Taiwan Makes a Breakthrough—Thanks to China

A passenger aircraft prepares to take off from Taipei International Airport in Taipei, Taiwain, on Sept. 13. Photograph by David Change/EPA

It’s one of the obscure arms of the United Nations, but the International Civil Aviation Organization is the venue for a breakthrough in the decades-long rivalry between China’s Communists and Taiwan’s Nationalists. The ICAO is meeting in Montreal for an assembly scheduled to last until Oct. 4. And for the first time since the UN kicked out Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan-based Republic of China in 1971, there is a Taiwanese representative in attendance.

For Taiwan, long accustomed to international isolation, this is a major development. The island has diplomatic relations with only 23 countries. The most significant is the Vatican, which has long been at odds with the People’s Republic of China over the Communist government’s hostility to the Catholic Church. The other governments that recognize Taiwan are poor and small, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as a few in Africa and Oceania.

The Taiwanese have been trying for years to break out of their diplomatic isolation and have targeted the ICAO. The success winning “international support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation is greatly appreciated,” Taiwanese transportation minister Yeh Kuang-Shih wrote in a column in Aviation Week. “Taiwan has for many years strived to participate in ICAO. Our call for inclusion in the organization has been acknowledged around the world.”

The U.S., which switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in the Carter administration, has welcomed the move, too. The Obama administration is “encouraged to see that this arrangement was reached through international cooperation and appreciate the flexibility and support of both ICAO and its members,” the State Department said in a statement. “We continue to support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in multilateral organizations that do not require statehood for membership.”

Taiwan can thank an unlikely champion for its ICAO breakthrough. Taiwan got invited to Montreal only because the government in Beijing agreed to allow the island to take part as a guest under the name Chinese Taipei, the same name Taiwan’s athletes use when participating in the Olympics. According to a report in the Taiwan-based English-language newspaper China Post, ICAO Council President Roberto Kobeh González yesterday said he invited Taiwan because of China’s suggestion.

For China, the Montreal invite is a fairly pain-free way to show the mainland’s sincerity toward improving relations with Taiwan at a time when Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s popularity has plunged. Ma is the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Nationalists who favor closer economic ties with the mainland. The worst-case scenario for Beijing is a return to power of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, so any move to bolster Ma and the KMT and diminish the chances of a DPP government would likely be worthwhile for the Communists.

Which is one reason the DPP is wary. Indeed, for China skeptics in Taiwan’s opposition, the ICAO participation is a setback, not a breakthrough. The Taipei Times newspaper, for instance, reported DPP lawmaker Lin Chia-lung bemoaning China’s role in Taiwan’s Montreal debut. The statement by the ICAO president “was a clear message to the international community that invitations for Taiwan to participate in international activities must go through China,” the paper reported Lin saying.

Meanwhile, air traffic between the two sides is increasing rapidly. It was only in 2008 that flights could go directly from one side of the Taiwan Strait to the other without having to go through Hong Kong airspace. Now so many people are flying between the mainland and Taiwan, airlines are clamoring for more space at Chinese airports.

Jean Shen, the Taiwanese civil aviation chief who is attending the ICAO meeting in Montreal, told Bloomberg News that Taiwanese airlines want Chinese permission to increase flights to such top mainland destinations as Beijing and Shanghai. “There are no slots,” she said. “Capacity is full, and it’s very difficult to increase flights.”

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