By the end of the day, the Republic of China (ROC), a government that fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949, was out of the global organization. Instead, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Communist government that took power in the mainland, was recognized as the “only legitimate representative of China” and admitted into the UN as a permanent member of the veto-wielding Security Council.
After the Communist victory and founding of the PRC in 1949, both the Nationalist and Communist governments claimed to be the sole representatives of the entire Chinese territory, forcing other countries and international organizations to choose one or the other.
The UN, too, was forced to choose — and the fateful vote in 1971 ultimately reflected the shift in which “China” its members had decided to recognize.
In the decades since the vote, the resolution has helped shape China’s rise as a world power and granted it broad voting power in “participating in the UN bureaucracy and shaping the language of UN resolutions,” said Maggie Lewis, an expert in contemporary Chinese law at Seton Hall University.
And under increasing pressure from Beijing, Taiwan has steadily become ever more diplomatically isolated, excluded from major agencies like the World Health Organization.
In a statement Saturday, the US State Department said US and Taiwanese officials had met for a “discussion focused on supporting Taiwan’s ability to participate meaningfully at the UN.”
“US participants reiterated the US commitment to Taiwan’s meaningful participation at the World Health Organization and UN framework convention on climate change and discussed ways to highlight Taiwan’s ability to contribute to efforts on a wide range of issues,” it added.
Unsurprisingly, the statement was met with indignation in China, which considers such suggestions a dangerous signal to advocates of Taiwan’s formal independence.
Chinese state media quickly blasted the Biden administration as “the most incapable and degenerate in the country’s history,” adding that Taiwan had “fabricated history and betrayed morality.” The push for Taiwan’s participation in the UN was a “cheap shot” and “shameless manipulation,” it said.
The 1971 resolution “merely decided upon the question of credentials — that is, the question of who represents the UN member state China, without implying a position on the scope of its territory, let alone endorsing the PRC’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan,” said Liang-yu Wang, Deputy Representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in the US, the island’s de facto embassy, on Thursday.
“But all the years, China has made the leap from a matter of accreditation, to a political statement, even a legal claim,” she added. “Therefore, nowadays the resolution is often wrongly cited to exclude Taiwan’s participation in the meetings and activities in the UN system.”
Even “superficial participation” has been blocked — and meaningful participation will be even harder, said Chinese law expert Lewis. In the eyes of Beijing, even the most marginal inclusion for Taiwan into the UN could undermine its claim of sovereignty — a bottom line it has vowed to defend at all cost.