Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations (UN) or its suborganizations, but it aspires to participate. China opposes this. It argues, correctly, that only sovereign states can enjoy membership in the UN; any state that manages to enter into the UN system as a full member in its own right is seen by the other member states as a fully-fledged independent country. China also claims Taiwan as part of its territory and denies that Taiwan is a sovereign state. China is adamant about preventing recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state and its membership in the UN system. So far China has been successful in this endeavor. Membership – the highest form of participation – in the United Nations is inextricably linked with the question of sovereignty. Both China and Taiwan are highly aware of this problem, therefore for both sides the question of UN membership and other forms of participation for Taiwan has never lost its sensitivity. However, over time the nature of the question has changed: from a fight about which government – the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with its seat in Beijing or the Republic of China (ROC) with its capital in Taipei – was the sole legitimate representative of China in the world, it has since the early 1990s evolved into consideration of whether the UN would not be able to accommodate both in some way. While Taiwan, since the early 1990s, would favor such a solution, although not necessarily on the basis of full membership status, China adamantly refuses to move away from its position that Taiwan is part of China and thus cannot be represented on its own in the world’s most prestigious and important state-based international organization. China has the advantage in that it is a member of the United Nations, and is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council; it also enjoys increasing international clout outside the UN system.
This article looks into the past of Taiwan’s UN engagement leading to the end of its participation in 1971, traces the development of Taiwan’s UN campaign since 1993, and considers the prospects of Taiwan’s UN drive in the current relatively amiable climate in cross-Strait relations. It also sketches the links between Taiwan’s attempts to participate in the UN and their implications for its sovereignty.
1971 in the UN: What Was at Stake?
With the withdrawal of the ROC government from the Chinese Mainland to Taiwan starting from 1947 and the establishment of the PRC in Beijing in 1949, two rival governments claimed their status as the rightful international representative of China. Both followed a so-called “one China” policy, meaning that diplomatic relations with China by third parties could only be maintained with one of the two governments. The same was true for representation in international organizations, especially the UN. The question was therefore which government should represent China in the United Nations?
With the support of the United States, the ROC government of Chiang Kai-shek upheld its claim and retained the Chinese seat in the UN as well as its permanent seat in the UN Security Council for more than two more decades after its arrival in Taiwan. However, with an increasing number of countries choosing to recognize Beijing instead of Taipei, it was a battle against time, and Taiwan was on the losing side.
Dual representation, either as a divided country or even a two-China or two-state (one China, one Taiwan) solution, was on the table more than once during the years before the fateful UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 was passed in 1971. The United States in particular tried to broker a compromise, but without success. While Beijing was opposed to such solutions, Chiang Kai-shek was likewise inflexible in his claim that the ROC government was the legal representation of the whole of China. Chiang was particularly afraid that in a two-state solution he would lose the UN Security Council seat of China to the PRC, the enemy of the ROC. Chiang had already in 1961 for the first time put forward the infamous statement that “There is no room for patriots and traitors to live together” (hanzei bu liang li).
However, in the beginning of the 1970s, the United States saw the geopolitical opportunity to move closer to China in a strategic move against their by then common adversary, the Soviet Union. The United States eventually broke formal relations with the ROC only in 1979, but the strategic shift in the early 1970s, combined with a large number of newly-independent former colonies that had some ideological solidarity with Beijing, turned the tide once and for all against Taipei. Still, it was a combination of Taipei and Beijing’s longstanding opposition to proposals for both PRC and ROC representation in the UN, together with the global strategic changes, that led to the end of the ROC representation in the UN, and in consequence also to the ROC’s expulsion from all other major international organizations.
When the crucial UN General Assembly resolution’s adoption seemed already unavoidable on 25 October 1971, the ROC delegation under orders of Chiang Kai-shek walked out of the UN to prevent further humiliation. Resolution 2758 “to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it” was adopted by 76 against 35 votes with 17 abstentions by the other UN members. The U.S. voted against the resolution, but was in a minority position, and Taiwan found itself isolated and excluded from many international organizations – especially those affiliated with the United Nations.
