Taiwan's Unique UN Opportunity

This article first appeared in Taiwan’s Do Post.

Actions taken at the United Nations this last week symbolized the continuation of a dramatic shift in world politics, and presented unique challenges and opportunities for Taiwan going forward.

When bureaucrats in the room laughed at President Trump’s assertion of US sovereignty, they failed to recognize a trend seen most clearly in the 2016 US election and England’s Brexit: a turn away from globalism and a return to state sovereignty and national patriotism. This trend puts Taiwan in a challenging position as it seeks international recognition through the UN.

Taiwan representatives and supporters made a meaningful effort to earn positive attention for Taiwan by highlighting the injustice of excluding the free people of Taiwan at the behest of an authoritarian bully. But it is not a fair fight. The economic and military strength of the island of Taiwan will always pale when compared to China.

Even still, by any just and reasonable measure Taiwan is qualified for membership in the UN General Assembly and already is a more responsible stakeholder in the international community than most of the body’s membership combined. But in this instance, there is only one qualification standard that matters: international recognition as a sovereign nation.

While reasonable people may debate the value and effectiveness of United Nations membership absent significant reform, if it is the majority will of the Taiwan people to seek membership, there are two things worthy of consideration.

First, President Trump’s challenge to choose “independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination” is a clear paraphrase of the direction Taiwan should look in order to engage with countries of consequence on the world stage. A formal spot in the UN is not necessary to engage in free trade with any of the nations currently in the UN, nor is it necessary for business investment, national and homeland security cooperation, or student exchange programs.

Second, before any meaningful progress can be expected on Taiwan’s potential UN membership, Taiwan must secure significant progress in diplomatic relations (even formal recognition) with major nations. Everyone knows the biggest obstacle to Taiwan’s entering the UN is Beijing, whose money buys allies and votes at the UN and whose veto effectively blocks even meaningful participation, not to mention membership. The only way this changes is with a shift in diplomatic recognition of Taiwan by countries of consequence. While some may say this is impossible or unrealistic, I would argue it is more possible and realistic under current circumstances than at any time since betrayal of the people of Taiwan spread widely over the 1970s.

In an effort to gain international recognition, Taiwan should seek to meet countries where they are. In a time where nations, but even more importantly the voters in countries of consequence, are trending away from globalism toward a renewed sense of independence and wariness of China. Taiwan has an opportunity to play on that. While a focus on entrance into the UN is, and should be, a strategic goal, progress can be made in bilateral agreements and more formal recognition by influential nation states to move Taiwan in that direction.