The government decided to participate in this year’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) assembly, a move it believes will be positive and significant. There is no doubting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ commitment to this, but closer analysis reveals that participating in this event is actually a defeat for Taiwan and perhaps the beginning of the deterioration in its diplomatic situation.
When compared with the World Health Assembly (WHA) model, participation in the ICAO assembly entails a serious reduction in Taiwan’s status as a nation and its interests. The Taiwanese delegation is attending the summit as “special guests” — one notch down from being an observer nation — and is seated behind the observer nations. Worse, the delegation will not be there under the name of “Chinese Taipei,” but as “Guest, Chinese Taipei.” Without observer status, we will have to just be seen and not heard, with no legal right to make any proposals.
The ICAO chairman has said that all of this was Beijing’s suggestion. China has its position and is extremely unlikely at this stage to agree to any participation on Taiwan’s part that could be construed as being founded on the principle of “one China, one Taiwan” or even “two Chinas.”
Nevertheless, looking at the list of delegates at the previous ICAO assembly, there were 40 attendees present as “observer delegations” — including the Palestinian Authority and a range of international organizations — in addition to those there as observer nations. If Taiwan were allowed to participate as an observer delegation, this would not — in purely legal terms — have any implications for statehood and would thereby not entail either “one China, one Taiwan” nor “two Chinas.” Despite this, Beijing has regrettably refused to concede an inch on this matter.
Given this, the government was needlessly hasty in agreeing to attend this year’s assembly. Taiwan has not participated in an ICAO event for more than 40 years and this has had little effect on flight safety. At this stage, there is no pressure on Taiwan to participate in the assembly. More importantly, due to diplomatic efforts, the US, the EU and Canada — the host nation — have all voiced their support of Taiwan’s participation in the aviation organization as an observer member.
These major players’ opinions on the matter makes it likely that China is feeling a certain amount of pressure from them. Strategically speaking, with the WHA precedent in place, there is hope that Taiwan could participate as an observer member at the next ICAO event, even if it cannot do so this time. However, the government instead agreed to accept the more lowly “special guest” status in its haste to achieve its goal of attending the meeting, whatever the cost. This will not only affect Taiwan’s participation in the ICAO assembly, it could also have repercussions for attendance in other organizations.
If Beijing continues to object to Taipei’s bids to participate in international organizations, then other members of the international community will be content to accept China’s position, putting Taiwan at serious risk of losing the little flexibility it has in this regard.
Beijing is haggling over the most minute details and refusing to budge an inch on anything when it comes to Taiwan’s international presence, in the erroneous belief that improving cross-strait relations will change Taiwan’s ambition to have more room to maneuver internationally. It is true that the government ought to look at the overall diplomatic situation, but rushing into things to secure one-off success will adversely affect the nation’s diplomatic status in the long run.
Chiang Huang-chih is a professor of law at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Paul Cooper