Home / Articles / A New Type of Diplomacy: Taiwan 50 Years after UN Expulsion
Fifty years ago, members of the United Nations voted to expel the Republic of China (Taiwan) and admit the People’s Republic of China with Resolution 2758. After the Kuomintang (KMT) fled China to Taiwan in 1949, countries around the world began to switch their formal diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing. Even though Chiang Kai-shek continued to rattle the KMT’s saber by claiming that the people of China were clamoring for his return and toppling the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it had been over 20 years since the KMT had any sort of control over China. The conversation had switched from the KMT “reconquering” China to whether or not the CCP had the military wherewithal to successfully invade Taiwan and topple the KMT.
The global switch in diplomatic recognition occurred in waves, with the first major one occurring in the early 1950s right after the end of the KMT’s retreat, with almost 50 countries making the change. Most of the countries that made the decision to switch from Taipei to Beijing were generally aligned with the Soviet Union. Interestingly, the United Kingdom also was quick to recognize the PRC. The next major wave occurred after the passage of Resolution 2758. With the ROC out of the UN, Western countries were given a shield in switching to Beijing. The logic of not having formal diplomatic relations with a member of the UN Security Council beat out the fear of angering Washington, who did not recognize Beijing until 1979—nearly ten years after the UN gave Taipei the boot—but was working to establish better relations with Beijing during the Nixon administration.
By 1971, momentum was not on Chiang’s side: More and more countries were voicing their support for admitting Beijing into the UN and acknowledging the reality of which party exerted control over China. For years, the United States had been successful in requiring the decision of admitting Beijing into the “China seat” to be a supermajority of two-thirds as an “Important Question.” Every year, countries supporting Beijing increased and moved closer and closer to breaking this procedural block. The momentum crested in summer 1971 when Albania, along with 16 other countries, announced an agenda item for consideration in the upcoming October 1971 General Assembly. While the United States tried to stop the “Albanian Resolution” with its own motion, an IQ motion, and compromises, Washington failed to keep Taipei in the UN. The history of these critical months and the ramifications of Resolution 2758 have shaped the geopolitical underpinning of the Indo-Pacific region and Taiwan’s international participation for 50 years.
The Race to 2758
While Taipei’s membership in the UN ended in October 1971, the debate began in earnest in July 1971 when Albania, with 16 other countries, submitted an agenda item on the “Restoration of the lawful rights of the People’s Republic of China in the United Nations.” The item was accompanied by a letter that excoriated the UN for not allowing the PRC membership and for allowing the ROC to continue in the “China seat.” According to the UN records, “[The countries] had protested against the hostile and discriminatory policy followed by several Governments with regard to the lawful Government of China. . . . The existence of the People’s Republic of China, they declared, was a reality which could not be changed to suit the myth of a so-called ‘Republic of China.’ . . . The unlawful authorities installed in the island of Taiwan, claiming to represent China, remained there only because of the permanent presence of United States armed forces.” The countries argued that the PRC was an integral part of the world and that it should not be excluded from major decisions on the global stage. The item that they proposed would eventually become what we know as Resolution 2758, which called “to restore all its rights to the People’s Republic of China and to recognize the representatives of its Government as the only legitimate representatives of China to the United Nations, and to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.”
One month after the Albanian agenda item was introduced, the United States put forward its own competing item that would attempt to allow the PRC membership into the UN along with the seat on the Security Council without expelling the ROC. The U.S. wrote that “the People’s Republic of China should be represented and at the same time provision should be made that the Republic of China is not deprived of its representation. If it is to succeed in its peace-keeping role and in advancing the well-being of mankind, the United Nations should deal with the question of the representation of China in a just and realistic manner.” Washington argued that the UN should not take a position on the issue and allow both membership until the two parties settled their differences.
It would appear, based on the U.S. attempt to find a compromise that would provide both Beijing and Taipei UN membership, that Washington attempted to make the UN have “two Chinas.” In a letter to the UN, Beijing accused the U.S. as doing such and that Washington was attempting to “separate Taiwan from China and was wildly attempting to force Members of the United Nations to submit to its will.” Beijing would only accept the expulsion of Taipei from the UN as a condition to join; it would not accept a compromise agreement where both Taipei and Beijing were members of the UN.
