Written by Sasa Istenic.

October 4th marked the last day of the 38th triennial International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly, held in Montreal at the ICAO headquarters. For Taiwan, this was a notable event; for the first time in 42 years, Taiwan was finally able to enter one of the most well-known and important UN’s community. Nevertheless, Taiwan was invited not as “Taiwan” and not as an “observer”, but as a guest designated as Chinese Taipei. The reactions from Taiwanese political circles have been mixed. The government touted the achievement as a “major breakthrough” while the opposition pointed at the possible repercussions for Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Since the UN fiasco of 1971, Taiwan has applied various approaches to prevent diplomatic isolation and raise visibility in international affairs. Nevertheless, due to China’s steadfast opposition, Taiwan’s government faced a number of set-backs. Even though Taipei’s campaigns to enter the UN system were successful in raising awareness and accumulating international sympathy, neither pragmatic nor radical approaches could break through the Beijing’s “one China” wall. Nevertheless, the pragmatic approaches in order to bypass the thorny issue of sovereignty have since the 1990s yielded some positive results. Historical breakthrough came with the entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in January 2002, for which campaign was based on a functional nomenclature as a “customs territory”. Taiwan’s bid to enter the World Health Organization’s (WHO) highest decision-making body World Health Assembly (WHA) as a “public health entity” was however, not enough of a concession to appease Beijing during the Chen administration. With the Ma administration since 2008, the diplomatic strategy towards the UN shifted to only seeking for Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in the UN’s specialized agencies. The priority focus remained the WHA. In 2009, Taiwan was finally allowed to obtain an observer status in under the designation Chinese Taipei. The achievement was appraised as a result of a combination of various factors but foremost – to put it blank – a strong international support bolstered by the epidemics of SARS and Beijing’s incentive to President Ma’s fresh term.

The official campaign for the ICAO observership started in 2009. Taiwan has applied the WHO’s case as a reference for its diplomatic quest. After all, ICAO’s structure allows observer members to participate in a way similar to how Taiwan participated in the WHO. Furthermore, comparable to the WHO, Taiwan’s intrinsic value for ICAO can certainly not be denied. Not only is Taiwan a key transportation hub in East Asia but also one of the busiest airspaces in the world. Accordingly, Taiwan started to actively lobby for the support for the ICAO bid from all sectors of the international community. By presenting to the world the importance of Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the international civil aviation system and garnering the sympathy for its exclusion, Taiwan has managed to obtain a strong support from the international community, especially the United States.[1] As was expected, Beijing heatedly objected the “foreign interference”. Upset with Taipei’s disloyal decision to seek for the ICAO’s support outside Beijing, Chinese authorities slated Taipei’s lobby as a grave mistake. Consequently, two weeks prior the ICAO Assembly opening, Taiwan was still unaware of its chances for participation. Apparently, Beijing was facing a dilemma. Without finding a consensus, Beijing would not only impair its global image but also weaken President Ma’s already fragile political base and further alienate Taiwanese people. Hence, Beijing was willing to seek for a compromise.

On September 11, the ICAO Council president’s faxed letter stated that Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration’s (CAA, 民航局) delegation was invited to attend the Assembly as Council president’s guest under designation “Chinese Taipei CAA”. Obviously, ‘guest’ designation was China’s compromise to Taiwan’s desired observer status, which remains a no-go for Beijing. Although this was a consensus reached by all 36 ICAO member states, they could only reach unanimity upon already being cognizant of Beijing’s proposal. Confirmation regarding the weight that China’s voice had came from the ICAO Council President Roberto Kobeh González himself. Whether or not Beijing would be willing to loosen its stance toward Taiwan’s participation in a UN agency should there be no international pressure, is difficult to examine. While China’s clout in the international community is of no surprise or a secret, the innovative arrangement sparked a number of concerns within the DPP. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quick to negate the implications that the invitation formula was a result of certain deals with China and pledged that it would not set a precedent for other IGO’s. Taiwan’s attendance has been described as merely the first step toward achieving an observer status and accordingly an access to partake ICAO meetings, committees, and information mechanisms related to aviation safety and security. Nevertheless, such stride is yet to be hit. Therefore, the outcome can be viewed as merely a partial achievement.

Unfortunate reality for Taiwan is that promoting foreign relations cannot be pursued without paying heed to China’s reaction. Neither can Taiwan amend the international law to enter the sphere of sovereign states and cease its pariah status. However, Taiwan cannot rely solely on China’s goodwill and needs a sustained and robust international support which might prompt a sui generis treatment of Taiwan’s international participation.

Dr Sasa Istenic is Head of the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Ljubljana. 

[1] US President Barack Obama on July 12 signed into law an act supporting Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the ICAO. The legislation received unanimous support from both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

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