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Taiwan’s push for UN membership given fresh impetus by former defence minister

Taiwan’s push to join the United Nations was on the back-burner for the eight years of the Ma Ying-jeou administration but has come back to life this year in a campaign spearheaded by a former defence minister.

Ahead of a series of high-level meetings to be held in New York later this week, Michael Tsai Ming-hsien, a former minister in the Chen Shui-bian government, has been trying to drum up support for Taiwan’s bid to join the international body.

Tsai leads the Taiwan United Nations Alliance and has sought to promote the cause by holding talks with US senators and former government officials.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also asked Taipei’s diplomatic allies to send a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, asking him to consider accepting Taiwan as a new UN member. Such requests were stopped during the Ma’s term at the top.

The moves signal Taiwan’s more active pursuit of international participation under its new president, Tsai Ing-wen.

Michael Tsai stressed that his lobbying efforts were under the banner of a non-governmental organisation, but the campaign did have the support of the new administration.

“This is the 13th time I have gone with our group to the United States. But this year is significant because Taiwan has a new government … and the Democratic Progressive Party holds a majority in the parliament,” he said.

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His efforts also appear to have broader public support. He cited a Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation poll in which 84.8 per cent of the Taiwanese surveyed said they backed a UN bid.

It has been 45 years since Taipei lost its seat in the UN to Beijing with the passage of UN General Assembly’s resolution 2758, which recognised the communist-led People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate representative of China in the international body.

The Kuomintang government in Taiwan at the time, led by Chiang Kai-shek, had long insisted it was the sole legitimate government of China, despite losing a civil war on the mainland in 1949, and was unwilling to countenance a “two state” solution.

Michael Tsai said public desire was growing on the island for more international recognition and representation as more of its younger generation saw the island as a sovereign state.

“The people of Taiwan did not have a choice [about separate UN membership] at the time because Taiwan was under the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek,” he said.

The push for that recognition has met strong opposition from Beijing, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province, and has become concerned with the bid’s implications for Taiwan’s international stature.

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A spokesman for the mainland State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Ma Xiaoguang, underscored Beijing’s “one China” stance last week, saying Taiwan’s UN bid challenged that position and would not succeed.

The comments reflect rising tensions between Taipei and Beijing since Tsai Ing-wen, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, won January’s presidential election in Taiwan.

Taiwan has 22 diplomatic allies, mostly small countries that look to it for development aid. Beijing, with rising economic and diplomatic power, has ties with more than 170 nations.

But in March, soon after Tsai Ing-wen was elected, Beijing resumed diplomatic relations with Gambia, the first time in eight years that it had recognised one of Taiwan’s former diplomatic allies.

Beijing’s move at the time was widely seen a break from the cross-strait “diplomatic truce” that began during Ma’s administration.

“During Chen Shui-bian’s term from 2000 to 2008, Taiwan was very active in international organisations,” Michael Tsai said. “Our allies would speak for Taiwan every year during the UN General Assembly.”

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He said while the new DPP government had avoided aggressive moves that would upset Beijing, there was more support in the administration for a renewed UN push.

“The Tsai Ing-wen government has been very low-key for now. We hope that she will be more courageous in going out there to strengthen Taiwan’s international participation,” he said.

Taiwanese Foreign Minister David Lee Ta-wei had also given the lobbying effort his blessing, Michael Tsai said.

“David Lee has encouraged us to go out there and promised that the government would give us the support we need – arranging our schedule, meeting US senators, inviting us to diplomatic events,” he said.

He said he also had the backing of some US officials, who could not declare it publicly due to “the reality of international politics”.

Michael Tsai said Taiwan might have a long way to go realise its goal but it would continue to push for participation in the UN and its related agencies.