Taiwan’s UN Drive Since 1993
Lee Teng-hui took over as president of Taiwan in the late 1980s. He pursued “pragmatic diplomacy,” in which one strategy was maintaining Taiwan’s international existence through participation in various international and especially intergovernmental organizations. UN participation alongside China eventually became a viable policy option, even under continued rule by the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist party.
Taiwan started its renewed UN campaign in 1993. The UN bids of 1993-1995 focused on the “[c]onsideration of the exceptional situation of the Republic of China in Taiwan in the international context, based on the principle of universality and in accordance with the established model of parallel representation of divided countries at the United Nations.” This first approach aimed at establishing Taiwan as a sovereign state next to China, at least as long as no solution could be found between the two sides. It followed the model of divided states like East and West Germany or North and South Korea. However, China’s opposition, in combination with the “one China” policy of the majority of the UN member states, prevented the Taiwanese bids from even being treated properly in the UN. Apart from a few of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, no country was ready to give consideration to Taiwanese representation in the UN.
Not having had any success in several consecutive years, in 1996 Taiwan attempted a new, vaguer and lower-profile approach by asking for the “[c]onsideration of the exceptional situation of the inability, resulting from General Assembly Resolution 2758 (XXVI), of the 21.3 million people on Taiwan, Republic of China, to participate in the activities of the United Nations.” This approach did not necessarily target full membership, but rather focused on a right to representation and participation in imprecisely defined UN activities. The main argument was that the population of Taiwan could not be unfairly excluded from issues being dealt with in the UN only because of a conflict over sovereignty, while the Chinese government that claimed sovereignty over Taiwan’s territory was not involved in policy-making on Taiwan’s territory. This attempt also failed. China was not ready to yield even on more flexible terms of Taiwanese UN participation.
During the last years of the 1990s and in the beginning of the rule of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) starting in 2000, Taiwan’s strategy continued at a similarly low-profile level, stressing the right of the people of Taiwan to be represented in the UN without explicitly defining what kind of status Taiwan should have in the organization.
However, in 2007, Taiwan’s approach changed radically, by asking the UN to process its application for full membership. This new strategy did not leave any doubt that Taiwan, and not the Republic of China, wanted to have its sovereignty legitimized by becoming a new member of the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon refused to accept the application on the grounds that “[i]n accordance with [General Assembly Resolution 2758], the United Nations considers Taiwan for all purposes to be an integral part of the People’s Republic of China.” Before this statement UN headquarters had been careful to remain vague on the issue of Taiwan’s status, but this statement opened a legal Pandora’s box, as it could be taken as the basis for the argument that China should be allowed to decide on matters concerning Taiwan in international organizations – which thus far had been avoided. Therefore, although Taiwan’s UN bid was frustrating even to its major international partner, the United States, Washington protested Secretary-General Ban’s statement, arguing that “while this assertion is consistent with the Chinese position, it is not universally held by UN member states, including the United States.”
After this setback, the DPP called for a referendum on the issue of Taiwan’s UN membership in 2008, asking the people of Taiwan to vote on whether the government should apply for UN membership under the name “Taiwan,” therefore actually replicating the UN bid of 2007. This move was mainly regarded as a tactic in Taiwan’s 2008 presidential campaign, in which Taiwan’s international status and participation in international organizations were hotly discussed topics. The KMT therefore saw the need to follow suit by proposing a referendum of its own, however posing a much less controversial question. The KMT inquired among Taiwan’s voters, “Do you approve of applying to return to the United Nations and to join other international organizations under the name ‘Republic of China,’ or ‘Taiwan,’ or other name that is conducive to success and preserves our nation’s dignity?” Both referenda failed to pass.
The issue of the two UN referenda in 2008 highlights that debates also continue on Taiwan’s domestic level about the fundamental objectives for Taiwan’s sovereignty to be reached through UN participation and what strategies should be employed to achieve these goals. At the same time this debate is largely decoupled from the international reality of chances for potential success. The viewpoints of the DPP and the KMT, especially under current President Ma Ying-jeou, differ fundamentally on what implications UN participation for Taiwan should have, how the entity is represented in the world, what amount of provocation toward China can be afforded in this question. Furthermore, these debates do not only take place on the level of political elites’ strategic international considerations, but activities such as the above referenda have also led to the politicization of the general public in Taiwan, coupled with attempts to instrumentalize this politicization for domestic political gains. The question of international participation has become increasingly complex in Taiwan.
