Last week’s vote at the UN General Assembly to make Palestine a “non-member observer state” was a rare bit of good news from a region that often provides more than its share of misery. Besides breathing new life into the possibility of a two-state solution, the decision could also create a precedent for another seemingly intractable conflict of equal duration, that of Taiwan’s status vis-a-vis China.
Palestine’s journey from “non-member observer entity” to “non-member observer state” was not easy, nor was it uncontroversial. Furthermore, this new status, which is now equal to that of the Vatican, does not resolve a number of substantive issues, such as Israeli settlements or Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Nevertheless, the development shows that even with staunch opposition within the UN system — including from the US, a permanent Security Council member, and Israel — weaker polities can make progress toward having their voices heard at the international level.
The question, then, is if Palestine can score such a victory, why can’t Taiwan? Tempting though it might be to draw parallels, one should approach the question with the knowledge that there is no such thing as a perfect analogy. The conflict pitting Palestine against Israel does have an indisputable David-versus-Goliath element reminiscent of that between Taiwan and China. In addition to the asymmetry of power between the opponents, the stronger entity also tends to rely on historical (and in Israel’s case, religious) “right” to claim parts or the entirety of another people’s territory.
That said, there are also substantial differences, including the decision by Taiwanese not to resort to force or terrorism against the stronger opponent, as well as the tremendous influence that China has over UN members — something that cannot be said of Israel, with its much smaller economy. More significantly, while some Israeli politicians like former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who is angling for a comeback in next year’s election, have stated their support for Palestine’s new status at the UN and a two-state solution, the latter outcome is exactly what Beijing does not want to see.
Part of the reason why 138 UN members voted in favor of granting Palestine status as a non-member observer state is the realization that anything short of a two-state solution will only yield one thing: more violence, which threatens not only the belligerents themselves, but stability within the entire region, while having the side effect of providing a “rationale” for global terrorism.
In that respect, Taiwan’s situation is more similar to that of Palestine than it might appear. Despite the rapprochement that has occurred between Taipei and Beijing since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in 2008, the chasm that exists between the peoples on both sides of the Taiwan Strait remains as wide as ever, if not more so as China becomes more nationalistic and its leadership more paranoid. Growing trade and investment figures across the Taiwan Strait notwithstanding, the fact remains that the political conflict is far from resolved.
Absence of war does not mean absence of conflict, and the closer Taiwan gets to when Beijing starts applying pressure to enter negotiations on Taiwan’s status, the more evident the tectonic pressures of identity will become. Unless we experience a sudden and unlikely shift in decades-old trends in Taiwanese self-identification, those tensions will remain and will become more serious. As such, barring an invasion by China, peaceful unification will remain a very distant possibility.
Finding alternative ways to avoid armed conflict and to address the resulting tensions will not only be the responsibility of Taiwanese and Chinese themselves, but that of the international community as well. What better forum than the UN to seek out such solutions?