Last week, Palestine’s status at the UN was upgraded from an entity with permanent observer status to that of non-member state observer. In light of this development, it is now a good time to assess Taiwan’s bid to join the UN.
Under President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration, Taiwan became an observer to the World Health Assembly (WHA) in 2009. That year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sought meaningful participation in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). In both of these bids, the nation decided that it would follow the “WHA model,” which set the precedent for Taiwan’s engagement in UN agencies.
Thus far, Taiwan has not made much progress in participating meaningfully in the UNFCCC, but it has made positive progress regarding the International Civil Aviation Organization. This progress can be seen in the US Congress’ passage of Senate Concurrent Resolution 17 in September expressing the “sense of Congress that Taiwan should be accorded observer status in the ICAO.”
More significantly, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) said Beijing would “seriously study” the possibility of helping Taiwan participate in the aviation organization “in an appropriate way,” during a meeting with former vice president Lien Chan (連戰) ahead of the APEC’s leaders’ meeting.
Why does this discrepancy between the UNFCCC and ICAO exist regarding Taiwan’s membership bid? The main reason is the limited applicability of the WHA model, which comprises the following elements: First, Taiwan will participate under the name “Chinese Taipei.” Second, it will participate as an observer. Third, it will participate using official governmental representation.
A close analysis of the UN’s 15 specialized agencies reveals that this model is only strictly replicable for three of the agencies: the WHO, the ICAO and the World Meteorological Organization. The applicability of the WHA model to the ICAO partly explains why China has been somewhat receptive to Taiwan’s bid to join the organization. From the perspective of independence and sovereignty, participation in this body does not really push beyond what Taiwan has already achieved in the WHA.
Given the wide disparity in the organizational structures of various UN agencies, the WHA model cannot and should not be viewed as a one-size-fits-all solution for Taiwan’s bid to become a member of the UN. The decision to broadly apply the WHA model to other UN bodies has stuck the nation between a rock and a hard place in its bid for greater participation in international organizations.
On one hand, Taiwan is hesitant to change its strategy because of the resources that have already been spent pursuing this approach. On the other hand, the impasse with the UNFCCC is effectively blocking Taiwan from seeking participation in other UN agencies, as doing so without first achieving success with the UNFCCC and ICAO will make it appear as if the nation is targeting UN bodies haphazardly. In both cases, changing the nation’s UN strategy now may suggest a degree of sloppiness in its initial decisionmaking.
In conclusion, the nation’s bid for greater participation in the UN has been stalled by its ill-conceived attempt to apply the WHA model broadly. This obstacle could conceivably be overcome through goodwill from Beijing, but this is not the path Taiwan should take going forward in its aim to be a full member of international institutions.
Jerry Hsiao is a lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool and I-Chun Hsiao is a graduate student at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.