Throughout these different efforts to participate in the UN, Taiwan’s government was aware that in reality its UN bids had only minimal chances for success due to China’s staunch opposition and the power it yielded in the UN to convince other members that there was no place for Taiwan in the state-based organization. Simply put, China feared that Taiwan’s participation in the UN would bring the island one decisive step closer to achieving independence. The undercurrent or open independence aspirations during the rules of Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian especially gave rise to such Chinese fears. In order to clarify that there is no space in the UN for an entity that constitutes a part or even a province of China, Beijing refused to leave any room for interpretation and also thwarted Taiwan’s more pragmatic approaches to the UN, let alone its bids for full membership. Only a handful of countries that still have diplomatic relations with the ROC challenged the Chinese perspective, while the rest of the member states and the organization followed China’s lead – either silently or in an outspoken manner.
Undeniably, for at least some in Taiwan, independence aspirations played a role in Taiwan’s early pragmatic UN approach although it stopped short of full membership. In this regard, looking at the situation from a Chinese perspective, China’s fears are understandable. Objectively speaking, however, China’s reluctance to accommodate solutions below the level of full membership is not necessarily justified. From the perspective of international law, observer status or flexible ways of pragmatic cooperation would not in any way improve Taiwan’s formal international status. Rather, such arrangements, while they allow for Taiwan to benefit from and contribute to the international system, would confirm the PRC view that Taiwan is not a sovereign entity.
According to Michael Kau, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs, the main aim of Taiwan’s UN campaign, beyond the futile desire that it could eventually achieve some form of participation in the organization, was to raise international attention to the issue of Taiwan’s unfair exclusion paired with the hope that maybe Taiwan would eventually be allowed to enter at least a number of functional UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO). For this reason, Taiwan had already in 1997 started a parallel campaign targeting specifically the WHO, which was perceived as having a more realistic prospect for success. Taiwan’s UN bid has never even entered the UN General Assembly agenda, it never managed to get past the hurdle of the UN General Committee.
It came as no surprise, given the differences between the DPP and the KMT on the question of UN participation, that in 2008, the new government of Ma Ying-jeou shifted Taiwan’s UN strategy, pursuing the clearly stated but undefined status of “meaningful participation” in UN specialized agencies, specifically the WHO, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). This new policy followed up on PRC President Hu Jintao’s announcement upon Ma’s inauguration as ROC president that “Taiwan compatriots’ participation in international activities would be discussed with priority given to participation of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) activities after the cross-strait consultations were resumed.” This effort resulted early on in observer status for Taiwan in the WHO’s World Health Assembly (WHA), the annual high-level meeting of the WHO. Since 2009, Taiwan has shifted its focus to the ICAO and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but it has not yet achieved meaningful participation in these bodies.
WHO – A Success Story?
As early as 1997, the government of Taiwan launched its bid for participation in the WHO. Taiwan’s WHO strategy evolved over the years. Different avenues were explored, both in terms of name and status for Taiwan’s participation. Possibilities concerning status included Taiwan participating as an observer in the WHA, or the even less controversial “meaningful participation in WHO activities.” In 2002, Taiwan presented itself as a “health entity,” analogous to its status in a number of fisheries management organizations, where it could enter as a so-called “fishing entity.” Under Chen Shui-bian’s government, Taiwan applied for full WHO membership in 2007 and 2008. Not only did the status Taiwan aspired to have in the organization change over the years, Taiwan also altered its name designation, from “Republic of China” to “Taiwan” or combinations thereof as a reflection of the build-up of a Taiwanese identity and of how Taiwan’s government wanted to portray the island to the international community.
Certain events gave rise to the hope that Taiwan’s WHO bid could eventually be successful. The World Health Assembly, apart from long debates about the feasibility of Taiwan’s bids, held several votes on whether Taiwan’s attempts to apply for participation in the WHO should enter the WHA agenda. Just the fact that these votes took place represented a step further than Taiwan had managed to go in the UN system since 1971. But all of these votes – held in 1997, 2004, and 2007 – resulted in failure, mainly due to Chinese opposition and because many other countries in the international system saw Taiwan as a trouble-maker with its continued bids.
