Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020. More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.
Thomas J. Shattuck is a Research Associate in the Asia Program and the Managing Editor at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Mr. Shattuck was a member of the 2019 class of scholars at the Global Taiwan Institute, receiving the Taiwan Scholarship. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: Taiwan requires options to better compete with China in international organizations below the threshold of conflict.
Date Originally Written: July 24, 2020.
Date Originally Published: October 14, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a research associate at a non-partisan foreign policy think tank.
Background: One of the key national security priorities of the People’s Republic of China is to force Taiwan into unification. Part of that strategy is to limit Taiwan’s ability to participate fully in the international community, specifically in international organizations in which Taiwan is not a full member. Such pressure would be removed upon China-Taiwan unification.
Significance: In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the full participation and cooperation of the entire international community is needed to understand best practices in limiting the spread of the virus. The pandemic has shown the importance of public and global health for a country’s national security. Taiwan’s exclusion from the May 2020 United Nations (UN) World Health Assembly—after dual campaigns by major international players in support of Taiwan’s observership bid and by China to keep Taiwan out—demonstrates the danger and limitations of excluding certain states based on their geopolitical situation. Taiwan is prevented from learning important information or receiving key data in a timely fashion. Also, it is more difficult for Taiwan to share its expertise in stopping the virus’ spread, something that Taipei has succeeded at doing despite its limitations. The spread of viruses endangers the entire world, and political maneuvering by Beijing has damaged the global response effort.
Option #1: Taipei works with like-minded nations, particularly the United States, to develop a new, non-UN-membership-based international entity, initially focused on health issues with a plan for expansion into other areas.
Risk: There are two primary risks to such an endeavor. The first risk is the possibility that Beijing will pressure nations into not participating. By threatening various economic or political repercussions, leaders in China have been able to stop Taiwan from expanding its international participation. Such a campaign would likely occur in light of any effort by Taipei to work around current Beijing-imposed limitations. If such a new entity does not receive enough international buy-in, then Taipei risks getting embarrassed for failing to garner support. Second, Beijing would likely direct even greater backlash at Taipei for attempting to challenge it internationally. This could include more assertive military exercises in the Taiwan Strait.
Gain: Successfully establishing a new international entity would demonstrate that Taipei does not have to live within Beijing-imposed boundaries. As the recent COVID-19 example has shown, Taiwan has much to contribute internationally, but international organizations and members will quickly revert to Beijing’s stance when it comes to Taiwan. It was Taipei that first sounded the alarm regarding the potential danger of COVID-19. Without those confines, Taiwan would be able to showcase its COVID-19 success story and teach other nations its best public health practices. It also would be able to receive information in a timelier fashion. Taiwan’s international participation would no longer be limited by the current status of cross-Strait relations and could be further integrated into the international community. Such an effort would complement the Trump administration’s desire to form some sort of “alliance of democracies” to meet the China challenge.
Option #2: Taiwan relaunches its bid for membership in the UN so that it could become a full member of all UN-affiliated international organizations and ones that require statehood for membership.
Risk: Any attempt by Taipei to join the United Nations will be stopped by Beijing. The vote would fail in the same way that Taiwan’s bids for guest or observer status in international organizations have since 2016. Depending on the form that such a bid takes (i.e., independence referendum for establishment of the “Republic of Taiwan”), the bid could have catastrophic effects, i.e., Chinese military action against Taiwan or an invasion. If such a move is conducted similarly to past attempts, then it would cause Beijing to lash out in a ways below the threshold of war—perhaps more intense forms of aggression that have become regularized since 2016.
Gain: Even though a UN membership bid would fail, it would once again place Taiwan’s confusing geopolitical status in the limelight. Taiwan’s international plight receives sympathetic news coverage in democratic nations, and forcing countries to vote for the record on where it stands on this issue could spark new conversations about a country’s relationship with Taiwan. With increasingly assertive and aggressive actions by Beijing on various fronts, launching a UN membership bid could help Taipei enhance ties with current “friends” or find new ones because how China treats Taiwan would be given even greater focus across the world. The current international spotlight on China’s behavior at home and abroad may lead to countries working to strengthen relations with Taiwan. Positive outcomes are possible even if the membership bid fails.
Other Comments: None.
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