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Expanding Taiwan’s international participation

‘Every person matters, whether it’s Taiwan or otherwise’, Amina Mohammed, the United Nations (UN) Deputy Secretary-General, told reporters last Friday when asked whether the country’s exclusion would hamper the organisation in meeting its global development goals. ‘And I think it’s really important for member states to find a solution’ she went on to say.

The problem is an old one, dating back to 1971 when the passing of Resolution 2758 gave the UN’s ‘China seat’ to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since then, despite many changes, including the island’s democratic transformation, Taiwan remains unrepresented in the body and its specialised agencies. This anomaly is an injustice not only for the people of Taiwan – all 23 million of them – but the rest of the world too, who miss out on Taiwan’s contribution in tackling global problems.

A solution, however, which the UN Deputy-Secretary General called for, will be difficult to achieve. An attempt to seat Taiwan as a full UN member would likely face fierce resistance and would have to circumnavigate the PRC’s security council veto. Therefore, in the meantime, steps should be taken to: 

  1. Challenge the grounds on which Taiwan’s exclusion is currently justified;
  2. Champion Taiwanese participation in the UN’s specialised agencies; and, failing this, 
  3. Expand alternative platforms to ease Taiwan’s international isolation.

Demystifying Resolution 2758

Firstly, confusion around Resolution 2758 must be cleared up. The PRC has long argued that the passage of this resolution ‘settled once and for all the political, legal and procedural issues of China’s representation in the UN, and it covered the whole country, including Taiwan.’ Such an interpretation has filtered its way into the UN system in order to justify Taiwan’s continued exclusion; rowing back on Mohammed’s recent remarks, a UN spokesperson asserted that the body, ‘in accordance with the General Assembly resolution of 1971…uphold[s] the One China policy’. 

This is a distortion. Resolution 2758 passed no judgement on what constitutes ‘China’, and does not even mention Taiwan nor comment on its future representation or participation in the UN. Rather, it merely decided to ‘expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy’. 

In 2021, Rick Waters, the United States (US) Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, stated that: ‘The PRC has misused Resolution 2758 to prevent Taiwan’s meaningful participation [in the UN].’ His Majesty’s (HM) Government, however, appears not to have clarified its own position on the matter. Yet, it seems unlikely that it agrees with Beijing. 

When the United Kingdom (UK) first cast a vote for the PRC’s admission into the UN in 1961, it stated that such a vote did not prejudice its view that ‘sovereignty over the island of Formosa (as Taiwan was referred to then) is undetermined’, nor the corollary view that ‘the question as to who should represent Formosa in the UN is also undetermined.’ This view continued to be expressed throughout the decade by British representatives at the UN in debates over who occupied the ‘China seat’. 

Moreover, HM Government still regards de jure sovereignty over Taiwan to be undetermined, despite establishing full diplomatic relations with the PRC. When both countries exchanged ambassadors in 1972 the UK merely acknowledged Beijing’s claim to Taiwan. 

If, as seems possible, Britain does not believe that Resolution 2758 settled the question of Taiwanese representation at the UN, in the way Beijing claims, then it should join the US and other likeminded countries in challenging more assertively the PRC’s, no doubt deliberate, misinterpretation. 

Pathways to expanding Taiwan’s international participation 

Regardless of HM Government’s position on Taiwanese representation at the UN, it is clear that it believes there is scope for Taiwan’s participation in the organisation’s specialised agencies, as an observer or guest. Indeed, in recent years, the UK has been more outspoken on the matter, particularly in relation to the World Health Assembly (WHA), the governing body of the World Health Organisation. Earlier this year, the British Office in Taipei issued a statement, with other representative offices, calling for observer status for Taiwan at the WHA. While the year before Sajid Javid, then Secretary of State for Health, told WHA attendees: 

…there is clearly no health basis to justify not including Taiwan as an observer to the WHA and to be given meaningful access to all relevant technical meetings not least because of the role they have played in sharing information with the rest of the world since the very beginning of Covid-19.

Such action would need to be backed up with behind-the-scenes lobbying to secure such participation. Pushes for amendments to organisation charters or rules of membership may also need to be made to boost the chances of success. 

Should these efforts fail, then the UK and its allies and partners should explore alternative approaches to expanding Taiwan’s international representation – they need not wait for the UN to reform. Multilateral forums exist or can be created where Beijing does not hold sway and where Britain can engage Taiwan bilaterally. So far, however, it would seem that the UK has not been as proactive as it could be. 

The Global Cooperation and Training Framework, whose full partners include Taiwan, the US, Japan and Australia, provides an alternative avenue to exchange expertise with Taiwan. From 2015 to mid-2022, the platform held 10 workshops as part of their public health field. Britain participated in only one of these events, in a May 2021 forum covering vaccine rollouts in which Susan Hopkins, then Chief Medical Advisor, NHS Test and Trace at Public Health England, was present. Meanwhile, despite touting their role in facilitating expert-level dialogues between UK health experts and the Taiwan Centres for Disease Control, HM Government’s promise, in early 2022, of a future bilateral ‘UK-Taiwan expert health dialogue’ had, a year later, failed to materialise. 

Deputy Secretary-General Mohammed’s remarks are a reminder that Taiwan’s exclusion from the UN is a problem which needs to be resolved. With Beijing prepared to throw its weight around and distort existing resolutions to enforce its ‘One China Principle’, a real solution will be difficult to achieve. However, with persistence, progress could be made to secure Taiwanese participation, and with creativity, the worst effects of Taiwan’s exclusion can be ameliorated.

Gray Sergeant is a Research Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy.

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