Written by Julie Yu-Wen Chen.

On Taiwan’s recent participation in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as an invited “guest,” I have been hearing different voices that once again highlight Taiwan’s unresolvable conundrum in international politics. While many might believe that this is another Pyrrhic victory for Taiwan, I suggest that this is also a Pyrrhic victory for the international community. Both the supporters and opponents of Taiwan’s participation as a guest at the ICAO have reinforced the already overly politicized and nationalized international aviation regime. They tend to downplay the far more important issue of initiating a collective international effort to make civil aviation a much safer and more sustainable experience for individuals and industries around the world.

Before elaborating on my point, I would like to stress that politics are inherent in the global aviation regime and, indeed, states remain the prime actors in the increasingly liberalized aviation regime. All governments seek to use the aviation industry to keep their economy and communities connected to the world, while fulfilling the ultimate aim of advancing national and regional interests. The harmonization of air transport policies hinges upon the negotiations and agreements between states. The ICAO, a specialist agency of the United Nations (UN) concerned with the sound and orderly development of international civil aviation, still upholds its founding principal of recognizing state sovereignty. In order to achieve its objective, the ICAO is the playground for political wrangling and consensus building between its member states.

Having said this, one should not ignore the growing uncertainty of our increasingly globalized world, where both the positive and negative developments associated with various issues can have repercussions beyond state boundaries. With regard to Taiwan in particular, while realpolitik has always cornered this small island in the international arena, certain misfortunes engendered therein can affect individuals, companies, and other collective actors beyond Taiwan.

Taiwan was a member of the ICAO until it lost its UN seat in 1971. Since then, it has been difficult for Taiwan to obtain ICAO information on matters such as air safety and security; it has had to rely on the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to pass along whatever ICAO information it is willing to share. Additionally, Taiwan infers from actual air policy change in the US to “grasp” what has been agreed at the ICAO, although some of the implementations have been ‘Americanized’, and not exactly in accordance with the original ICAO recommendations.

Upon receiving fragmented and outdated information through the FAA, the Taiwan aviation authority then decides which ICAO recommendations to follow and implement at home. Consequently, Taiwan’s aviation practices can never catch up with the most up-to-date international standards. What is actually implemented in Taiwan is a mixture of FAA and ICAO standards.

The cost might appear to be to Taiwan itself, as its team must try to catch up with the world’s standards using various means and “muddle through” when there is insufficient information. However, there is also a cost to international passengers and airlines that pass through Taiwan, whose safety and welfare could be put at risk.

Supporters of Taiwan’s statehood have contended that Taiwan has no urgent need to attend ICAO meetings, as the island has functioned without the agency for more than 40 years and continues to operate reasonably well. People who take this stance are obviously pessimistic about Taiwan’s Pyrrhic victory and believe that Taiwan’s sovereignty and dignity should be placed above the necessity to enter the ICAO as a “guest.” While I understand the sentiment, the aviation experts I know would totally disagree because, in practice, Taiwan does need to obtain up-to-date aviation information. Such professionalism is necessary. Being able to sit in on ICAO meetings as a “mute” guest and obtain first-hand information is vital.

The Taiwan government adopted this practical solution, and thus has unsurprisingly faced opposition. The official line of the government reassures citizens that no deal with China has been made, and that attendance at the ICAO was a decision made by all parties concerned in the agency’s council. However, news reports have suggested a different story—that China did play a role in getting Taiwan on the guest list.

Whatever game is currently playing out between Taiwan’s administration and the opposition is not very different from Taiwan’s past experiences of joining international bodies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO). Health is another matter that respects no state boundaries. Taiwan was affected by an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and an outbreak of the H1N1 virus in 2009. Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO meetings created a loophole in the governance of global health.

It is not that Taiwan is a powerful international actor that must be included in all kinds of international governmental meetings. Rather, it is because of the dire importance of including various stakeholders to ensure the world’s safety that Taiwan cannot be neglected.

What stands in the way appears not to be a growing consensus in the international community to include more stakeholders in global governance. The apparent stumbling block is Chinese policy that has been upheld in international politics. More specifically, it is the never-ending myth that China’s approval is a prerequisite for Taiwan’s participation in UN agencies, or any other international governmental organization. The myth has persisted because it has been practiced and reinforced through practices! While Taiwan has achieved a Pyrrhic victory because of its minimal negotiation power in international politics, one wonders whether the international community is also enjoying a Pyrrhic victory because it is allowing one country to dictate and veto issues that are of dire importance to global interests.

Some might argue that the current solution is a win-win-win situation. In other words, Taiwan obtains practical aviation data by being a guest at the ICAO; the ICAO avoids agitating China, while giving necessary information to Taiwan; and China is content that the one-China principle is upheld.

An alternative interpretation, however, would be that China continues to enjoy its veto power in international politics; Taiwan continues to avoid being irrelevant; and the world continues to pretend that the issues between China and Taiwan are not really its business.

Julie Yu-Wen Chen is a lecturer at the Department of Government at University College Cork (UCC).

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