Macdonald-Laurier InstituteThe international community must find ways to include Taiwan despite Beijing’s efforts to prevent Taiwan’s participation in multilateral organizations, writes Robert Henderson in the Taiwan Sentinel.

By Robert Henderson, April 24, 2018

In early December 2016, US president-elect Donald J. Trump accepted a congratulatory telephone call from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. In addition to breaking with decades of US-China diplomatic protocol, this telephone conversation has been seen as one of the highest-profile examples of Taiwan’s ongoing search for international space in its global relations. And it is the type of interaction that has been constantly opposed regionally and globally by the Chinese Communist government in Beijing (People’s Republic of China – PRC), which sees Taiwan as a “breakaway province.”

While the Beijing government has kept its unhappiness with the telephone call relatively restrained, state-owned newspapers, including the China Daily and the Global Times, have run fierce denouncements warning of serious consequences if Trump does not follow the “One China” policy. This view is that there is only “One China” and the governments on either side of the Taiwan Strait can define it as they choose — and that the Beijing government has declared the principle to be the non-negotiable basis of China-United States relations. Trump has publicly stated that the “One China” principle may be negotiable — making China-US and Taiwan-US relations, following his Jan. 20 presidential inauguration, very unpredictable.

During her January 2017 transit stop in Houston, Texas, en route for her state tour of Central America — visiting Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua — Tsai met with two senior Republican politicians, US Senator Ted Cruz and Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Cruz subsequently stated that he and Tsai had discussed arms sales, diplomat exchanges and economic relations and that he hoped to increase trade between Texas and Taiwan. These stopover discussions sparked renewed opposition from the Beijing government, which continues to call upon Trump to abide by the “One China” policy.

Taiwan’s global role

Since Taiwan lost its United Nations seat in 1971 to the PRC, it has been attempting to retain diplomatic relations with other countries — as well as maintaining membership or observer participation status in the international regulatory regimes that basically run day-to-day activities around the globe.

Taiwan has a system of democratic governance with national executive, legislative parliament and municipal and county councils that are freely elected every four years. Political parties are permitted under its national constitution, most recently amended in 2005, and can put forward candidates for elected office alongside independent candidates. As an industrially advanced society and a major contributor to the global information and communications technology (ICT) supply chains, Taiwan was the 17th-largest exporting nation and 18th-largest importer of merchandise in 2015, according to the World Trade Organization.

In addition to bolstering its state-to-state diplomatic relations with 20 other countries, Taiwan maintains strong economic and cultural relations with all of the major industrialized countries and regularly campaigns for observer status in international regulatory regimes. Taiwan has full membership in 37 intergovernmental regulatory organizations and their subsidiaries, including the World Trade Organization (WTO), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) — as well as observer status in 22 other regulatory bodies.

Taiwan maintains strong economic and cultural relations with all of the major industrialized countries.

ICAO’s 39th assembly in Montreal

In September 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) held its 39th assembly in Montreal. As an increasingly important international regulatory regime — and one of the family of United Nations’ specialized agencies — the ICAO holds triennial meetings to deliberate on international issues affecting global civil aviation operations, with the continuing goal of maintaining “a seamless sky” for international air travel.

Even though it is an integral part of the global aviation network — particularly in East Asia — Taiwan was unsuccessful in being granted observer status at the ICAO assembly. Within the global aviation network, the Taipei Flight Information Region (FIR) covers 180,000 square nautical miles of air flight area between Japan’s Fukuoka FIR to the north, the Philippines’ Manila FIR to the south, and China’s Hong Kong FIR and Shanghai FIR to the west. And, in 2015, more than 1.5 million flights carrying 58 million travellers passed through the Taipei FIR.

Taiwan had been invited to the 2013 ICAO assembly as a guest by the ICAO president — with the acquiescence of the Chinese government. Yet, according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, Taiwan was an “inseparable part of China” and had no right to participate in the 39th ICAO assembly in 2016. He went on to state that “Taipei’s attendance in the past was based on temporary arrangements,” namely then-Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s Nationalist Party (KMT) government had accepted the “1992 Consensus” that there was only one China.

