INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
China's intransigence blocks Taiwan's civil aviation bid
, August 3, 2013
Communications are the lifeblood of the modern world, so when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) uses its effective veto in the United Nations (UN) to keep Taiwan out of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), it hurts us all.
The ICAO is the body that regulates and supervises civilian aviation around the world. Taiwan is a major aviation hub, yet it is denied the chance to participate in policy formulation, which means it gets only indirect information about civil aviation policies and regulations. Not only is it denied direct access to these rules and regulations, it has to guess at the rationale behind these policies — why these policies were made in the first place.
Taiwan is the pivot between north-east and south-east Asia. The Taipei Flight Information Region (FIR) borders the FIRs of Fukuoka (Japan), Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai. The Taipei FIR includes 14 international routes and four domestic routes, serving more than one million flights per year.
Some 40 million passengers leave, pass through or enter the Taipei FIR each year. In addition, international air cargo amounting to 1.75 million tons passes through Taiwan’s airports, making it one of the busiest air cargo ports in the world. Sheer common sense would seem to dictate that Taiwan be included in the international civil aviation regime that governs passenger and cargo movements.
But when it comes to Taiwan and its giant neighbour across the Taiwan Strait, common sense is frequently in short supply.
When former Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou was elected president of the Republic of China (that is, Taiwan) in May 2008, he pledged to seek better ties with the PRC. The improved ties were understood to include an armistice in the incessant diplomatic guerrilla war for influence among the diplomatic tiddlers — mainly in central America, the Carribean, the South Pacific and Africa — that constituted Taiwan’s allies. Taiwan’s only formal diplomatic partner in Europe is the Vatican.
Taiwan expected to be allowed some diplomatic space. Initially, it appeared Taiwan might be gaining some ground.
By virtue of its political and economic clout as the world’s most populous nation and second biggest economy, the PRC has an effective veto in the UN. Since 1971, when Beijing assumed the China seat in the UN, Taiwan has been effectively excluded from all UN bodies. Beijing was intent on squeezing the life out of Taiwan’s diplomacy.
Taiwan, however, had a breakthrough in the World Health Organisation, gaining observer status in 2009. It was admitted as an observer to the WHO’s World Health Assembly as “Chinese Taipei” in October 2009. The “Chinese Taipei” formula is one Taiwan has used elsewhere. Now, Taiwan is seeking to gain observer status to ICAO using a similar formula. As with the WHO, Taiwan will not achieve its aims without tacit consent of Beijing.
Taiwan’s diplomats, who are an energetic and capable body of men and women, would be justified if they felt betrayed by Beijing’s intransigence.
The Taipei regime, notwithstanding its plausible claim to be the government of all China — not just of a small island off mainland China’s south-eastern coast — can no longer match the spending power of the Beijing regime. The groundswell of optimism generated by the achievement of WHO observer status has not been fulfilled by any subsequent breakthroughs.
The people of Taiwan are a proud people, who care about the international status of their island republic. President Ma was elected on a platform of improving the island’s economy and international political status by building stronger cross-strait links. So far, the two sides have signed an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), amongst other agreements. But President Ma’s standing in the polls has slumped as further agreements have failed to materialise.
President Ma, in all fairness, has done wonders to stabilise cross-strait ties, following the administration of the erratic, independence-leaning Chen Shui-bian. Although it was never likely Beijing would invade Taiwan, Chen further destabilised an already tension-fraught relationship.
So it was with high hopes that Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) took office. President Ma’s foreign policy aims were entirely reasonable — to gain entry to bodies where Taiwan had practical interests and where the world, not only Taiwan, would benefit. Instead of impractical policies like trying to gain a seat in the UN, Taiwan would seek only goals that were achievable. Indeed, the Ma administration believed it had the tacit acquiescence of the powers in Beijing.
The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic showed that deadly viruses were no respecters of borders. Some 300 people died in mainland China, and over 30 died in Taiwan. International cooperation was essential, and the WHO was the logical forum for that joint effort. Taiwan did gain entry to the WHO, but that was where the train stopped.
Taiwan’s bid for ICAO entry has been supported by the Australian Parliament, the United States Congress and the European Parliament. It is a campaign with an entirely reasonable goal, and it is understandable that Taiwan feels let down by Beijing’s intransigence.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who for many years worked as a journalist in Taiwan.