December 21, 2009 | Op-ed

Unfriendly Skies: Taiwan’s Exclusion from UN Agency Undermines Air Safety

By: Dr. J. Peter Pham

In recent days, the United Nations celebrated International Civil Aviation Day, commemorating the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (also known as the Chicago Convention, after the city where the agreement was hammered out by delegates from 54 countries) which established the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), now a specialized agency within the UN system charged with developing international air transport “in a safe and orderly manner…on the basis of equality of opportunity and operated soundly and economically.”

Sadly, the absence at the festivities of one of the founding members of the ICAO not only gives the lie to its mission statement, but undermines passenger safety and international security.

The government of the Republic of China (ROC) was among those which responded favorably to the invitation from U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull-issued, eerily enough, on September 11, 1944-to attend a diplomatic conference in the Windy City on the subject of post-war civil aviation. For its agenda, the meeting had still-timely goals of promoting “the right of transit and non-traffic stops, the non-exclusivity of international operating rights, the application of cabotage to air traffic, the control of rates and competitive practices, the gradual curtailment of subsidies, the need for uniform operating and safety standards and the standardization of coordination of air navigation aids and communications facilities, the use of airports and facilities on a non-discriminatory basis, and the operation of airports and facilities in certain [underserved] areas.” The Chinese delegation was led by Chang Kia-ngau, a distinguished former minister of communications who was also one of the leading figures in the establishment of modern banking in China.

The ROC, transferred to Taiwan in 1949 after the defeat of the Nationalists, continued to be a contributing member of the ICAO until 1971, when it was unceremoniously ejected by the agency's Assembly. Since 1974, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has occupied the Chinese seat in the ICAO Assembly and currently also has a seat on the 26-member Council, which handles the agency's affairs between the triennial meetings of the full Assembly. And, as everyone knows, while the PRC remains a communist dictatorship, albeit one that embraces selective aspects of market capitalism, the ROC on Taiwan has evolved into a vibrant-at time, boisterous-multiparty democracy that not only plays a crucial role in the global economy, but has increasingly devoted substantial resources to a responsible foreign aid program aimed at helping developing countries learn from its experience in building both solid political and economic infrastructures.

Unlike some UN political bodies which are little better than talk shops, the ICAO is a technical agency whose decisions impact millions of passengers and thousands of cargo flights daily. In fact, in the more than six decades of its existence, the agency has established no fewer than 10,000 technical and operational standards affecting air transportation around the globe, many of which also serve as the basis for individual countries' safety regulations. Thus the ROC's exclusion from the body has real-world implications not only for the 23 million Taiwanese, but for the entire global transportation network.

Ironically, when the ROC was deprived of its rightful seat as an original signatory of the Chicago Convention nearly forty years ago, the Taiwanese were still left with responsibility for a key air transport hub in the Asia-Pacific region, the Taipei Flight Information Region (FIR), which covers 176,000 square nautical miles crossed by a dozen international and four domestic routes. In 2008, some 360,000 flights carrying over 35 million passengers to and from Taiwan passed through the Taipei FIR, in addition to the more than 1.35 million flights which transited through the region. Moreover Taiwan's Taoyuan International Airport is the world's fifteenth largest in terms of cargo volume.

Despite its importance as a hub of global aviation, Taiwan is excluded from actually participation in ICAO discussions. In fact, the ICAO will not even talk directly with Taiwan on even purely technical matters. As needed, communications from the agency's Montréal headquarters are passed to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for forwarding on to Taipei, which then transmits its reply through Washington. While the FAA undoubtedly makes the best of an awkward situation, it's a rather bizarre way to go about enhancing the safety, security, efficiency, and continuity of global air transport-the strategic objectives which ICAO set for itself to achieve in the current quinquennium. And, in the event of an actual emergency in the western Pacific Ocean, the time wasted by the shut-out of Taiwan would likely result in a real tragedy.

Moreover, the ICAO often takes the lead in discussion not directly related to aviation. For example, this week the agency convened the nineteenth meeting of the technical advisory group on machine-readable travel documents. ICAO is also currently spearheading the creation of a “public key directory” (PKD) for e-passports with embedded microchips. Even at this rather non-political level, the ROC still gets the cold shoulder from the UN agency and has trouble getting comprehensive information on the standards being discussed. Since Taiwan, the 26th largest economy in the world, is excluded from the consultations, glitches will be almost inevitable when the new system is implemented-with obvious implications for everyone's security.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) invited Taiwan, under the designation “Chinese Taipei,” to participate in the World Health Assembly as an observer. While the second-class billing may not have ideal, at least it gives the island's leaders access to time-sensitive discussions on issues of global health and, more broadly, reflects the improved state of cross-strait relations since President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008. In fact, in response to Beijing's flexibility with respect to the WHO participation, Taipei did not make its annual push to revisit UN membership during the General Assembly this fall. Similar progress towards Taiwan's meaningful inclusion in ICAO activities during this anniversary year would not only help consolidate the rapprochement between the island and the mainland, but also advance the efficiency and safety of the international air transport and commerce.

Cutting Edge contributor J. Peter Pham is a senior fellow at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York and a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.


Indo-Pacific International Organizations