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Is there potential for greater Taiwanese involvement in the international community?

By Sinclaire Prowse - posted Monday, 7 October 2013

Taiwan is a society that closely resembles many other middle power economies around the world. It possesses a thriving economy, an intelligent workforce and a cosmopolitan citizenry. It is a sizeable member of the international community; its population is greater than two-thirds of the world's other nations and it contributes significantly to global GDP. Despite this, Taiwan is refused the right to gain representation and participate in some of the world's most important forums and symposiums.

A number of important episodes have played out this year which suggest that it is disadvantageous for the international community to exclude Taiwan from involvement in key regional and global organizations. For example, Taiwan is currently unable to formally join the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), despite million of travelers entering Taiwanese airspace each year. The Taiwanese government has been campaigning for full involvement in ICAO since 2009 in order to ensure they have a stake in the safety of passengers flying in and out of Taiwan. Thanks to the assistance of the United States, Taiwan has recently been granted limited 'observer status' in meetings, giving delegates the right to attend meetings but not to speak. Considering the significance of international civil aviation to a country with a similar population to that of Australia or Malaysia, it is difficult to find a legitimate reason to exclude Taiwan from full ICAO membership status.

Further, Taiwan is not permitted to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), despite Taipei voluntarily adhering to UNCLOS guidelines. Had Taiwan been a formal member of UNCLOS, greater diplomatic and legal options would have been available to deal with the situation surrounding the Filipino shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman in May 2013. Instead, an unnecessary crisis ensued between the two countries, whereby Taipei imposed punitive economic sanctions on the Philippines, deeply affecting the Filipino labor industry. Relations between Taipei and Manila have been tense since this episode and look likely to remain so. This episode suggests that denying Taiwan access to some of the simplest of formal interactions and institutions may be putting the stability of the Asia Pacific region at risk.


Taiwandeserves to have a greater say in a world to which they contribute so much. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has emphasized the important role Taiwan plays in "Asia's economic integration, as a regional headquarters for foreign investors, a global innovation center, and as a higher education center". However, the usefulness of Taiwan's role in these areas is jeopardized by the inability to be involved in crucial world forums and negotiations.

Another area that will continue to be important to Taiwan's role in the international community is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Taiwanese officials have shown interest in participating in the TPP and some have even suggested Taiwan must engage in regional economic integration schemes at all costs. However, countries involved in TPP negotiations have shown little or no interest in having Taiwan enter negotiations. Despite currently possessing important trade deals with China and New Zealand, some have suggested Taiwan is not ready to enter negotiations and needs to make itself less protectionist before being considered.

It is clearly in the interest of most nations to respect the One China Policy and avoid antagonizing China. It is also clear that most Taiwanese are happy to maintain the cross-strait status quo based on the principles of 'no unification, no independence and no use of force'. However, given the current position Taiwan holds in the world, perhaps it is necessary to re-assess ways in which Taiwan could forge a path for itself in the international community. These recent examples show that the ambiguity of Taiwan's current status in the international community is potentially damaging not only for the society itself, but also for the region and the world. Taiwan is a fully capable society which in every conceivable way resembles the nations which enjoy unfettered access to important international tools.

While it may be a desirable outcome, it is unlikely that China is going to allow Taiwan greater participation in the international community any time soon. Given the current strength of China's position in the region and the world, any lenience given to Taiwan may be interpreted by the international community as a weakening of China. Given the historical and psychological importance of Taiwan to China, this would be symbolically devastating. Under the 'One China' principle, China believes that their representation on behalf of Taiwan inevitably serves Taiwan's best interests. Given this, it is clear that Taiwan will continue to be held on a short leash by China and not allowed much more independence of movement within the international system.

The relative eclipse of Taiwan as a factor in US-China relations, as evidenced at the 2013 Sunnylands meeting between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, serves as further evidence of this. Despite close links between Taiwan and the US, it is clear that the development of a workable long-term relationship between China and the US will be placed far above the question of greater Taiwanese independence.

Although Taiwan's status as a thriving society should equate to equal representation and access to the international system, it is highly unlikely that China is going to make concessions any time soon. Taiwan is likely to continue to sit back and play a backstage role in international relations for the foreseeable future.

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About the Author

Sinclaire Prowse is a postgraduate research student at the University of Sydney and a non-resident fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. Her research is in Pacific security and threat perception and she is currently living in Taipei, studying Chinese on a government scholarship.

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