The crisis caused by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, which spread to Taiwan, corroborated Taiwan’s claim that its exclusion from the WHO placed its population at particular risk in the case of a severe epidemic. Taiwan was third hardest hit by SARS – after China and Hong Kong – but its calls to the WHO for help remained long unheard. Eventually, after Chinese consent, the WHO sent several observers to the island. The SARS crisis induced the U.S. and Japan to support WHA observer status for Taiwan, while the European Union and Canada, for instance, called for flexible mechanisms for Taiwan’s participation in the organization’s activities.
Therefore, SARS opened a window for direct contact between Taiwan and the WHO. However, in 2005, the WHO Secretariat and Beijing took the unconventional step of signing a secret Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that elaborated the rules for such contact. Taiwan neither had a part in the negotiations of this MOU, nor was it ever informed about the exact contents of this document that determines its status in the WHO, though an implementation document outlining the specific rules was leaked. The bottom line of this implementation document was that any interaction between Taiwan and the WHO, other than in a case of acute emergency, was subject not only to approval by the WHO Secretariat but also by the Chinese Ministry of Health in Beijing. Apart from leaving it to China to decide whenever Taiwan could enter into contact with the WHO and thereby putting Taiwan’s government into a place of de facto subordination to Beijing, the MOU also entailed long and cumbersome procedures which created administrative obstacles for Taiwan’s participation in WHO technical meetings and other interactions with the organization. The MOU has been guiding the relations between Taiwan and the WHO ever since.
Diplomatic cables leaked in 2011 on wikileaks show that the United States was supportive of the MOU while it was negotiated in 2005, perceiving it as a “step forward” in facilitating interaction between Taiwan and the WHO. In the negotiation process, the U.S. also tried to discourage protests from Taiwan over the terminology “Taiwan, China” used in the MOU and over the requirement for the WHO to notify the Chinese representation in Geneva before interacting with Taiwan. Furthermore the U.S. urged Taiwan not to make the MOU public in case it obtained a copy, as secrecy would be in Taiwan’s best interest.
Following the inauguration of Ma Ying-jeou’s government in May 2008 and Hu Jintao’s overture on the issue of Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, a number of developments occurred in the WHO case in 2009. In January, Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were invited to join the new WHO International Health Regulations (IHR), thus giving Taiwan access to updates about infectious diseases. In May, Taiwan was eventually invited as an observer to the World Health Assembly. Preceding this invitation, Taiwan and China had held secret bilateral consultations about Taiwan’s WHO participation – a first-time event in the framework of Taiwan’s attempts to accede to international organizations. Already in his inaugural speech in 2008, Ma Ying-jeou had announced his plans to “enter into consultations with Mainland China over Taiwan’s international space.” The WHO talks were the first incident of such consultations. As a result of these talks, Taiwan was invited to observe the WHA as “Chinese Taipei,” which was subject to annual renewal. The invitation was issued explicitly to “Chinese Taipei’s” Minister and the Department of Health, but the address in the letter of invitation did not contain a country specification.
Through this observership, Taiwan’s health ministers could address the WHA plenary, and the health ministers from Taiwan and China used these occasions to meet personally on the sidelines of the WHA in 2009 and 2010 – all of these developments had been unprecedented before observership was achieved. In 2012, Taiwan was invited for the fourth consecutive year to observe the WHA, which was held in Geneva from May 21 to 26.
However, the political opposition in Taiwan criticized this outcome, especially because in their interpretation the name “Chinese Taipei” did not portray Taiwan as a sovereign state, and also because the consultations between the governments of Beijing and Taipei could be interpreted as Taiwan asking for China’s permission.
Further criticism has emerged since. Despite the achievements of WHA observer status and Taiwan’s inclusion in the IHR in January 2009, Taiwan’s experts were still excluded from many WHO technical meetings, while Taiwan was listed as “Taiwan, province of China” or “Taiwan, China” in official WHO documentation. In May 2011, another internal WHO document was leaked in Taiwan, this time outlining how the WHO should treat Taiwan in the framework of the IHR. In many respects this new document goes even farther than the 2005 MOU in curtailing Taiwan’s status and its rights for participation in the IHR.
