ASIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Taiwan and United Nations membership
, September 20, 2003
Taiwan, for the eleventh time, has applied to rejoin the United Nations. The UN membership bid has become something of an annual ritual for Taiwan and its allies - the group with which Taiwan retains formal ties, some 28 nations that consist mainly of smaller states in Central America, the Caribbean, the Pacific and Africa.
Taiwan is also applying to join the World Health Organisation, not as a sovereign state but as a "health entity," using a similar form to its membership in the World Trade Organisation, where it is a member as an "economic entity." However, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has a virtual veto over Taiwan's ambitions, and until its attitude changes, Taiwan will not be successful in joining the UN.
Taiwan's official name is the Republic of China, which has been the name of the government since 1911, when the revolutionaries lead by Sun Yat-sen overthrew the crumbling Ching Dynasty.
When the Communists under Mao Tse-tung captured Beijing, they declared a new political entity - the People's Republic of China. Having lost the civil war, the government of the Republic of China (ROC) under Chiang Kai-shek shifted the seat of government to Taiwan - although the "official" capital was often said to be Nanking. However, the ROC is now firmly established in Taiwan, although thereby hangs a tale.
Last weekend, tens of thousands of pro-independence supporters marched through the streets of Taipei, demanding a change in the island's official name - from the Republic of China to Taiwan - with the movement's leader the former President Lee Teng-hui calling the Republic of China "a nation that no longer exists.
"The ROC exists only in name, not in reality, and we should all work towards building a sovereign Taiwan," the 80-year-old Lee declared. "Use the name Taiwan to join the United Nations," the demonstrators chanted.
The march was supported by the governing party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and opposed by the opposition "pan blue" Kuomintang (KMT) and the People First Party (DPP), who organised two counter demonstrations the next day.
The DPP's leader, and its chairman, is President Chen Shui-bian, who kept a low profile, though the exercise was organized by the DPP. Chen has been behind in all reputable polls behind the "pan-blue" camp of the combined KMT and PFP. Chen's tactic is to try and consolidate his position as a local hero, while casting the opposition "pan blue" camp as the enemy of the local people people of Taiwan.
Chen is also planning a plebiscite on a number of topics, one of which is to be whether the voters are in favor of entry to the WHO, making it harder to maintain the official position that the WTO entry bid is "non political."
Part of Chen's plan seeks to goad the PRC into threatening Taiwan, which helped Lee win his election as a KMT candidate by standing up to Beijing. However, the Communist leadership has been quiet and has learned that threatening Taiwan will only serve to rally the local people behind Chen.
Another entity that has also been notably quiet on the plebiscite question is the United States. The semi-official American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) represents US interests, and the US carries a lot of weight as Taiwan's sole guarantor of its security.
It is often said in the Taiwan press that the U.S. is "morally and legally obligated" to defend Taiwan in the case of an attack by the PRC, but this is at least debatable. Under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) that governs relations between Taiwan and the US, Washington is required to sell Taiwan sufficient weapons to defend itself.
There is no mention of US forces defending Taiwan - that is the legal position. As to the moral position, it is true that Taiwan would almost certainly get U.S. support in the event of an attack across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan has many supporters in the US Congress, encouraged by the ROC's long history of friendship with the US, plus a growing Taiwanese Diaspora, which is vocal in its support of Taiwan's interests.
Beijing for its part, asserts that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a breakaway province that must eventually be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary.
Although reputable polls have repeatedly shown that most people want a continuation of Taiwan's ambiguous status quo, at the margins, local politics is bitterly divided between those who want an independent "Republic of Taiwan" and those who favor closer ties and eventual union with the mainland.
Although President Chen has a long history of support for Taiwan independence, he is choosing to stay in the background and leave the running to former President Lee, to avoid alienating the middle ground mainstream voters.
Reliable polls have repeatedly shown an advantage of around 10 percent for the opposition "pan blue" camp, and Chen must pull something out the hat if he wants to retain government. The rabbit is likely to be a threat from Beijing, though the new Beijing leadership has enough on its plate already without starting a new confrontation with Taiwan.
The current leadership is intent on economic development and terrified of the prospect of an end to foreign investment - and hence growth in jobs - and the social consequences of tens of millions of unemployed if the economy grinds to a halt.
- Jeffry Babb is an editor with the China Post, Taiwan's leading English language newspaper