The row between China and the United States over Taiwan is escalating, with the top US diplomat calling for UN member states to support the island taking part in international bodies.
Beijing protested to Washington over the remarks by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, saying they would lead to a big disruption in China-US relations.
“The US has continued to make mistakes in words and deeds on the Taiwan issue, and China has made a firm and necessary response. If the US continues to play the ‘Taiwan card’, it will inevitably cause a huge disruptive effect on Sino-US relations,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Wednesday.
Observers said Blinken’s remarks were a sign of the US upgrading its support for Taiwan while not yet signalling any major policy change.
In a statement on Tuesday, Blinken said Taiwan had become a democratic success story and its support for transparency, human rights and the rule of law aligned with the values of the United Nations.
“That is why we encourage all UN member states to join us in supporting Taiwan’s robust, meaningful participation throughout the UN system and in the international community.”
Blinken said allowing Taiwan to take part in international bodies was consistent with the US’ one-China policy. He said Taiwan’s exclusion undermined the important work of the UN and its related bodies, citing the example that Taiwan was not represented at the International Civil Aviation Organization or the World Health Assembly.
“As the international community faces an unprecedented number of complex and global issues, it is critical for all stakeholders to help address these problems. This includes the 24 million people who live in Taiwan,” he said. “Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the UN system is not a political issue, but a pragmatic one.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to elaborate on how the US would define “meaningful participation”, but observers said Blinken’s remarks did not necessarily suggest a major policy change given that his predecessors – including Mike Pompeo and John Kerry – had also called for Taiwan’s participation in such international agencies.
Zhu Songling, a professor at the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Beijing Union University, said the US had been more “tactful” when playing the Taiwan card recently.
Zhu said Taiwan had had more flexibility to join international agencies under the island’s previous president Ma Ying-jeou, from the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang, because Ma recognised the 1992 consensus – an understanding between the two sides that there is one China, but that each could have their own understanding of what that means.
For example, Taiwan took part in the World Health Assembly as an “observer” under Ma. But current Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen rejected the 1992 consensus, leading Beijing to suspend official exchanges and step up military and diplomatic pressure on the self-ruled island.
“China regards the issue of Taiwan’s international participation as our domestic affair,” Zhu said. “As long as the US intends to meddle, Beijing will find it unpleasant.”
But Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University, said encouraging Taiwan’s participation in the UN system was an upgrade in support for Taiwan.
“It could mean joining all the systems and organs of the UN [rather than its specialised agencies],” he said. “Will the US support Taiwan joining the UN General Assembly or Security Council?”
Even though the US was not recognising Taiwan as a state, it supported the island “bit by bit”, according to Shi.
“The significance of the one-China policy is narrowing down, and it’s becoming an empty shell,” he said.
The rising rhetoric from China and the US over Taiwan is not new, but recent spats have raised concerns about whether both sides are taking steps that could lead to confrontation.
President Joe Biden said last week that the US would come to Taiwan’s defence in the event of an attack by mainland China, sparking confusion about whether Washington was changing its long-held “strategic ambiguity”, in which it has not explicitly stated whether the US would take military action for Taiwan.
Beijing protested following Biden’s remarks and the White House later said the US was not changing its policies on Taiwan.
After Blinken’s comments, Beijing’s embassy in Washington said China would “by no means accept” them. “We have repeatedly expressed our firm position and lodged stern representations with the US side,” the Chinese embassy said in a statement. “Taiwan-related matters are a serious political issue; they are not about the so-called values. By hyping them up, the US side is just intentionally distorting this issue and misleading public opinion.”
It also said the Taiwanese government was sparing no effort to expand its “international space” with the support of its “American boss”.
“This is the biggest … real threat to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and the fundamental reason why Taiwan has not been able to participate in the activities of multilateral organisations,” the embassy said.
The new escalation came just two days after the State Department announced that senior US and Taiwanese officials had met virtually to discuss expanding Taiwan’s participation in the UN and other international groupings.
In that October 22 meeting, administration officials “reiterated the US commitment to Taiwan’s meaningful participation at the World Health Organization and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and discussed ways to highlight Taiwan’s ability to contribute to efforts on a wide range of issues”, the State Department said.
Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and has vowed to bring the island under its control, by force if necessary. It recently sent a record number of military aircraft to the island’s air defence identification zone, but Chinese President Xi Jinping has said peaceful “reunification” remains in China’s interest.
Taiwanese leader Tsai said she was thankful for Blinken’s support and that the island would continue to work with the US and other like-minded partners to overcome the challenges facing the international community.
Li Da-jung, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taipei, said the US had long supported Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in the UN.
“The stronger support is partly due to mainland China’s rise economically and militarily, which has created a serious threat to the US, whose relations with Beijing have become increasingly strained in recent years,” Li said.
Additional reporting by Lawrence Chung