WTO representative can't carry `ambassador' badge

By Richard Dobson  /  STAFF REPORTER

Tue, Nov 27, 2001 - Page 1

Taiwan's first permanent representative to the WTO will be denied the title of ambassador which is accorded to representatives from most other member countries.

Reports have suggested that this is because of pressure from China.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs, however, said that it was the absence of formal diplomatic ties between Taipei and Geneva that made a diplomatic title impossible.

According to a local media report, China has insisted that, because Taiwan joined as a separate customs territory -- and because the title "ambassador" carries diplomatic connotations -- the yet-to-be-named official should be known officially as a "permanent representative" (常任代表).

The economics ministry yesterday confirmed in a statement that Taiwan's representative team to the WTO in Geneva would be known as the "Permanent Representation of the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu to the WTO" (WTO常任代表處).

"As the headquarters of the WTO is in Switzerland, with which we do not maintain diplomatic ties, we cannot identify the representative as an ambassador, counselor or any other diplomatic title," said the statement.

According to a WTO spokesperson, most nations locate their embassies in the Swiss capital of Berne and generally maintain permanent missions to the WTO and the UN office in Geneva. These missions are headed by senior officials known as ambassadors, according to the spokesperson.

"It is not necessary for representatives to the WTO to be called `ambassadors,'" said the ministry. "It depends completely on the situation of each member nation," it said.

While WTO membership in theory accords equal rights under free-trade rules to all members regardless of their title, Taiwan is highly sensitive to manipulation of its role within the organization by China, given the bitter mistrust between the two countries.

Under pressure from China, Taiwan accepted entrance into the WTO under the title of "The Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu." Macau and Hong Kong also joined as separate customs territories, but are represented by an "economic and trade office."

The economics ministry was anxious to point out that Taiwan's representation would not be at the same low level as that of Hong Kong and Macau.

Throughout the 12-year lead-up to the moment when Taiwan's application to join the WTO was approved, China mounted numerous unsuccessful attempts to change Taiwan's title to that of a territory belonging to China.