Even though it is an integral part of the global aviation network — particularly in East Asia — Taiwan was unsuccessful in being granted observer status at the ICAO assembly.

Since her election in 2016, Tsai has not acknowledged or accepted the “1992 Consensus” or the “One China” principle. Rather, her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has repeatedly stated that it would abide by the ROC-Taiwan Constitution and the “will of the Taiwanese people.” As a result, China pressured the ICAO not to issue an observer invitation to Taiwan — despite its continuing role in ensuring “a seamless sky” worldwide.

Foreign ministry spokesman Lu went on to state that the position of the State Council of the Chinese government was that “the prerequisite for Taiwan to participate in any international activity is for it to agree to the ‘one-China’ policy and for this to be resolved through consultation.”

In search of observer status

Taiwan also campaigned to participate in the 85th General Assembly of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) held in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2016. It had been an Interpol member until 1984 when it was forced to withdraw as China joined the organization. Basically, Interpol facilitates international co-operation between the police forces of countries worldwide and assists those countries to combat organized crime, cybercrime, trans-border crime and terrorism. As a non-member, Taiwan is denied access to Interpol’s global police communications system, and even to its stolen and lost travel documents database.

In March 2016, the US government, under president Barack Obama, signed into law legislation calling for support for Taiwan’s efforts to gain observer status in Interpol — a position that other major foreign powers supported. Nevertheless, Taiwan was denied an observer invitation to the Interpol meeting in Bali.

This was despite the cross-strait agreement on joint crime-fighting between China and Taiwan — signed in March 2009 — for joint investigations, information-sharing and documentation exchanges. While low-level exchanges of crime-fighting information continue across the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan officials say there has been a lack of administrative personnel exchanges between the two sides since May 20, when Tsai took office.

Also in November 2016, Taiwan campaigned to attend the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change-COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco. Even though it is not a UN member, it was able to attend as a non-governmental observer through a “technical approach” — with little interference from China. Its Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) mission was able to hold meaningful discussions with more than 35 nations on a variety of climate issues, including greenhouse gas reductions. And the EPA team pointed out that the work to fight climate change concerned the “survival of the entire human population.”

Chinese opposition to Taiwan’s search for international space is a constant hindrance. In a recent individual example, former Taiwan president Ma was invited to give an address to the 8th World Chinese Economic Summit in Melaka, Malaysia, in November 2016. He sought to urge the summit participants to support Taiwan’s effort to enhance its ties with ASEAN countries in trade, education and culture — and to work toward Taiwan applying for ASEAN membership. But, at Beijing’s reported urging, the summit booklet omitted his formal official title and replaced it with only his name — thus denying him his rightful and respectful title. In response, Ma wore a self-prepared nametag that identified himself as “Former President of the Republic of China (Taiwan).” In a subsequent press conference, he declared that China had been behind the move and that the summit organizers had apologized to him afterwards.

Chinese opposition to Taiwan’s search for international space is a constant hindrance.

WHO and SARS 2003 in Taiwan

For an earlier example from 2003, Taiwan was blocked from international co-operation involving the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) global health threat. At the time, I was attending an international Asia-Pacific Co-operative Security conference, being held in Taipei. In the months prior, the SARS epidemic broke out in Guangdong Province in southern China.

By mid-March, the WHO had announced that SARS was a “worldwide health threat.” But, due to China’s opposition to Taiwan having membership in international governmental organizations or even observer status, Taiwan could not receive WHO health threat alerts. As a result, it had to rely on foreign allies and friends for health updates — because the Chinese health ministry would only pass delayed information through semi-official cross-Strait association links.

