The moral case, however justified, has little chance of success in the current environment. Rather than continue with such a strategy, Taiwan needs to approach the matter asymmetrically by appealing to the self-interest of other nations.
As Beijing ramps up its campaign to limit Taiwan’s international space in retaliation for Taipei’s refusal to embrace a “one China” formula that has little appeal in Taiwan, the Tsai Ing-wen administration has been struggling to come up with a strategy to make its case for participation in international organizations. In the current global environment, however, more of the same old public diplomacy won’t work.
If Taipei needed any reminder of this, it occurred in Perth, Australia, on Monday, when pressure by Chinese and allied African envoys at a Kimberley Process meeting resulted in the expulsion of the delegation from Taiwan, which has been participating in the KP meetings as an observer since 2007.
The Australian government’s response — consternation at the extraordinary rudeness of the Chinese participants, and not at the injustice caused to Taiwan’s 23 million people (in which Australia was complicit) — speaks volumes. Monday’s incidents come after a series of similar, and equally successful, blocking efforts by the Chinese, including last year’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) triennial assembly in Montreal, the Interpol general assembly in Indonesia, and an international steel symposium held by the OECD Steel Committee and the Belgian government. A similar fate likely awaits Taiwan in its bid to join the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva later this year.
China’s growing influence at the global institutions through the election of Chinese representatives as chairpersons — e.g., Vice Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei as president of Interpol, Fang Liu as ICAO secretary-general and Margaret Chan as WHO secretary-general — has also made Taiwan’s efforts to participate all the more onerous.
Confronted with other countries’ national interests and growing exposure to Chinese investment, the moral case, however justified, falls flat and Taiwan inevitably loses out.
In all cases, Taiwan’s bid has received support from a number of diplomatic allies, official and not, including the U.S. and a handful of advanced Western democracies. However, it has become painfully clear that making the moral case for Taiwan’s participation is no longer an effective road to success. Confronted with other countries’ national interests and growing exposure to Chinese investment, the moral case, however justified, falls flat and Taiwan inevitably loses out. It will continue to do so unless enough momentum is built among large enough a number of countries that choose to adopt the moral position; otherwise, those who stand up for what’s right end up fighting Beijing in isolation and suffer the consequences to their national interest.
What should work in a perfect world is therefore an exercise in futility in the real world. Yes, democratic Taiwan has a case, and yes, its 23 million people ought to be represented at global institutions. But money talks, as does the cold calculus of governments that often will place their relationship with China before doing right by Taiwan (all of this, of course, being compounded by officials’ regular ignorance of what their countries’ “one China” policy actually allows them to do).
With Beijing showing no sign of letting down the pressure on international institutions to exclude Taiwan, Taipei finds itself at a crossroads: Once again appeal to morality, with slim chances of success, or change strategy.
At this point, I would suggest an asymmetrical approach to dealing with the problem. Just like the military, Taiwan cannot hope to prevail in a symmetrical battle with China on the political front. Consequently, it should give ground on that sector of the battlefield and instead focus on other, arguably more defensible, areas. Let Beijing wage its political war; Taiwan should retaliate by launching its own offensive on practical matters.
Among other things, this entails making its case not on a moral basis, but instead by emphasizing to the international community why it is essential that Taiwan be able to learn from and interact with global institutions like WHA, ICAO, Interpol, the KP and others. Taiwan’s political situation is too abstract and far too remote for ordinary people abroad, who consequently have difficulty making the emotional connection necessary to understanding, and empathising with, Taiwan’s moral case.
Taiwan’s public diplomacy campaign should adjust accordingly and appeal, via interviews, articles and outreach, to the self interest of its international partners rather than limit itself, as it often does, to their goodwill.
What they do understand, however, is global security. From civilian aviation to new and future pandemics, international crime to global terrorism, our world is increasingly interconnected. The SARS epidemic of 2003, for example, quickly spread from China to Hong Kong, and then to Taiwan and Toronto.
The same holds for civilian aviation. Every year, the Taipei Flight Information Region (FIR) handles 1.5 million flights that carry a total of 58 million passengers from a total of 3.6 billion passengers worldwide in 2016, according to IATA. Many of those passengers are not Taiwanese nationals, but citizens from all over the world (including Chinese). That volume of passengers speaks for itself.
And then there is terrorism. Very few people are aware, for example, that Ramzi Yousef, one of the main perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a co-conspirator in a (failed) plot to blow up 11 airliners en route from Asia to the U.S., flew from Hong Kong to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport in 1994 to test airport security here. Like deadly communicable pathogens, terrorists thrive on exploiting weaknesses in the global surveillance system, and one can only imagine what the repercussion would have been had Yousef determined the airport here to be suitable for such a plot, which was expected to kill more people than died on Sept. 11, 2001.
By being denied the ability to share and obtain information in timely fashion with agencies, such as Interpol, that track global crime and terrorism, Taiwan risks becoming a blind spot and a potential launch pad for illicit trade, various forms of trafficking, terrorist attacks and disease outbreaks, while its busy airspace can, due to lack of information, become more prone to accidents resulting from miscommunication. That, above all, should make people worldwide sit up and pay attention, as the What’s in it for me? now becomes all the more immediate.
Taiwan’s public diplomacy campaign should adjust accordingly and appeal, via interviews, articles and outreach, to the self interest of its international partners rather than limit itself, as it often does, to their goodwill. Only when it has demonstrated to the international community that its exclusion poses a threat to anyone, anywhere, will general publics abroad pressure their governments to do what’s right by Taiwan. And once this has been achieved, it will be a lot more difficult for China to make its case for sidelining Taiwan. It may get away with the abstracts of politics; but once its behavior starts putting other people’s lives at risk, its ability to browbeat others would be much constrained.
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