Judging from the reaction in the media, WTO members were "taken aback," "shocked" and "angered" last week when Taiwan -- or, as it is so inconveniently called at the trade body, the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu (Chinese Taipei) -- announced it would block the appointment of a Chinese judge to the Appellate Body.
The "surprise decision" by Taipei to question the impartiality of Zhang Yuejiao (
Though the move may be seen as an annoyance by other WTO members who would rather continue with business as usual, for Taipei it is of an almost existential pitch, as it concerns the very future of its trade relations. Excluded from almost every other international organization and having seen Chinese or Beijing-friendly individuals assume high positions in bodies such as the UN and the WHO, Taipei has every reason to dread the high-level appointment of a potential Beijing minder in yet another international organization.
Seeing that its efforts to isolate Taiwan by political and military means have failed to break the nation's back -- and that it may in fact have consolidated the ranks of those who oppose annexation -- through the WTO Beijing could now turn to the one weapon that, above any other, threatens the survival of Taiwan: its economy.
As Taiwan tries to find a new role for itself in a transforming world economy -- a process that will involve moving into highly contentious business sectors that are characterized by a great amount of litigation -- success will largely be contingent upon impartiality at the WTO court. If that body is allowed to lean in Beijing's favor or to be used as a means to hold Taiwan hostage, Taipei's strategy for the development of its trade sector will be compromised and its detractors will once again be in a position to use the state of the economy as an argument against the central government.
The problem is not with Zhang per se, whose credentials have yet to be ascertained, but rather the numerous precedents set by Beijing in other international organizations, as well as the type of pressure that it can bring to bear. Even as they engage in multilateralism, authoritarian regimes have difficulty shedding their old reflexes, meaning that Zhang -- just like WHO chief Margaret Chan (
Beijing has deftly played its cards in recent years, so much so that its threat to Taiwan has become far more insidious than the blunt possibility of military invasion. Pressured by the international community into joining international organizations as a "responsible stakeholder," Beijing has successfully exploited the opportunities that multilateralism has created to turn Taiwan into an outcast. With the proper people in place, the WTO could very well be the latest step in that plan.
In light of all this, inconvenient and "shocking" though it may be for other WTO members, Taiwan's reaction was the proper one. It cannot afford to lower its guard as it tries to protect its interests at this most important body. The stakes are simply too high.