By October 1971, the Nixon administration knew that the vote between the dual resolutions would be close. The hope was in the passage of making the issue an “Important Question,” which would require the “China question” to pass by a two-thirds supermajority. Washington knew that the “Albanian Resolution” would be able to achieve a simple majority, but not a supermajority. The Nixon administration further believed that upon the failure of the Albanian Resolution to get a supermajority that enough countries would move their support to the U.S. Resolution. In private meetings, the ROC’s representatives supported the Nixon “dual representatives” compromise, but in public, Taipei lambasted it.
However, on the day of voting, enough countries surprised Washington, and the “Important Question” motion failed—that failure meant that the Albanian Resolution would only need a simple majority, which is easily achieved, with 76 countries voting for the resolution; 35 voting against; and 17 abstaining. However, the ROC representatives walked out of the UN after the failure of the Important Question vote. They did not stay to watch the UN vote to expel them. One month later, in November 1971, the PRC officially took over the “China seat” at the UN. Since October 25, 1971, the ROC has not been a member of, or been able to successfully re-join, the UN. Taiwan’s current ambiguous international status was sealed that day.
A New Future for Taiwan in the International Arena?
Given Taiwan’s exclusion from the UN, Taipei has had to forge its own path internationally for five decades. The strength in Taiwan’s diplomacy has been in forging strong, informal ties at the bilateral level. Taiwan has strong traditional partners, particularly in the United States and Japan. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan has seen its relations with other smaller countries, such as Lithuania, Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia, improve through the respective donations of personal protective equipment and vaccines and through business delegations. As Beijing continues to use its economic heft to threaten countries that seek to challenge it—as South Korea and Australia have witnessed firsthand—countries are the globe are watching how these European countries are affected economically by Beijing’s coercion.
If Beijing cannot enact significant economic pain, then more and more countries might seek to challenge it—and one way to potentially “challenge” China is through the expansion of relations of any kind with Taiwan. South Korea’s tourism industry and Lotte corporation were severely injured in the aftermath of the collapse of bilateral relations with China after the installation of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system. Certain industries in Australia were negatively affected after Beijing imposed tariffs and boycotts after Canberra called for an independent, international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 virus in China. However, some affected industries in Australia were able to find other markets and were actually better off after the Chinese economic retaliation. After Vilnius announced that it would open a diplomatic representative office in Taipei, Beijing moved immediately to punish Lithuanian industries. However, given Lithuania’s limited trade with China, the economic effects on these industries look to be minimal. The same could be said for the negative economic effects on the Czech Republic after a Czech business delegation visited Taipei.
Given the recent history of Beijing’s economic saber rattling against these countries and their mixed results, other countries seeking to burnish their relationship with Taipei may no longer think twice. Taiwan represents a new market with fewer restrictions and strings attached than China’s market. These new developing relationships with medium and small countries could be a new path for Taiwan’s diplomatic and economic policies. Taipei could utilize these new relationships and the general discontent with Beijing to its advantage by launching a dark-horse bid to join the United Nations. Before the 1971 resolution, it took Beijing decades to garner enough support for admittance into the UN. In 1950 and 1951, the United States blocked the passage of resolutions giving the PRC UN membership. A decade later, support for the U.S. attempts to block the question shrunk steadily. By 1960, the U.S. only had eight votes giving it the majority. The next year, the question about allowing the PRC into the UN received enough votes to achieve a majority and get on the General Assembly agenda. However, throughout the 1960s, the “Important Question” supermajority prevented further debate. It took nearly two decades of political maneuvering for Beijing to achieve its membership goal. The road for Taiwan’s membership will likely be just—if not more—difficult.
Taiwan has launched bids to join the UN in the past, but they never really got off the ground in the same way that Beijing did during the Cold War. A successful UN bid by Taipei is likely not feasible in the short term, but by continuing to develop strong informal ties with countries around the world, it would be able to eventually garner more support for membership. Even if UN membership never happens for Taipei, it has shown how to maneuver in the international arena without UN support.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.