries and has a wide sphere of influence in its neighborhood. 


[1] One of the conditions for statehood in the Montevideo Convention for the Rights and Duties of States is the ability to conduct external relations, which is better done formally than informally.

[2] The full text of the Anti-Secession Law is posted on the website of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council of the PRC; see “Anti-Secession Law adopted by NPC,”; accessed November 10, 2011.

[3] See for instance: Dennis V. Hickey, “Rapprochement between Taiwan and the Chinese Mainland: implications for American foreign policy,” Journal of Contemporary China 20, no. 69 (2011): 233. The full text of the Taiwan Relations Act is posted on the website of the American Institute in Taiwan; see “Taiwan Relations Act,”; accessed November 10, 2011.

[4] See for instance: Global Views Survey Research Center, “Survey on President Ma Ying-jeou’s Approval Rating and People’s Views on the Unification-Independence Issue”, April 25, 2011,; accessed November 1, 2011; for a more detailed analysis refer to: Election Studies Center, NCCU, “Trends in Core Political Attitudes among Taiwanese: Changes in the Unification – Independence Stances of Taiwanese as Tracked in Surveys by Elections Study Center, NCCU (1994~2011.06),” 2011,; accessed November 2, 2011.

[5] Yuan-kang Wang, “China’s Growing Strength, Taiwan’s Diminishing Options,” Taiwan-U.S. Quarterly Analysis, The Brookings Institution, November 2010,; accessed November 2, 2011.

[6] See for instance: Global Views Survey Research Center, “Survey on President Ma Ying-jeou’s Approval Rating and People’s Views on the Unification-Independence Issue.”

[7] Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, “If Taiwan Chooses Unification, Should the United States Care?,” The Washington Quarterly 25, no. 3 (2002): 21 and 24.

[8] Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of China (Taiwan), “List of Embassies & Missions Abroad”, n.d.,; accessed November 1, 2011.

[9] Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of China (Taiwan), “Foreign Missions in the ROC (Taiwan)”, n.d.,, accessed November 1, 2011.

[10] Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of China (Taiwan), “Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) in which we participate”, n.d.,, accessed November 1, 2011.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See “Taiwan in the World Health Assembly: A Victory, With Limits,” Jacques deLisle, Brookings Northeast Asia Commentary, No. 29 (May 2009), The Brookings Institution,; accessed November 10, 2011.

[13] William Lowther, “US, PRC discussing ways for Taiwan to join world bodies,” Taipei Times, December 9, 2010,; accessed November 2, 2011; Rachel Chan, “Taiwan thanks US Senate for backing ICAO bid,” Taiwan Today, September 23, 2011,, accessed November 1, 2011.

[14] For instance: European Parliament, “European Parliament resolution of 11 May 2011 on the annual report from the Council to the European Parliament on the main aspects and basic choices of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in 2009, presented to the European Parliament in application of Part II, Section G, paragraph 43 of the Interinstitutional Agreement of 17 May 2006 (2010/2124(INI)), P7_TA-PROV(2011)-227,” May 11, 2011, Art. 79.