The Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) was one of the founding members of the United Nations (UN). After retreating to Taiwan in 1949, Washington helped Taipei hold onto the Chinese seat in the UN. In October 1971, however, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution 2758—a measure authorizing a shift in representation for China. Rather than suffer the humiliation of expulsion, President Chiang Kai-shek ordered his delegation to walk out of the UN.
Resolution 2758 has been described as “highly unusual” and “unprecedented.” It provides for the expulsion of “the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations affiliated with it.” But no countries presented evidence that the ROC had consistently violated any principles of the UN charter, a requirement under Article 6 to justify the expulsion of a member. Moreover, the resolution did not address the rights of Taiwan’s people to participate in the UN.
Following the UN debacle, Taipei lost representation in most other IGOs. In the 1980s, to avoid complete isolation, Taipei agreed to use names other than its official designation to gain admission to IGOs and no longer insisted on the PRC’s expulsion. Beijing permitted Taipei to return to the Olympic Games as “Chinese Taipei” and to participate in IGOs with an economic focus. However, Taiwan remained locked out of all UN-affiliated bodies. Beijing argues that Resolution 2758 prohibits Taipei’s participation.
Present U.S. Policy
U.S. policy toward Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), three U.S.-China Communiques, and numerous presidential proclamations. Most do not address Taiwan’s participation in the global community. But some do.
The TRA is the most important document pertaining to Taiwan. In Section 4, Part B9 of the law, it declares that “nothing in this Act may be construed as a basis for supporting the exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan from membership in any international financial institution or any other international organization.” Moreover, the Clinton administration’s 1994 Taiwan Policy Review declared that “recognizing Taiwan’s important role in transnational issues, we will support its membership in organizations where statehood is not a prerequisite, and we will support opportunities for Taiwan’s voice to be heard in organizations where its membership is not possible.” This means that the U.S. will push for Taiwan’s participation, albeit as an “observer,” in UN-affiliated organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO).
For decades, U.S. diplomats have tried to find a way for Taiwan to participate in UN-affiliated organizations. For example, during a Congressional Hearing in 2004, James Kelly, then Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, testified that the George W. Bush administration had worked “intensively” with the Taiwan authorities to advance the goal of participation in the WHO. Kelly emphasized that “Taiwan’s problem obtaining observer status is certainly not due to a lack of U.S. commitment.”
The TISA is an effort to amend another unusual piece of Taiwan-related legislation—the so-called Taiwan Allies Protection and Enhancement Initiative of 2019. That law seeks to help prevent Taiwan’s diplomatic allies from dumping Taipei and switching diplomatic relations to Beijing (since its passage, two countries have dropped Taiwan leaving the island with 13 partners). In a nutshell, the TISA claims that UN Resolution 2758 only deals with the question of China’s UN representation and does not involve Taiwan’s participation in the UN and related organizations. It calls on the U.S. to use its influence to resist Beijing’s propaganda and promote Taiwan’s meaningful participation in such organizations. And it requires the Department of State to annually report to Congress on China’s efforts to undermine Taiwan’s participation in IGOs.
It is in everyone’s interest to support Taiwan’s application for observer status in all UN-affiliated bodies and help find ways for the island’s voice to be heard in the global institution. To do otherwise undermines the principle of international cooperation and constitutes a potential threat to the entire global community. But it must be understood that Taipei’s path to the UN runs through Beijing—not Washington, DC. Taiwan’s leadership knows this.
During the previous administration in Taiwan (2008-2016), the island participated in UN-affiliated meetings and events. President Ma Ying-jeou endorsed the “1992 consensus,” an understanding whereby both Taipei and Beijing appear to accept the principle of “One China,” but each side holds its own interpretation of what that means. Ma never agreed that Taiwan was part of the PRC. Rather, he emphasized repeatedly that “in this case, our interpretation of ‘One China’ is the ROC.” Moreover, he pledged to follow a “three no’s” approach to relations with Beijing—no unification, no independence and no war. Beijing could live with this position and acquiesced to Taipei’s participation as an observer in the WHO and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) after an absence of 38 years and 42 years, respectively. Taiwan’s position as an observer, however, was not permanent. For example, the WHO must abide by the terms of a 2005 Memorandum of Understanding with China that “essentially requires Beijing’s approval for Taiwan to participate in WHO activities.”
In 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, candidate of the independence leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was elected as President of the ROC. Despite warnings by PRC leaders, high-ranking members of the previous DPP administration, and astute academics, Tsai unilaterally junked the “1992 Consensus.” Doors to IGOs that had been opened during the Ma administration were slammed shut.
Those who claim that the U.S. can engineer Taiwan’s return to the UN are mistaken. Taipei’s admission to the UN is subject to a veto by any of the five permanent members of the Security Council (including China). Moreover, while some have argued hopefully that a uniform system for observers in the UN does not exist, permanent members of the Security Council may exercise a veto over all “nonprocedural matters.” In short, with its seat on the UN Security Council, Beijing may block Taipei’s entry as a full member, an observer, or in any other capacity.
Despite these facts, it appears that opinion is divided over whether the Senate will pass the TISA and whether Biden will sign it. In Taiwan, Yeh Chung-lu, Chair of National Chengchi University’s prestigious Department of Diplomacy, believes that it is unlikely that the bill will pass the Senate. Yeh explained that some parts of the bill are unnecessary as they contain the same provisions included in other legislation and other portions referencing the UN are “too provocative.” Scholars in the Chinese mainland aren’t so sure. Some argue that Biden’s China policy is steered primarily by domestic political considerations. Biden would rather “appease” the “China hawks” in Congress than be accused of “appeasing” Beijing.
Passage of the TISA will not help Taiwan gain a voice in IGOs. Instead, it might heighten cross-strait tensions and further damage Sino-American relations. And this is why the legislation ought to die in the U.S. Senate.