The End of the Road for Taiwan’s Participation in International Organizations?

Taiwan’s quest for participation in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is facing a bleak future, no matter what the outcome of the elections are  in January 2012. Taiwan’s most recent attempts to participate in the World Health Organization (WHO), albeit having eventually been successful, showed Taiwan’s failure to internationalize the issue of its participation in international organizations, with the issue instead entering  an internal cross-Straits framework, a trend which is unlikely to be averted again soon.

In its quest for observer status in the WHO’s World Health Assembly (WHA), after all other attempts had failed, Taiwan had taken its only available route out of the dilemma. Most other WHO members had displayed reluctance to push strongly for Taiwan’s participation in this state-based organization when faced with China’s opposition, and in the light of a thaw in cross-Strait relations, China had portrayed some willingness to work on a compromise with Taiwan. Eventually, Taiwan’s Kuomintang government talked directly to China in bilateral consultations behind closed doors and a solution was found. However, Taiwan might just have made a deal with the devil: the WHA experience sets an important precedent for Taiwan’s participation in other international organizations, especially for organizations anchored in the UN framework.

Taiwan is currently still engaged in attempts to obtain meaningful participation in the UNFCCC and the ICAO. Taiwan’s participation in UN sub-organizations, which all have statehood as a membership precondition, has always been regarded as a highly sensitive issue by other members of the international community. Now China and Taiwan have proven that they can work it out between themselves, and other major powers can thus back off from becoming involved. So far, only the US Senate has passed a resolution in support of Taiwan’s ICAO participation in summer 2011.

Hence, whether the current Taiwanese efforts will ever bear fruit seems to be almost entirely left to China’s goodwill, which will be contingent on the quality of cross-Strait relations after the upcoming leadership changes both in China and Taiwan in 2012.

Should Ma Ying-jeou remain president, expectations are that he will continue to promote conciliatory relations across the Strait, in which also Taiwan’s participation in international organizations can be discussed if only the government in Beijing is willing to offer a gesture. However, this is a condition not likely to be met, as China has no good reason for doing so.

With Tsai Ing-wen in power, cross-Strait relations are bound to re-enter a period of tension, in which China might even revoke its agreement for Taiwan’s observer status in the WHA. Other pushes for participation in international organizations by a future DPP government will most likely refocus more strongly on portraying Taiwan as a sovereign state, and therefore will not be welcomed either by China or other big powers.

However, even in the most optimistic future projections concerning Taiwan’s stance, there appears to be little incentive for China to strive for a better Taiwanese inclusion in more UN-related organizations. Taiwan’s WHA participation has shown little of the desired effect to boost the current KMT leadership in Taiwan, and in contrast to the WHO case there is next to no international pressure on China to move forward in the UNFCCC and ICAO. Moreover, China is on the verge of a leadership change. China’s leaders have all been notorious for leaving their mark on Beijing’s Taiwan policy, and bearing in mind that time is playing against Taiwan with increasing cross-Strait economic interdependence as well as China’s rise, the future Chinese government is unlikely to be too forthcoming to Taiwan.

In short, Taiwan’s quest for participation in international organizations has entered a cul-de-sac, without much space for backing out while being caught in the narrow alley of Taiwan’s ambiguous international status.

Dr Sigrid Winkler is Senior Associate Research Fellow at Free University of Brussels and is currently conducting field work in Taiwan. She can be reached at