This new memorandum on the “Procedures Concerning an Arrangement to Facilitate Implementation of the International Health Regulations (2005) with Respect to the Taiwan Province of China” was circulated within the WHO in September 2010, with an emphasis on distribution only “as needed,” while it should not fall into the hands of WHO outsiders. This memorandum, which explicitly mentions WHO Director-General Margaret Chan’s wish that it should be fully and correctly implemented, is based on a so-called “IHR Arrangement” with respect to Taiwan’s IHR participation that the Permanent Mission of China in Geneva had communicated to the Director-General. In other words, also in matters pertaining to Taiwan’s IHR participation, the WHO allowed China to dictate the ground rules for how the WHO had to arrange its contact with Taiwan. Considering that the current WHO Director-General, Margaret Chan, is from China’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, one is induced to speculate whether she is particularly receptive to such suggestions from Beijing.
Citing the resolution WHA25.1, which in 1972 expelled the ROC from the WHO, the 2010 memorandum emphasizes “the consequent obligation for the [WHO] Secretariat of refraining from actions which could constitute or be interpreted as recognition of a separate status of Taiwanese authorities and institutions from China.” This provision constitutes Beijing’s bottom line for Taiwan’s participation in the IHR: in the WHO, for all purposes, Taiwan is part of China. Or rather, as the text specifies, the proper terminology to be used regarding Taiwan is “Taiwan Province of China.”
With the official instruction to call Taiwan “Province of China,” this document even goes beyond Ban Ki-moon’s above statement, that for the UN, Taiwan is an integral part of the People’s Republic of China. Needless to say, for Taiwan, being called explicitly a province of China is an important setback in its WHO participation. The Taiwanese government launched an immediate protest to the WHO Secretariat. In addition to filing a formal protest letter with the WHO Secretariat, the Taiwanese Health Minister Chiu Wen-Ta also used his speech at the 2011 WHA to request the WHO to use the so-called “WHA model” for Taiwan’s general WHO participation. This would essentially mean to stick to the wording “Chinese Taipei” for identifying Taiwan, and to refrain from presenting Taiwan and China as one entity in the WHO. In May 2012, Minister Chiu filed another letter with the WHO Secretariat to explain Taiwan’s stance on the name issue. So far, however, none of these attempts to urge the WHO to reconsider its policy toward Taiwan have received an official response.
Related to the question of proper terminology is another provision in the IHR memorandum which states that, “Taiwan, as a province of China, cannot be party to the IHR.” This may come as a surprise, as Taiwan’s CDC was officially included in the IHR. The WHO replied to this contradiction that, “‘Taiwan, China’ is part of the globally binding health regulations [author’s italics].” The technical explanation appears to be that the IHR, as an international agreement, only knows states as contracting parties. Hence Taiwan cannot be a party. This does not prejudice the fact that Taiwan works with the IHR, therefore is part of it, to which even the 2010 memorandum pays testimony.
Finally, the IHR memorandum specifies that it only applies to matters concerning the implementation of the IHR, and refers to the 2005 Memorandum of Understanding for issues concerning Taiwan’s work in the WHO that are unrelated to the IHR. This provision gives evidence that the restrictive framework of the earlier MOU is still in place, even after Taiwan was invited to the IHR and to observe the WHA. It may well be that this explains why the number of permissions granted to Taiwanese health experts to participate in WHO technical meetings remains conspicuously low. In interviews with the author, officials in Taiwan’s Department of Health and its Ministry of Foreign affairs refused to give clear responses on whether, in their opinions, the 2005 MOU is still valid. Their official explanation was that since they had never actually seen the MOU, they were in no position to know whether it had been abandoned. However, it appears likely that an official admission that the much-criticized MOU is still in place, after the Taiwanese government has celebrated the success of joining the IHR and observing the WHA, would amount to a considerable loss of face.