With Taipei being a major international air travel hub — and with air travel being a primary conductor of the disease — Taiwan was reliant on timely medical updates from its allied countries, especially the US In Taipei, we received daily medical briefings on the global SARS situation from two Taiwan National University medical professors who had received WHO alerts overnight from their colleagues in the United States. These morning briefings on the state of affairs were very welcomed by all the international participants. As well, the updated medical information was being distributed island-wide for all residents’ welfare. The SARS epidemic would go on to infect 8,098 people — with 774 deaths worldwide including 44 in Canada, according to the WHO.

Beijing’s continuing institutional opposition

The Beijing government will likely continue to pressure international organizations to deny Taiwan participation or observer status in any regulatory regimes — despite the goal of global wellbeing for all the world’s citizens that their international activities are meant to achieve.

Two events in 2017 cast a spotlight on the tense situation across the Taiwan Strait. First, the ninth annual BRICS Leaders Summit held in Xiamen City on the southeast China coastline in September. With leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and host nation China meeting at this location across the Strait from Taiwan, it focused BRICS, Asian and international attention on the need for peaceful political and economic relations in the East Asian region.

And second, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held its 19th Party Congress in Beijing in November. These five-year congresses set the national plans and policies for China for the next five years as well as approving the membership of the country’s highest political bodies — the standing committee of the politburo and the party politburo. While the CCP Congress restated the official CCP perspective that Taiwan is a “renegade province of China,” it seems certain that there will continue to be a strong effort to restrict or hinder Taiwan’s campaign for wider international space in the East Asian region and globally.

There will continue to be a strong effort to restrict or hinder Taiwan’s campaign for wider international space in the East Asian region and globally.

Since the Trump-Tsai telephone chat in December, China has called for stronger — though not military — direct measures against the island. In 2005, the Chinese government passed an Anti-Secession Law that claimed authorization to use force against Taiwan if the CCP leadership determined the island had declared independence or that there was civil disorder there. Recent media reporting suggests that senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers have called for greater direct pressure on Taiwan by implementing measures such as further reduction in cross-strait trade and tourist groups, no longer permitting direct flights, and even enacting an economic blockade. These actions would be in addition to current PLA air force flights around the island and PLA navy exercises just outside the island’s maritime boundaries

Ways to break the impasse

There are two ways Taiwan can participate or have observer status in international regulatory bodies. First, it can keeping talking and negotiating with other governments for bilateral agreements on common regulatory issues and other bilateral issues, such as trade and investment regulations.

In recent discussions in Taipei, former minister without portfolio Bill K.M. Chen, who at the time headed Taiwan’s Office of Trade Negotiations, pointed out that the Taiwanese government was continuously discussing free-trade agreements and bilateral investment agreements with other governments. These agreements can be with its allied countries and regionally through its New Southbound Policy approach to Southeast Asia, particularly the 10-nation ASEAN organization — the nations of South Asia, and Australia and New Zealand. Taiwan has already reached economic agreements with Singapore and New Zealand.

The second way is a partnership method in which Taiwan seeks joint approaches with an allied government to participate in wider activities of international governmental organizations — in effect, to seek intergovernmental organization membership (IGO) solutions. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit — to which ROC-Taiwan has membership — in Lima, Peru, in November 2016, the United States and Taiwan jointly announced their intention to support the establishment of a sub-fund on women and the economy under APEC’s auspices.

Such a model of joint participation in IGO developmental projects with foreign countries could gain Taiwan greater international space. And such joint partnership approaches could be pursued while at the same time permitting face-saving cover for China. But the government in Beijing is expected to oppose Taiwan’s search for greater international space — whether wider diplomatic relations or observer status — in all cases regardless of the Taiwan government’s international and bilateral efforts.

In sum, the Beijing government fears that the Trump White House will use the “Taiwan issue” as a pressure point in bargaining against China. At the same time, Taiwan sees itself being used as a bargaining chip in US-China dealings. What Trump will actually do is unpredictable for the parties on either side of the Taiwan Strait.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to predict how Washington’s policy towards Taiwan might change under Trump.

Before retiring, Dr. Robert D’A. Henderson taught international relations at several universities in Canada and overseas. He currently does international assessments and international elections monitoring. 

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