THE most insistent knocker on the door of membership at the United Nations these days is Taiwan.
Expelled in 1971 when UN members voted to seat Beijing as the legitimate representative of the one China, Taiwan and its 21 million people are making an energetic bid for some kind of UN involvement. The expensive lobbying campaign includes full-color brochures, an 800 phone number, and frequent, large media ads.
The message is that Taiwan is now far more democratic and economically powerful than it was a few years ago and deserves a new hearing. ``We need to have a voice at the UN,'' insists David Lee, chief spokesman for the Coordination Council for North American Affairs (CCNAA), the closest thing Taiwan has to a diplomatic mission in the United States.
As a permanent member of the Security Council, Beijing must agree to any change in Taiwan's status. But Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province and has threatened to use force if necessary to quash any attempt by Taiwan to seek independence. The issue of China's representation at the UN, Beijing argues, has been settled politically, legally, and procedurally for all time. In a huge Aug. 22 ad in The New York Times, Taiwan says Beijing is trying to make Taiwan the ``invisible man'' of world politics.
In July, 12 small Central American and African nations wrote on Taiwan's behalf to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. They urged him to include the Taiwan ``issue'' as an agenda item when the General Assembly convenes its 49th session Sept. 20. The 12 want the Assembly to set up a special committee to study UN options for Taiwan.
Many of the UN's 184 members, from the Balkans to former Soviet republics, have come aboard in recent years. Yet few diplomats expect Taiwan, which claims economic ties with 160 nations and diplomatic ties with 29, to join the rolls. Most UN member states do not want to risk angering Beijing.
Taiwan insists it is not challenging mainland China's seat and that its citizens deserve representation just as those of any divided country such as North and South Korea.
Allan Goodman, an East Asia expert at Georgetown University in Washington, says he thinks the UN's ability to find a way to accommodate Taiwan's plea is a test of whether or not the UN really is ready to enter the 21st century. In a world in which regions and economies are increasingly important, he says, it may be time to rethink the political boundaries by which membership has been determined.
Though the ultimate goal is full UN membership, Taiwan says it will let the international community decide what form its representation will take. ``We have no preset position,'' says the CCNAA's Mr. Lee. One possible compromise is observer status, a nonmember category held by Switzerland and the Vatican that carries no voting privileges but allows participation in varied UN activities.
Lee says Taiwan's lack of standing at the UN has had serious consequences. In addition to being barred from membership in any UN agency, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, Taiwan's recent $2 million aid offer to the UN for Rwanda was rebuffed. Taiwanese journalists also have been prevented from covering any UN activities.
Despite their friction over the UN issue, Taiwan and mainland China reached agreement in August to repatriate hijackers and allow for the employment of mainland Chinese in Taiwan's fishing industry. Taiwan says any improvement in its stature at the UN may further ease tensions with Beijing. Yet many diplomats and analysts say an improved understanding between Beijing and Taiwan must come first.
``This is a serious issue, but the road to the UN [for Taiwan] is not through Washington or New York - it's really through Beijing,'' says Allan Song, director of Asian programs for the United Nations Association of the US. ``They [Beijing and Taiwan] just have to sort this out first.''