by Brian Hioe

Photo credit: Public Domain

PROVOKING OUTRAGE as of late among many members of the pan-Green camp has been the Tsai administration’s declaration that it will not seek for Taiwan to enter to the UN. Namely, the Tsai administration has decided that it will instead seek to increase Taiwan’s participation in international bodies and organizations, but not to seek to enter the UN.

This recent move of the Tsai administration represents not only further backsliding on the part of the Tsai administration in the months since Tsai’s inauguration. Rather, decidedly backing away from UN membership of Taiwan is reflective of the broader tendency towards short-termism on the part of the Tsai administration, with a lack of consideration of long-term ways to permanently secure and not just maintain Taiwan’s de facto independence from China.

It was, of course, disappointing to many supporters of Tsai who hoped that Tsai would break from Ma era policy that Tsai would declare that her administration would not be seeking admittance to the UN for Taiwan. The demand for Taiwan to be admitted to the UN—presumably under the name of “Taiwan” rather than the “Republic of China”—has historically been seen as the endpoint of realizing a permanent form of Taiwanese independence by many pro-Taiwan lobbying groups in the United States.

PhotoCreditTaiwan CommuniquéTaiwanese demonstrating in New York for admission of Taiwan to the UN. Photo credit: Taiwan Communiqué

This is particularly true regarding those groups founded by individuals who were blacklisted from entering Taiwan during the authoritarian period for demonstrating the KMT rule or advocating Taiwanese independence. Such overseas groups are sometimes quite influential behind the scenes in Taiwanese politics as political donors and opinion makers, although in recent years with a generational shift in Taiwanese-American politics, one has seen a drift towards a more abstract goal of “keeping Taiwan free” rather than seeking the concrete goal of admittance to the UN for Taiwan.

One suspects that, in fact, the admission of Taiwan into the UN would be far from endpoint of realizing a permanent form of Taiwanese independence but in fact open up its own can of worms. Probably the struggle to maintain Taiwan’s independence from China would continue even in the case of Taiwan being admitted to the UN, the UN becoming another site for contestation about sovereignty between Taiwan and China. The Tsai administration’s current strategy of attempting to increase Taiwan’s participation in international organizations has already led to many such contestations. To date, these have primarily revolved around the issue of under what auspices and what name Taiwan should participate in such organizations, when participation under the name “Taiwan” is usually barred and Taiwan is forced to participate using a name which includes some form of “China” in it, for example, regarding participation in the World Health Organization under the name “Chinese Taipei”. Yet it would be a retreat nonetheless for Taiwan to give up on the goal of seeking admittance to the UN as “unrealistic.”

Indeed, in consideration of this and other recent moves of the Tsai administration which are understood as political retrenchment, Tsai is severely running the risk of alienating her support base. But actions of the Tsai administration should not in fact be all that surprising to those who are now dismayed by what they see as a turnabout by the Tsai administration. The Tsai administration emphasized that it would not seek to rock the boat regarding Taiwan’s status in the world from the onset. Likewise, during past elections the Tsai administration was quite public in stating that its strategy for maintaining Taiwan’s current status of de facto independence would emphasize trying to increase Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and bodies. So, the Tsai administration cannot really be accused of having gone back on its campaign promises. Instead, more attention should have been paid to the publicly stated platforms of the Tsai administration, which could have allowed for criticism of her platform at that point in time, and pushed her on the issue of whether Taiwan should apply for UN status.

However, it would be quite odd that observers of Taiwanese politics have hailed the Tsai administration’s decision not to pursue UN membership for Taiwan as pragmatic and rational move. It should be obviously to all at this point that Tsai does not intend to pursue Taiwanese independence. Yet even for those who attempt to dismiss Taiwanese independence with the view that advocating it would be too dangerous for Taiwan in the present, if even trying to pursue UN membership for Taiwan is seen as an extreme move that Tsai should back away from in order to avoid being perceived as a dangerous provocateur in the Taiwan Straits, what then for Taiwan’s ability to secure permanent grounds for its current state of de facto independence? That would presumably have to be taken off the table forever, meaning Taiwan would always face the risk of forcible annexation from China.

This is a particularly strange view in consideration of the fact that seeking UN membership for Taiwan seems precisely like the sort of means of securing institutional leverage for Taiwan that those who view seeking Taiwanese independence as too dangerous for Taiwan in the present usually bank on. For example, if after so many years of keeping Taiwan out in the cold, we see greater security ties built between America and Taiwan with recent moves to take a stronger stance against China in the Asia-Pacific by America, this might be a crucial moment to push for UN admission for Taiwan.

Indeed, it is probably for fear of being perceived in line with how Chen Shui-Bian, Tsai’s DPP predecessor as president of Taiwan, was often perceived by the American security establishment that Tsai Ing-Wen would take such a conservative line—even regarding pursuing the admittance of Taiwan to the UN. That would be the first and not the least of the ways in which America has hardly been a reliable partner for Taiwan, but generally left Taiwan at the mercy of its security interests in the Asia-Pacific region—first backing the KMT for so many years, then retaining Taiwan in a limbo state of “strategic ambiguity” regarding whether it would back Taiwan against China in the case of invasion.

However, if the election of Tsai Ing-Wen as a decidedly less pro-China president than a KMT president would play into America’s policy moves aimed at containing the threat of a rising China, Tsai’s backing away from pursuing UN membership for Taiwan may in fact be quite out of step with the recent political trends in the Asia-Pacific. American actions in the region mean the present may be a more viable time to press for UN membership for Taiwan than in the past, rather than this simply being “unrealistic”.

Ultimately, the situation Taiwan needs to get out of is forever facing the threat of forcible annexation from China on one hand and, on the other hand, having its status in the world forever at the mercy of whether American security interests in the Asia-Pacific make it more useful to keep Taiwan close or keep it at a distance at any given moment. But Tsai Ing-Wen does not seem willing to press on issues regarding resolving Taiwan’s status when this may be more strategically viable than ever because of shifts in American policy, with even Taiwan seeking to enter the UN deemed as too extreme a measure. And so long-term solutions for permanently securing—or perhaps even maintaining—Taiwan’s de facto independence from China seem increasingly beyond the aspirations of the Tsai administration.

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