Fighting International Isolation, Taiwan Seeks Admission to Aviation Forum

Officials solicit U.S., international support to attend U.N. civil aviation assembly

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen / AP
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen / AP
September 15, 2016

Taiwanese officials are fighting international isolation by pushing to be allowed into a U.N. assembly focusing on international civil aviation that the island has been locked out of for more than four decades.

The government of Taiwan has filed an application to participate in the 39th International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, Assembly in Montreal, Canada, which will be held later this month. Taiwan, a founding member of the U.N. agency that sponsors the event, was prevented from participating in the triennial assembly for 42 years after being kicked out of the United Nations in 1971.

Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China, won a plea for an invitation to the assembly three years ago, a move that the United States welcomed. But the small island nation has not yet won an invitation to this year’s event.

The push is one prong of Taiwan’s effort to expand its presence in international organizations. Kolas Yotaka, a Taiwanese legislator and member of the Democratic Progressive Party, told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview that she believes the ICAO will serve as a stepping stone for Taiwan to gain entry into organizations like the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and Interpol.

"There are many people who are striving for Taiwan to be a member of the United Nations," Kolas said. "It is very important for us to tell the whole world that we should have the right to get in to join different organizations."

Kolas is hosting visits to Washington, D.C., and New York City to spur American public support for Taiwan’s inclusion in international organizations like the ICAO. The first-term legislator met with members of Congress and officials from the Department of the Interior during a visit to Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

China has worked to block Taiwan’s push for membership to international organizations. The communist nation rejects Taiwan’s sovereignty, maintaining that Taiwan is Chinese territory.

Recent changes in Taiwan’s leadership have exacerbated cross-strait relations. Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party that favors ultimate, formal independence from China, became the first woman elected president of Taiwan in January, ending eight years of Nationalist Party leadership.

During her inaugural address, Tsai did not affirm the 1992 Consensus in which Taipei and Beijing agreed that they were part of "one China," a term that has been interpreted differently by both sides. The decision drew ire from Beijing, which threatened to suspend regular communications until the new leader recognized the "one China" principle.

Kolas said Wednesday that it is important for the international community to recognize that people from Taiwan and China have different identities.

"We have a different identity for Taiwanese people, especially for indigenous people," she said. "Some people think that’s the strategy of the new president to get rid of China. But, I think it’s just a fact we have to face."

The United States, which switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, maintains a "robust unofficial relationship" with Taiwan and has approved of its participation in multilateral organizations that don’t require statehood for membership.

A Taiwanese delegation was allowed to attend the 2013 ICAO assembly as a "guest" as a result of compromise between ICAO members and Beijing, which opposed the United States’ suggestion that Taiwan be offered admission as an observer. Taiwan representatives at the assembly were given badges that branded them "Guest" from the "Chinese Taipei CAA," according to a report from the Taipei Times.

ICAO develops standards and policies for aviation safety, security, economic efficiency, and environmental responsibility. The assembly hosts 191 member states in addition to international organizations that are invited to attend.

Taiwan representatives argue that the island is a considerable contributor to civil aviation in the Asia-Pacific region and that its inclusion in the ICAO would help improve the safety and management of air travel in the region. The Taipei flight information region provided more than 1.53 million navigation services to planes carrying over 50 million passengers last year, according to Taiwan’s ministry of foreign affairs.

Taiwan’s push for admission into the assembly comes in the wake of a meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hangzhou, China, during the G-20 Summit earlier this month.

The White House was pressed in August on whether the president would broach the subject of Taiwan’s participation in the ICAO when meeting with Xi. It is unclear whether the leaders discussed Taiwan’s participation in the ICAO at the meeting.

During an Aug. 30 briefing in Washington, D.C., Daniel Kritenbrink, the National Security Council senior director of Asian affairs, did not indicate directly whether Obama would lobby Xi on Taiwan’s participation in the assembly during his Asia trip when asked about it by a reporter.

Kritenbrink said that Obama would "have an opportunity to reiterate our longstanding position on cross-strait relations and what that means for both sides of the strait and the maintenance of that peace and stability."

"We always encourage the expansion of Taiwan’s international space and its ability to participate in a constructive way in organizations that don’t require statehood as a condition for membership," said Daniel Russel, the State Department assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, at the same briefing.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. The ICAO also did not return a request about the status of Taiwan’s application to attend the assembly.

Update 11:08 a.m.: A previous version of this story said Taiwan attended the 2013 ICAO assembly as a guest as a result of a proposal from Beijing. The invitation came from a compromise between ICAO members and Beijing.

Published under: China