Taiwan’s return to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) after 42 years should be a happy event. Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) Director-General Jean Shen (沈啟) was so moved that she almost cried. However, at a press conference, ICAO Council President Roberto Kobeh-Gonzalez shattered the Taiwanese government’s hopes when he said that Taiwan was invited as a guest at China’s suggestion, thus embarrassing President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his administration, who had wanted to take credit for the country’s participation in the meeting.
Beijing has been the major obstacle to Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. Because of Beijing’s demand that countries and organizations block Taiwan from participating in international activities, Taiwan is completely locked out — the exceptions being the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Olympic Games, where the country can participate under the title “Chinese Taipei”.
Taiwan had strong hopes for participating as a major player. The US Congress supported Taiwan’s presence and US President Barack Obama signed a law supporting Taiwan’s membership and worked to gain the support of other member countries to support Taiwan’s participation.
Still, Kobeh-Gonzalez’s statement gave the credit to China, with the result that the US delegation’s address did not mention Taiwan. After learning about Kobeh-Gonzalez’s statement, the US delegation decided to issue a statement by the US Department of State stressing that Taiwan’s participation was the result of international cooperation to avoid the impression that it was a unilateral decision by China. This was an expression of the US government’s dissatisfaction with the situation.
Kobeh-Gonzalez clearly did not fully understand the US’ role in Taiwan-related issues and he was not very sensitive to the complexities of cross-strait relations. Although China is expanding its international influence, the US is still the world’s most powerful nation. China is a regional power and the US is acknowledging China’s position as a stakeholder in the international community, but it does not want to see China rise to take its place. When it comes to cross-strait relations, the US is the guarantor of Taiwan’s security and it would never accept Chinese demands on issues concerning Taiwan’s international participation. This is why the US and China are competing in the ICAO and neither wants to be the loser.
Taiwan wanted ICAO membership or at least to be allowed as an observer, like in the WHO. However, due to China’s opposition, the Taiwanese delegation was only allowed to attend as “guests.” The ICAO’s initial refusal to issue accreditation to Taiwanese reporters also highlighted China’s plans to block Taiwan’s participation. ICAO attendance is far from the diplomatic breakthrough that the Ma administration has bragged about.
The statement by Kobeh-Gonzalez broke a long-standing rule that one should not state in unambiguous terms the nature of the cross-strait relationship. His violation embarrassed Taipei, Washington and Beijing.
During the administration of former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the government was able to maintain national dignity despite the difficult international situation. In the international arena, they were able to obtain the appropriate status for the nation. Now Ma’s spineless government is satisfied with and even boasts of having managed to get China to agree to Taiwan’s attendance as a guest, even though it failed to gain membership or even observer status in the ICAO.