According to statistics presented by Taiwanese health officials during an interview in November 2011, health experts from Taiwan applied for 16 technical meetings in 2010, but initially WHO headquarters granted permission for attendance at only four of these meetings. Taiwan’s health experts eventually managed to attend 10 of these activities, however, by using other channels for contact with the WHO: for instance by contacting the technical unit responsible for the meeting directly, instead of going through the WHO Secretariat. According to Taiwanese newspaper reports citing a U.S. State Department report to Congress, in 2011, Taipei applied for 21 WHO working panels and technical activities. Approval was given in eight cases. Nine applications were rejected while the WHO did not respond to four applications. Officials interviewed at the Department of Health saw the strict criteria pertaining to the level of expertise of invited participants as the reason for the WHO’s reluctance to grant permission to Taiwan’s health experts, rather than continued application of the MOU. The WHO’s time frame for answering requests from Taiwan remains long, but again the health officials in the interview put the blame on the generally busy schedules of the responsible WHO officials rather than on the MOU. They presented themselves as not aware that the WHO was still seeking consent from Beijing, while stating that after all, these were internal WHO procedures to which they did not have insight.
In contrast, according to Peter Chang, former director-general of the Department of International Cooperation at Taiwan’s Ministry of Health, the MOU is still in place, which explains the problems Taiwan is facing in its participation in WHO technical meetings. With the MOU, Taiwan is disadvantaged in comparison to other observers in the organization in obtaining information and participating in meetings other than the WHA. A further explanation is, in his opinion, that since Taiwan has achieved extended WHO participation, for various reasons the issue ceased to be a priority in the agendas of both Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Health and therefore its opportunities are not exhausted to their full potential. He claims, however, that Taiwan’s health experts are still active in a number of meetings, which are not organized by the WHO directly, but rather by individual countries or organizations in association with the WHO. The MOU was not able to control Taiwan’s participation in such events where Taiwanese participants had already been admitted before the MOU was established.
What is Taiwan currently doing to overcome the constraints it is facing in its WHO participation due to China’s involvement? After the 2012 WHA, a statement by Health Minister Chiu surfaced, in which he claimed that “the Taiwan delegation is trying very hard to fight for a full membership of the WHO despite pressure from China.” Taiwan has not given up its hope and desire to join the WHO as a full member at some point in the future. However, while this might be a long-term goal, the short- and mid-term focus lies on expanding Taiwan’s “meaningful and dignified participation” in the WHO. “Dignified” here highlights that Taiwan continues to fight against belittlement by terminology like “Taiwan Province of China,” while also protesting that in the IHR Authorized Ports List, the Taiwanese ports are listed under China. At the same time it seeks the expansion of its meaningful participation to other WHO activities. The United States joined Taiwan’s protest in the name dispute, advocating the use of “Chinese Taipei” instead of “Taiwan Province of China,” and showed itself supportive of expanding Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the WHO beyond the WHA and the IHR, for instance through Taiwan’s inclusion in the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN).
Does Taiwan have a Future in UN-Related Agencies?
The mixed results from Taiwan’s WHO participation raise the question of whether Taiwan’s other bids for UN-related specialized agencies will receive a positive answer in the near future. As Taiwan’s bids for meaningful participation in the ICAO and UNFCCC, modeled after Taiwan’s WHO participation, have already been on the agenda for several years, progress has yet been conspicuously absent. Taiwan’s participation in the UN, even in its functional sub-organizations, remains an international hot potato, and China does not appear ready to yield as long as Taiwan’s international status is not settled. Taiwan’s sovereignty will remain a core concern with respect to its UN participation.
Taiwan’s WHO campaign benefitted from a number of circumstances which eventually tilted the balance in Taiwan’s favor. Taiwan could claim, based on empirical evidence, that its exclusion from the WHO created a life threat for its population. This claim induced a number of countries, including the U.S., to step up their support for Taiwan’s participation, which was expressed toward both China and the organization itself. In the ICAO and UNFCCC, this argument is harder to make. Taiwan, based on its own domestic interests, is already a relatively responsible player in the matters addressed by these organizations, so not much obvious harm is done by leaving Taiwan excluded from the two bodies. If the organizations’ member states were to push hard for Taiwan’s participation, in contrast, they would only alienate China. In both organizations this would imply a substantial loss for the effective establishment of international rules and undermine the organizations’ goals. China is too important to be provoked.
