Raising the Roof: Taiwan pitches the UN

Frank Ching | 06 Jul 2020

China and the United States have closed ranks in opposing the latest antic by Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian: to hold a referendum to see if the people of the island agree that it should apply to join the United Nations using the name Taiwan.

On the surface, this does not seem like much of an issue since Taiwan is not going to be admitted into the United Nations anyway regardless of what name it decides to use.

Nonetheless, Washington has made its displeasure known, with the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, warning on June 19 that the United States opposes "any initiative that appears designed to change Taiwan's status unilaterally" and that this would "include a referendum on whether to apply to the United Nations under the name Taiwan."

This followed an earlier statement by a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council in Beijing, Yang Yi, who charged that the real purpose of the referendum was to change the status of the island by moving towards the "de jure independence of Taiwan."

The fact that any application is doomed to failure is irrelevant since Chen's purpose is not to join the United Nations but rather to work up the Taiwan population in the months leading up to parliamentary and presidential elections early next year.

In Beijing, a scholar and Taiwan specialist saw the move as an attempt by Chen to "force middle of the roaders" to endorse the "two-states theory", namely that China and Taiwan are separate countries. "The mainland will never tolerate this," he said.

Past performance has shown that Mr Chen, whenever facing an election, would take action to energise his political base of pro-independence supporters. The real significance of this referendum is the laying of the groundwork for a formal change in name from "Republic of China" to "Taiwan."

If the referendum wins, whoever the next president may be will be put on notice that the island's populace prefers the name Taiwan to the "Republic of China."

Even if the referendum does not pass, it is likely to draw pro-independence voters to the ballot box and thus increase the number of seats won by the DPP in the parliamentary elections and, possibly, spell the difference between victory by Frank Hsieh, the DPP candidate, and Ma Ying-jeou, candidate of the opposition Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT).

Thus, President Chen has much to gain and little to lose. Even if Washington is upset by his defiance, it is not in a position to do much in terms of penalising him, other than by denying—or more likely restricting—his travel plans when he applies for a transit visa next month.

The reality is that Mr. Chen knows that he has the United States over a barrel. In spite of its official position of having no preference over whether Taiwan becomes independent or opts for unification with mainland China, it is widely assumed that Washington does not want to see Taiwan taken over by mainland China, thus increasing the power and influence of Beijing.

Besides, Chen can keep playing the democracy card and say that it is the right of the people of Taiwan to hold a referendum. In fact, he has already said that the American people, if not the State Department, are on his side.

And, from the look of things, he is also able to get the opposition Kuomintang to dance to his tune. Bereft of ideas of its own, the KMT now says that it, too, wants to propose a referendum on joining the United Nations, only it wants greater flexibility and so would adopt a name that would increase the island's chances of success rather than simply limit itself to one option.

In reality, both the KMT and the DPP know that the island's chance of joining the United Nations is nil, since Beijing, which holds a veto in the Security Council, is implacably opposed to Taiwan's membership in any form.

In the end, therefore, all this posturing about the United Nations is only meant to influence the outcome of the elections next year. The United States knows this too but does not want Taiwan to hold the referendum simply because it knows China will be angered. And China is opposed because it fears not only the short-term electoral impact of such a move but also the long-term effect such a referendum will have on the sense of Taiwan identity and the preference of Taiwan's 23 million people for separateness rather than unification with the mainland.

Frank Ching is a Hong-Kong based commentator. 

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