Muzzle on China sets precedent

By Richard Dobson  /  STAFF REPORTER

Wed, Nov 21, 2001 - Page 17

The failure of Beijing's attempted back-room bullying over Taiwan's accession to the WTO in Doha last week was both encouraging and disheartening.

Encouraging in that ultimately Beijing's political agenda vis-a-vis Taiwan and "one China" was effectively muzzled by the WTO, with considerable support from the organization's two most powerful members -- the US and the EU.

The event was also disheartening, because despite the historic opportunities presented under the WTO framework to sidestep political entanglements and bloster cross-strait ties, China remains bent on trying to push Taiwan off the international stage.

The smooth accession of Taiwan into the WTO at fourth ministerial meeting belied the amount of diplomatic maneuvering that went on behind the scenes to muzzle Beijing's attempts to tamper.

In the lead-up to the meeting it was decided by the WTO that China should not be permitted to formally sign its accession documents -- which were approved on Nov. 10 -- until those of Taiwan had been accepted one day later on Nov. 11.

In other words, China was told plainly to behave itself and not interfere with Taiwan's accession bid or risk endangering its own.

"It was organized so that the accessions of both sides would proceed smoothly," Keith Rockwell, WTO spokesman said.

A clear message was sent from the secretariat in Geneva to Beijing that it would not tolerate cross-strait political wrangling like that which disrupted the recent APEC meeting in Shanghai. Of course this is what one would expect from the WTO, which, unlike APEC, is a strictly rules-based organization that grants equal rights to its members. The fact that such a measure was necessary bodes ill for hopes that cross-strait relations may improve.

The concern among the Taiwan delegation about China's intentions at Doha was palpable. According to Lin Hsin-yi (林信義), minister of economic affairs and head of the Taipei delegation to Doha, "China protested furiously" to the WTO on the arrangement behind the scenes right up until the last minute.

The strength of Beijing's objection kept the Taiwan delegation busy at Doha, huddling with the big guns such as the US and EU along with Taipei's small cluster of diplomatic allies. The fear was that while Beijing may have been virtually powerless to stop Taiwan's accession, China might pressure its diplomatic allies, possibly Pakistan, to call for a reclassification of Taiwan as a part of China instead of a separate customs territory.

One US trade official dismissed the concerns as "paranoia bred from half a century of mistrust," adding that "Washington has long assured Taipei that its accession would come off without a hitch."

A senior WTO official said China's senior leadership gave repeated assurances that they wouldn't try anything underhanded. It is unclear whether the organization's decision to muzzle China was carried out simply to reassure Taipei or because WTO officials began to see a credible threat of interference from Beijing.

According to Martin Morland, chairman of Taiwan's WTO working party and former UK ambassador in Geneva, the uncertainty in attempting to predict China's actions combined with its unreliable track record created cause for concern.

"Nobody was really sure due to the political aspects of the relationship, whether China would do something. There was a chance," Morland said.

During the almost 12 years it took Taiwan to become a member, China attempted to insert language regarding sovereignty over Taiwan into official WTO application documents, Morland said.

"But it was dealt with at the time by the WTO," he said.

While hopes remain low that China will be willing any time soon to come to terms with Taiwan as a separate entity, WTO support of Taiwan's status as a full member on an equal footing with all other members -- on a truly global stage -- must feel good in Taipei.

"At last we can relax," said one Taiwan official in Doha last week. "After years of feeling like a second-class citizen with only observer status in the WTO, it feels good to be a member," he said.