Furthermore, China also used Taiwan’s WHO participation as an attempt to boost Ma Ying-jeou’s domestic popularity, who is by far the most attractive ROC president from a Chinese perspective. Beijing thought that granting WHA observership to Taiwan would increase support for Ma in the Taiwan electorate. After all, Beijing reasoned, he would have managed to achieve what his predecessors failed to do―give Taiwan a voice in a high-profile state-based international organization―and Taiwan’s voters should respect this achievement. However, it remains unclear whether Beijing anticipated all the repercussions its WHO concession would produce in Taiwan’s democratic society once the details of deal became known to the public, or whether the Ma government was aware of the terms China was to impose on the WHO with respect to Taiwan’s participation.
In any case, the WHO arrangements China dictated for Taiwan allow for conclusions about China’s current willingness to open up for Taiwan’s participation in the UN system. China will only be pushed to loosen its stance if there is an important level of international pressure to give Taiwan limited rights to take part in any specific UN agency. Yet, even then, China will not allow such participation to become a precedent to be emulated freely by other organizations. Furthermore, even when China consents to let Taiwan take part in certain organizations, it will dictate the framework of such participation, namely that Taiwan despite its presence is still a part, or even a province, of China. From Beijing’s viewpoint, Taiwan’s participation must not lead to the conclusion that Taiwan is a sovereign state independent from China, and for that reason China feels entitled to yield the penultimate power of decision of how much participation is granted to Taiwan and acts accordingly. As the WHO case shows, international governmental organizations are ready to comply with such Chinese demands.
China does have other, more accommodating options available, which it could pursue if it changes its legal theory on the implications for Taiwan’s international status for methods of UN participation short of membership. Such a policy change would require from China’s side more confidence about the long-term intentions of Taiwan’s leaders (such as no independence, and no “two Chinas”). Moreover, China would need to realize that it is only hurting prospects for achieving its fundamental objective by alienating Taiwan and its voters through its heavy-handed approach to UN organizations.
As noted above, Taiwan’s current drive for meaningful participation in the UNFCCC and the ICAO remains low-profile. In 2010, Taiwan tried to formally apply for observer status in the UNFCCC, but has not submitted an application to ICAO; its UNFCCC application was rejected with reference to the UN General Assembly resolution 2758. Since then, Taiwan has concentrated on an issue-oriented approach, by attempting to participate in side events or public meetings of both organizations in order to make a positive contribution through sharing Taiwanese expertise and experience. This issue-oriented approach is intended to familiarize the organizations with Taiwan’s presence and to prove that Taiwan is willing to work positively on the international level. The main aim is therefore to create some momentum in the international community that would lead to positive reactions by the organization and its member states, if and when Taiwan eventually submits formal applications for observer status again.
The government in Taipei currently does not engage in consultations with Beijing on its participation in international organizations, while Beijing continues to openly reject the possibility of expanding Taiwan’s presence in international organizations. However, the question remains as to how much momentum Taiwan is actually able to generate as long as China remains opposed to any expansion of Taiwan’s participation in the UN system. In other words, how likely is it that other members of the organizations in question will support Taiwan, if China opposes Taiwan’s participation? Furthermore, Taiwan’s pragmatic and issue-oriented approach inadvertently proves that it already has the means to take part in some activities of the organizations, albeit on the lowest possible level. This could potentially discourage international pressure to accommodate Taiwan’s rights to participation. Finally, even if China were to consent to an expanded Taiwanese participation in UN specialized agencies, it is equally questionable whether Taiwan’s government would again agree to a deal with Beijing after the disillusioning experience of its WHO participation.
Therefore, further progress in Taiwan’s agenda to take part in functional UN specialized agencies will remain an open issue in the future, dependent on the outcome of a settlement of the question of Taiwan’s status. When and how the question of Taiwan’s status will be resolved is impossible to predict at this point in time. Ongoing cross-Strait talks have not yet touched upon the issue of sovereignty, nor will they in the foreseeable future. For the time being, Taiwan will have to make the best out of its participation in the UN system and show that it is able to work constructively with the UN’s specialized agencies, while a combination of active opposition from China and inertia in the international community continue to block its aspirations for a formal expansion of its participation.