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Handshake that shook global politics
September 12, 2017, 11:45 am

The 72nd Regular Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA72) convenes at the UN Headquarters in New York on 12 September. The theme for this year’s session is, ‘Focusing on People: Striving for peace and a decent life for all on a sustainable planet’.

On this occasion, and especially given that the focus of this year’s theme is on people, we would like to shed light on a gross injustice inflicted 46 years ago, and which continues to be perpetuated, on the 23 million people of the tiny island nation of Republic of China (Taiwan). First, a bit of history: Following defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, the Qing Dynasty in China ceded the island of Taiwan to Japan. In 1912, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown and Republic of China (ROC) was established on mainland China.

After the gruesome Second World War and Japan's surrender to the Allies in September 1945, control for the island of Taiwan was returned to the ROC. In 1949, the Chinese Civil War saw Red Army militias of the Communist Party of China (CPC), force the government of ROC to retreat to the island of Taiwan. The CPC under Mao Zedong then established the People's Republic of China (PRC) in mainland China on 1 October 1949 — a full four years after control for Taiwan was handed over to the ROC by the Allies. Since 1949, a political standoff has continued across the Taiwan Strait, with the PRC in China and the ROC in Taiwan both claiming to be the legitimate government of all China, as part of their respective 'One-China' policy.

In recent years, despite Taiwan tempering its territorial claims and often only seeking recognition as representative of the people it governs, the PRC has vehemently opposed even this status for its tiny neighbor. Repeated attempts by the ROC to join the UN and other world organizations — even in the limited role as representative of the people in the territory it governs — have been thwarted by political maneuvering and economic pressure from the PRC.

It is ironic that the ROC, a founding member of the United Nations in 1945, and a country which adheres to all democratic principles and values of the UN, should be kept out of the very organization that it helped to establish. It is worth noting that at the time of the UN founding, the PRC did not even exist as an entity, but today, it is one of the five permanent security council members. So what happened? Politics, they say, makes strange bedfellows; global diplomacy apparently makes weirder ones.

Here is some more history. Shortly after establishment of the UN, the world began witnessing the rumblings of a new Cold War between the United States and its Western allies on one side, and the Soviet Union and its communist supporters on the other. For the next 50 years, the two sides faced off against each other in many parts of the world. In the early 1970s, the United States under President Richard Nixon, and his trusted sidekick Henry Kissinger, began to earnestly woo the PRC.

The US was desperate to find a face-saving way-out from its disastrous engagement in Vietnam. The PRC, as a key patron of the Vietcong guerrillas who were fighting the US, was key to this 'honorable' exit. The price that China demanded and received, in return for wielding its influence with the Vietcong, was US selling out ROC and disengaging its ties with the island. In October 1971, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 2758, recognizing the PRC as the sole representative of China to the UN and expelling representatives of the Republic of China.

Four months later, in late February 1972, President Nixon was given a ‘red-carpet’ welcome in Beijing and was received by Mao Zedong with a handshake that has become an iconic image of global détente. The first-ever visit to the PRC by a US President also signaled the end of China's years of international isolation and the start of its opening up to the world that eventually led to its emergence as an economic powerhouse. It is to say the least unseemly for a country claiming super power status to repeatedly deny the legitimate demands of ROC. Political hardball and ham-fisted approaches in curbing Taiwan’s membership in the UN and other international organizations will only further alienate the Taiwanese people, whose hearts and minds need to be won before any rapprochement between the two nations can take place.

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