When communist China became a UN member

Since the beginning, communist China had maintained a principled position for joining UN focusing on one-China policy


Dr Moonis Ahmar October 17, 2021
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi and can be reached at [email protected]

On 25th October 1971, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution No. 2758 with a two-thirds majority that admitted the People’s Republic of China and expelled Taiwan. It was a landmark decision by the UN that recognised the reality of communist China as a legitimate state instead of Taiwan, which had held the membership of the UN since 1945 and occupied the seat as a permanent member of the Security Council.

Since the communist revolution in China in October 1949, Taiwan had occupied the seat of China because the US had blocked the membership of the People’s Republic of China. Until July 1971, when Henry Kissinger, the then US National Security Advisor, sent a secret diplomatic mission to Beijing, formerly known as Peking. It was then that the policy between China and the US materialised and shifted towards a diplomatic relationship. However, 50 years down the road, it is time to analyse the implications of China’s membership of the UN and how Beijing emerged as a global power.

By the late 1960s, the Nixon-Kissinger duo was convinced that normalising relations with communist China was essential. Growing Sino-Soviet rivalry gave a valuable opportunity to the US to approach the Chinese communist leadership for mending fences by utilising the good offices of Islamabad. Pakistan acted as the broker who helped normalise ties between the two adversaries. The US had to pay a two-fold price to alter its policy with communist China. First, it ditched its age-old ally Taiwan. Second, it dropped its veto in the UN Security Council which paved the way for the admission of the People’s Republic of China. Consequently, Pakistan was faced with the wrath of Moscow and Delhi for facilitating the Sino-American patch-up. In August 1971, India and the USSR signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, which led to direct Soviet involvement in the December 1971 Indo-Pakistan war in favour of India.

Since the beginning, communist China had maintained a principled position for joining the UN focusing on ‘one-China policy'. When the membership case of the People’s Republic of China was presented to the General Assembly, the US along with some members suggested that Taiwan should be a member alongside China, but this was unacceptable to Peking. Consequently, the US voted against the resolution in the General Assembly, which admitted Communist China but abstained in the Security Council vote which removed the impediment for its membership to the UN. One should also know that hardliners in the Chinese Communist Party – led by Lin Biao and the wife of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Jiang Qing, who were against patching up with the US – met a fateful plane accident in inner Mongolia in the autumn of 1971. The term ‘gang of four’ was henceforth coined representing four powerful Communist Party leaders who had expressed their defiance against the Mao-Chou Enlai duo.

Three far-reaching implications of China’s admission to the UN need to be examined in some detail.

First, the US engineered China’s isolation at the international level since the outbreak of the communist revolution. The US consistently vetoed the case of Chinese membership in the UN Security Council from 1949 till 1970. It prevented one of the most populous states in the world from joining the UN. Instead, it supported Chiang Kai Shek’s government in Taiwan, which had a scarce population. This continued until President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger realised the futility of such an imprudent policy and decided to grant recognition to China. The ‘great leap forward’ of China got an impetus when it became a member of the UN and represented the developing world as a permanent member of the Security Council. An overwhelming majority of developing countries had traditionally supported the membership case of China. From any standpoint, China represented the voice of developing countries, which was reflected when spontaneous jubilation on October 25th, 1971 took place in the UN General Assembly, and Afro-Asian members applauded the passing of resolution admitting China and expelling Taiwan.

Second, following the admission of China to the UN, the transformation of Peking’s policy vis-à-vis the US and West took place. It resulted in the proclamation of an ‘open door policy’ unleashed by Deng Xiao Peng, the successor of Mao. Subsequently, there was a surge in Sino-American trade. The opening up of the Chinese economy allowed China to become an economic superpower. By 2000, China was enjoying a trade surplus with the US. Within 30 years of being a UN member, China began to challenge the US economic tutelage and emerged as the world’s second economic power. Perhaps, the US now regrets rendering recognition to China back then. It enabled China’s membership in the UN and simultaneously also paved the way for China’s economic success. The US has ended up with a trade deficit of $200 billion for several years in a row. It means that the burgeoning Chinese foreign exchange reserves of $4 trillion have much to do with its nearly $200 billion trade surplus with the US. Now, for the US, China is a dragon that shouldn’t have obtained such a position without its trade and US readiness to drop its veto when Peking’s case was moved to the UN in October 1971.

Third, in the last 50 years, China has transformed from a backward and under-developed country to an economic giant that has enormous influence across the world. In 1984, China participated in the Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles. During the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, it obtained the second position. There is no other country in the world that has accomplished so much within a span of 50 years. China has also remained mindful of Pakistan’s relentless support to it during its international isolation and backing up its membership in the UN.

China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse in the last 50 years is commendable considering that it faced international isolation during its infancy as a communist nation. It has set an eminent example for both developing and developed nations.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 17th, 2021.

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