Membership in the United Nations is supposed to be "open to all . . . peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained" in the U.N. Charter, as the selfsame charter puts it. In a rational world, a country with the world's 18th largest economy, which is formally and diplomatically recognized by other member states and is a practicing liberal democracy, would be a slam dunk for membership. But of course the U.N.'s history is replete with resolutions and decisions that are at odds with its own charter and lofty goals. So, to no one's surprise, the Republic of China (Taiwan) has been denied membership in that august body for the 15th year in a row.
But this year was different. In mid-July, President Chen Shui-bian submitted the application letter under the name "Taiwan" instead of "Republic of China." The ostensible reason for doing so was that, having failed repeatedly in the past with the moniker ROC, it was thought best to try something new, using the name now commonly employed by both the people of Taiwan and much of the globe when talking about the self-governing island. The real reason for the switch of course was President Chen's desire to reaffirm to his constituents at home and to the wider world his view that Taiwan is in fact an independent, sovereign entity that is distinct from mainland China.
Within days, President Chen had his answer. Not only did the U.N. Secretariat reject the application, but new secretary-general Ban Ki-moon defended the decision by citing U.N. Resolution 2758, saying that it stipulated that "the government of China is the sole and legitimate government and the position of the United Nations is that Taiwan is part of China." But that 1971 resolution, which was intended to expel the Republic of China from the U.N., give its permanent seat on the Security Council to the People's Republic of China, and to "recognize" the Communist regime in Beijing "as the only legitimate representatives of China to the United Nations," said nothing at all about Taiwan being part of China.
Putting aside the fact that passage of the resolution itself--by a simple majority vote of the General Assembly--was a violation of the U.N.'s own rules for addressing such questions, U.N. Resolution 2758 did not deal with the issue of Taiwan. Indeed, as a matter of history and international law, the San Francisco Peace Treaty--the 1951 accord signed by 49 states formally ending the war with Japan--explicitly left open "the future status of Taiwan." And to this day it has not been formally settled. As recently as this summer, the State Department allowed that, as far as the U.S. government was concerned, the PRC is "the sole legal government of China, [but] we have not formally recognized Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan." Unless Secretary-General Ban has now taken on a second job as a foreign policy spokesman for China, he has exceeded his brief in conflating the question of who represents China at the U.N. with the status of Taiwan.
There is in fact no good reason for Taiwan or, if one prefers, the Republic of China, not to be a member of the United Nations. Certainly, the U.N. is no stranger to figuring out ways to accommodate membership for states with complicated or even dubious sovereignty issues. From the start, for example, the Soviet Union insisted that Ukraine and Byelorussia, today's Belarus, have votes in the General Assembly along with its own, despite the fact that both republics were clearly governed by and from Moscow. Or take India, a member even before its formal split with Britain.
More recently, prior to unification, the U.N. saw two Germanys, the Federal Republic of the West and the East's German Democratic Republic, holding separate seats in the assembly. Even today, there are two Koreas, divided as Germany once was, not because of some inherent distinction but because of the reality of conquering armies and foreign occupations. Taiwan has a far stronger case that it has an identity apart from the mainland than either the divided Germany had or the two Koreas have today. And again, as a state that is recognized by other member states, under international law the Republic of China has sovereign status, regardless of whether Washington has formal diplomatic relations with Taipei.
Perhaps the strongest advocate for employing diplomatic legerdemain at the U.N. on behalf of the ROC was President Bush's father, former president and U.N. ambassador George Herbert Walker Bush. Trying to head off a vote on Resolution 2758, Ambassador Bush put forward a U.S. proposal for "dual representation," with the PRC taking the Security Council seat, while leaving the ROC with a place in the General Assembly. Bush argued that "we face a reality, not a theory. Our proper concern must be to do justice to the complex reality that exists today in the form of effective governing entities"--that is, the PRC and the ROC.
However, giving the people of Taiwan their due seems to be the last thing on anyone's mind these days. Rather, placating Beijing by letting it dictate what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to Taiwan's international personality is the order of the day. Yet doing so only reinforces in China's mind that it can get away with bullying Taiwan every chance it gets--which in turn feeds Taiwan's need to push back, if for no other reason than national self-respect.
Even the Kuomintang, the main opposition in Taiwan to President Chen's Democratic Progressive party and the party most open to some sort of official reconciliation with the mainland, is supporting initiatives seeking U.N. membership. And the reason is pretty straightforward. In today's Taiwan, if you want to win an election, you have to show you care about maintaining the country's sovereignty. Until Washington understands that dynamic, it will continually be taken by surprise by the democratic politics of Taiwan. And unless Washington begins to take a more assertive position in helping Taiwan find its space on the international stage, it can count on being caught up in a cycle of Taiwan Strait crises that are getting no less dangerous for all involved.
Perhaps a good, first step in breaking this cycle would be for the folks at Foggy Bottom to make clear to the new secretary-general that a "clarification" by him is in order.
Gary Schmitt is director of AEIâ€ s program on advanced strategic studies.