Taiwan should concentrate on economy, not UN membership

Latest bid to join international body is not only doomed to fail but will incur the wrath of Beijing at a time when the economy is already in the doldrums

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 September, 2016, 6:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 September, 2016, 6:03am

The tenacity of Taiwan’s former Democratic Progressive Party defence minister Michael Tsai Ming-hsien in trying to gain UN membership for the island is unquestioned. With the General Assembly meeting in New York, he is spearheading a 13th consecutive bid. But as passionate as he and his supporters are, he has to also be acutely aware of how futile the effort is. China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, has veto power and none of its fellow members, the US, Russia, Britain and France, support the cause.

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Tsai and others in his Taiwan United Nations Alliance and many in the ruling, pro-independence, DPP, contend that the island’s 23 million people should have a separate UN seat. The UN in 1971 switched China’s representation from Taipei to Beijing and does not recognise the Republic of China. David Lee Ta-wei, the minister for foreign affairs in President Tsai Ing-wen’s government, has a more reasonable approach, having said last month that the administration would not seek membership and would instead push for “meaningful participation” in UN-affiliated agencies. It already has that status in dozens of international bodies, among them the World Health Organisation and World Trade Organisation.

Still, Michael Tsai believes the cause is worth pursuing, especially now that the DPP is back in power. Former Kuomintang president Ma Ying-jeou did not support the idea and it was not on his agenda during his eight years as leader. But the issue rears its ugly head each time the DPP takes office.

Regardless of which party is in government, though, the political environment in Taiwan is such that the lobbying is always taking place. Nations with diplomatic ties with Taiwan are given “official development assistance”, funds that also imply a duty to provide support for causes; in 2014, the amount was US$268 million. How much Michael Tsai and his 45-strong team of lobbyists will spend this year is a secret, but there is no doubt that such funds would be better deployed helping the island’s people.

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The economy is in the doldrums, made worse by Tsai Ing-wen’s policy failures towards the mainland. Her refusal to acknowledge the 1992 consensus that there is only one China has harmed ties, to the point that trade and tourism have been affected. The GDP growth forecast for Taiwan for this year is just 1.1 per cent, far below the rest of the region, and exports continue to fall while wages remain stagnant. Economic development, not a seat on the UN, should be the priority.