The Debate

Report: US Should Seek Greater International Role for Taiwan

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The Debate

Report: US Should Seek Greater International Role for Taiwan

A new report from CSIS says the US should help Taiwan get into relevant IGOs, even if it means upsetting the PRC.

According to a report released by the DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the United States should take a more proactive stance on Taiwan’s role in intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The report, authored by CSIS senior adviser for Asia Bonnie S. Glaser, was the subject of a discussion on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

At the discussion, some interesting themes emerged. Glaser, in arguing for increased Taiwanese participation in IGOs and NGOs, noted that the international community was depriving itself of Taiwan’s considerable “knowledge, skills, and resources.” More specifically, she called Taiwan “a good citizen” that would be “responsible” in the international community. CSIS senior vice president for Asia Michael Green also noted that Taiwan would bring “21st century concepts based on rule of law” to the table. He argued that Taiwan could help elevate the level of discussion on regional and global issues, if the island was only allowed to participate. Glaser agreed, noting that in this regard Taiwan could set an example for China — and perhaps even pressure Beijing in international discussions by setting an alternative example.

Ambassador Leo Lee (currently the assistant director at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S.) cited Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s East China Sea Peace Initiative as an example of the sort of contribution Taiwan could make. The East China Sea Peace Initiative calls for all competing territorial claims to be shelved, including the conflicting claims China, Japan, and Taiwan have over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. In addition, the countries involved should explore how to jointly develop the resources in disputed areas. However, the plan has been largely ignored outside of Taiwan, in part because Taiwan has had few chances to raise its ideas on the international stage. “Taiwan’s voice is not heard when it is needed most,” Lee lamented.

It’s easy to see why ideas of Taiwan as the “responsible” one would make China nervous. Green called Taiwan a “21st century responsible stakeholder,” a reference to the phrase U.S. officials have used for years to cajole mainland China to take a more positive role in the global community. Behind all these remarks on Taiwan’s responsibility, there’s an implicit (and unflattering) contrast with the mainland. Even more concerning for Beijing, throughout the discussion it was clear that Taiwan is considered “responsible” in part because of its democratic system of government. Lee argued that Taiwan would be a valuable member of the international community because of “its commitment to democratic values and free market principles.”

China does not want to invite a comparison between the absolute rule of the Communist Party of China and the democratic government of Taiwan, especially a comparison in which the international community concludes that Taiwan comes out on top. Also a concern is the U.S. expectation, as noted by Glaser, that Taiwan would support U.S. interests in IGOs — which is likely a major reason Taiwan is seen as more “responsible” from the U.S. point of view. All questions of sovereignty aside, this complicated idea of “responsibility” alone would give China reason to drag its feet on incorporating Taiwan further into the international community.

In response to Chinese concerns, the U.S. executive branch has moved fairly slowly with regard to Taiwan’s international status. Still, there is a huge wild card at play — Congress. At the beginning of the roundtable discussion on Glaser’s new report, Leo Lee read a statement from Ma Ying-jeou. In it, Ma expressed his appreciation for the “enduring support” for Taiwan in the U.S. Congress. He particularly thanked Senators Robert Menendez and James Inhofe, the Co-chairs of the Senate Taiwan Caucus, whom Ma said “have both been great friends of my country for years.” Ma’s statement especially noted Menendez and Inhofe’s introduction of Senate bill 579 in the summer of 2013. This bill legally required the U.S. Secretary of State to work out a strategy to help Taiwan gain observer status at the fall 2013 International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly, which was one of Taiwan’s top priorities.

The Senate bill and its counterpart House Resolution 1151 gained widespread bipartisan support, which helped force the Obama administration’s hand. Obama signed the bill into law on July 12, 2013, providing a strong signal of U.S. support for an increased role for Taiwan in ICAO. It’s no surprise then that Ma noted the “enduring support for my country in the U.S. Congress” in his statement, but made no specific mention of the executive branch.

As we’ve seen recently in the debate over the Iran deal, Congress and the White House can sometimes work at cross-purposes when it comes to foreign policy. In the case of Taiwan, the island typically has strong Congressional support. Although Glaser noted at the roundtable that support for Taiwan in Congress has waned a bit in recent years, she believes it is “picking up.” If so, the executive branch could find itself forced by Congress to take a more proactive role in pushing for Taiwan’s inclusion in IGOs, even UN-affiliated bodies. Such a push, especially if backed by the attitude that Taiwan’s participation will be more “responsible” than China’s, will definitely ruffle feathers in Beijing.