50 years ago, the weather turned sour for Taiwan. In October 1971, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that decided “to restore all rights of the People’s Republic of China and recognize its government representatives as the only representatives of China in the United Nations”.
Nationalists and communists disputed for two decades who was China’s legitimate representative at the UN and, by extension, in the world. The 1971 resolution is a major turning point in Communist China’s rise into the international order. Since then, several countries have normalized their relationship with Beijing. Brazil did it in 1974.
The origin of the dispute goes back to the Chinese civil war. When the communists won the conflict in 1949 and founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan. From there, they intended to regain control of the country. They argued that the Republic of China (ROC) still existed and that they were its representatives. From Beijing, the Communists advocated the opposite.
When the UN was established in 1945, of course there was no PRC. Under the nationalists, China was one of the first countries to sign the United Nations Charter, which by the way assured it a permanent seat on the Security Council.
Starting in 1950, after the civil war, the UN General Assembly systematically rejected requests for the PRC to assume the Chinese seat in the Organization. In 1950, only six countries voted for change. Over time, support for the Beijing cause grew. In 1960, there were 34 in favor.
The US, the great guarantors of Taiwan’s position, changed tactics to avoid defeat on the UN floor. In 1961, they began to propose that the issue be framed as an “important issue” — with this, the size of the support needed to pass the resolution was altered. Instead of a simple majority, two-thirds of the members would have to support the replacement of the ROC by the PRC. Thus, the status quo, favorable to the island’s position, was maintained for another ten years.
During the long period of controversy, several UN members supported a “two Chinas” solution, allowing Beijing and Taipei to seat in the organization. But both always rejected the idea.
Many in Taiwan today regret not having supported the arrangement while in a position of strength. It took time for the nationalists to recognize—or accept—the reality that imposed itself.
Taiwan’s position has evolved over time. Rather than claiming to regain control of all of China, many are now flirting with the idea of the island’s independence — an unacceptable position for Beijing.
In the early 1970s, several countries already supported the PRC’s position at the UN, including US allies. Henry Kissinger’s surprise visit to Beijing in July 1971 foreshadowed the changing times.
Still, in October 1971, the US presented the motion to treat the issue of Chinese representation as an “important issue”, subject to a qualified majority. The proposal was defeated in the UN plenary by 59 to 55 votes. At that moment, the outcome of the case was certain.
Roughly worded, the 1971 resolution decides to “immediately expel the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the post they illegally occupied in the United Nations.”
Half a century later, while it is true that the People’s Republic of China has enormous weight in the international order today, it is also true that its relations with the US and Taiwan are marked by increasing uncertainty.
For Beijing, the problem at the UN has been resolved — but the uncertainty about Taiwan is growing.
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