US, China lock horns in renewed debate over Taiwan’s UN status

Taiwan's former President Tsai Ing-wen and new President Lai Ching-te wave to people during the inauguration ceremony on May 20. - Reuters

BEIJING: The United States and China are embroiled in a renewed debate over a landmark United Nations resolution that ceded Taiwan’s UN seat to China, as part of a growing American pushback against Chinese pressure on the self-governing island.

The latest debate gained steam in April when the Washington-based German Marshall Fund think-tank published a report highlighting so-called “mischaracterisations” by China on Resolution 2758, which was passed by the UN General Assembly on Oct 25, 1971.

The resolution had recognised the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the “only legitimate representatives of China to the UN”, and expelled the “representatives of Chiang Kai-shek”, who led the Kuomintang government in Taiwan until 1975.

The 53-page, Taipei-funded report argued that while the resolution gave the PRC the exclusive role of representing China in the UN and related organisations, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), it did not go further to address the international legal status of Taiwan.

On May 20, China’s Foreign Ministry disputed the findings of the report, saying that Resolution 2758 reaffirmed the “one China” principle, which is China’s view that there is only one sovereign China, represented by the PRC government.

A ministry spokesman said US claims that the resolution did not make a determination on the status of Taiwan nor preclude its meaningful participation in the UN system were “a lie”.

“They are trying to reopen the closed case that Taiwan is part of China – a matter already settled by the international community once and for all – to deny UNGA Resolution 2758 and the ‘one China’ principle,” he said.

China has cited Resolution 2758 as justification to deny Taiwan participation in the UN system – such as the annual meeting of the WHO’s decision-making body – without Beijing’s approval.

The tussle comes as the independence-leaning Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party government took office on May 20.

China has tightened the pressure on Taiwan in recent years, from conducting stepped-up war games and coast guard patrols to launching anti-dumping probes.

At an event to launch the German Marshall Fund report on April 29, US state department official Mark Lambert said: “We need to collectively push back at China’s mischaracterisation of Resolution 2758 so that countries around the world know that they can maintain or develop robust relationships with Taiwan.”

Lambert, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for China and Taiwan, cited how the South Pacific island nation of Nauru had used Resolution 2758 as part of its justification when it switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in January 2024 as an example of a wrongful conflation of the resolution with the “one China” principle.

Analysts said that both the US’ and China’s interpretations of the resolution have some validity.

Associate professor of political science Huang Chin-Hao said the US – since then President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 – has recognised the PRC government as the legal government of China, but it has not gone beyond acknowledging Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan.

On the other hand, Beijing thought it had obtained America’s commitments about its status as the sole government of China and – by extension – that there is only one China that Taiwan is a part of, said Prof Huang, who is from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS.

“Both sides were basically speaking past each other, but they were also willing to look over these kinds of different interpretations at that time, because of the larger goal of achieving normalisation,” said Prof Huang, an expert in Chinese foreign and security policy.

“The clarification that the Americans are now trying to make, I think, is not necessarily trying to change the status quo per se, but to make the point clear to China and the international community that there is a clear distinction between the (US’) ‘one China’ policy and (China’s) ‘one China’ principle.”

The US’ “one China” policy recognises the PRC as the sole legal government of China, while maintaining unofficial relations with Taiwan. China’s “one China” principle unambiguously states that Taiwan is a part of China.

For decades since the establishment of ties in 1979, the US had not openly challenged China’s claim over Taiwan, and kept a low profile when it came to its official ties with the island.

But in recent years, US officials and politicians have made frequent visits to Taiwan with full media coverage. They have also argued for Taiwan to be allowed to participate in multilateral organisations.

Kevin Magee, a fellow at the Australia-China Relations Institute from the University of Technology Sydney who researches cross-Strait ties, believes the issue has resurfaced as a response to the pressure that Beijing is putting on Taipei, as well as the growing competition between the US and China.

“For a long time the US avoided this issue with China because it would just cause friction, but US-China relations are becoming more confrontational, so they can now take this position (of drawing attention to the Chinese interpretation of the resolution),” said Magee, a former Australian diplomat of 34 years who served in Beijing and Taipei.

He noted that while Western countries, from the US to Britain and Australia, have more nuanced “one China” policies that “acknowledge” China’s position on Taiwan, the majority of Global South countries accept Beijing’s “one China” principle.

Professor of practice of international affairs Robert Sutter was more critical of China’s interpretation of the resolution, viewing it as “information warfare” against Taiwan.

“It’s using pressure to influence the UN in this way... This shows remarkable hubris and obviously is not ‘seeking truth from facts’,” said Prof Sutter of George Washington University, referring to a slogan popularised by Mao Zedong on the value of pragmatism over theory. - The Straits Times/ANN

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Taiwan , US , China , UN , resolution


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