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Taiwan's place in the international space

By Ming Hwa Ting - posted Monday, 4 January 2010

Since Taiwan withdrew from the United Nations in 1971, it became a pseudo-pariah country as other states  ceased recognising it in favour of China. Adhering to the “One China” policy, China opposes Taiwan’s membership of various UN bodies. Hence, Taiwan was officially excluded from the Copenhagen summit and its delegation could only be registered as a non-governmental organisation from Hsinchu, China.

Thus far, Taiwan has been rather unsuccessful in gaining admission to various multilateral institutions. It was only in May 2009, after repeated attempts, that Taiwan managed to gain observer status in the World Health Assembly. China’s strident opposition against Taiwan’s participation during the summit itself was very clear when the Chinese delegate flatly rejected the request of Gambian Vice-President Isatou Njie-Saidy to admit Taiwan, while in his seat, without even bothering to move to the podium to register his opposition.

Taiwan seeks to establish and maintain international exposure and space, and it can achieve this objective by adopting a coherent policy of environmental diplomacy. In the past, Taiwan resorted to aid diplomacy and democracy promotion, but since only 23 states currently recognise Taiwan, these two policies have been proven to be largely ineffective. However, the issue of climate change provides Taiwan with a suitable platform to create a niche for itself within international society.


Taiwan has limited representation in multilateral institutions. However, it is a member of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which have been devoting much attention to the issue of climate change. For instance, the ADB provides developmental aid and assistance to 14 Pacific developing member-countries such as Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, the Solomon Islands as well as Tuvalu, which are all Taiwanese allies. In October 2009, the ADB released its “Pacific Approach 2010-2014” that sets out its blueprint to promote sustainable development through enhanced close co-operation between the governmental and non-governmental organisations there.

As a member of the ADB, Taiwan is therefore in a position to contribute funding and technological assistance to these states. This benefits Taiwan because disbursing funds through the ADB reduces direct comparison and competition between the various allies.

At the same time, Taiwan can also leverage on its links with the Vatican, which has become increasingly environmentally conscious to differentiate itself from China and gain diplomatic space in the process.

Many Taiwanese do not see themselves as Chinese. Early this week, when Chen Yunlin, the top Chinese official in charge of Taiwanese affairs visited Taiwan and met with his counterpart Chiang Pin-kung, it resulted in popular protests as many Taiwanese were against closer economic relations with China. Although it may not be possible for Taiwan to remain aloof from China economically due to globalisation, co-operation with the Vatican on environmental initiatives may assist in Taiwan’s push for a separate identity.

When Pope John Paul II made the opening address at the 1990 World Peace Day, he said that the emerging global “ecological awareness ... rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives”. In March 2008, the Vatican updated the seven deadly sins and included blatant environmental degradation as one of them.

Pope Benedict XVI stated that an individual would also “offend God ... by ruining the environment ...”


At the 2009 World Peace Day, Pope Benedict XVI re-visited this environmental theme, and emphasised the importance of protecting the environment. On a more serious note, the Vatican also seeks to use its moral legitimacy to cajole states into doing more to combat climate change. While attending the Copenhagen climate summit, the Vatican’s nuncio’s to the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore said that, “The wisest and most effective programs focus on information education and the formation of the sense of responsibility in children and adults toward environmentally sound patterns of development and stewardship of creation”.

Taiwan has experience in environmental risk management and disaster relief as it is quite prone to natural disasters such as typhoons and flooding. Hence it is in the position to share its experience and expertise with its Pacific allies - the very areas that the World Bank’s 2006 Not If but When report recommended that efforts should be directed at.

Given China’s rather unco-operative stance at the Copenhagen climate summit Pacific island states are unlikely to warm to it as one of the world’s largest polluters. Consequently, any efforts by Taiwan to help them would be appreciated. Also, climate change is a global issue that requires global action. Such island-states will therefore not have inflated expectations of what Taiwan can achieve and, hence, are less likely to be disappointed.

At the same time, the Pacific island states are also unlikely to be punished by China for recognising Taiwan. When Macedonia switched recognition to Taiwan in February 1999, China abused its position in the UNSC to veto the extension of the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force (Macedonia switched its allegiance back to China in November 2000). The Macedonia issue only affected the Balkan region and so the impact was limited. With climate change, the effects are global and any attempts by China to derail any initiatives would undermine Chinese claims of being a responsible stakeholder in international society.

With China’s economic power increasing so rapidly, Taiwan needs to be diplomatically astute and adroit to maintain its limited international space. The current global attention on climate change and China’s reluctance to play a more pro-active role on this issue provides the perfect Trojan horse for Taiwan to push its own foreign policy agenda and create a distinct international identity.

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About the Author

Ming Hwa Ting is a doctoral candidate and Bill Cowan-Barr Smith Library Research Fellow at the Centre for Asian Studies, University of Adelaide. His previous articles have been published by Academia Sinica and Australasian Political Studies Association. His forthcoming works will be published by the New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies and the Austrian Journal of Southeast Asian Studies.

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