- - Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Observer status in the global aviation organization is a no-brainer

The current Congress stands accused of not accomplishing much. Before its summer recess, however, it passed a significant, but little-noticed, piece of legislation. Public Law 113-17 directs Secretary of State John Kerry to develop a strategy to obtain observer status for Taiwan in the International Civil Aviation Organization and report formally to Congress on the administration’s progress.

The House and Senate were already on record in urging the administration to take a leading role in securing observer status for Taiwan. This new law puts teeth into the earlier “sense of the Congress.”

Since the end of World War II, the International Civil Aviation Organization has worked to ensure “safe, regular, efficient and economical air transport” around the world. Taiwan has no status in the organization because China is able to bar its participation, just as it does in the United Nations and many other international organizations.


This opposition is rooted in China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan and its insistence that other countries not recognize Taiwan as a separate nation. Like many other countries, the United States attempts to straddle the middle: It does not recognize China’s claim to Taiwan, but it also does not recognize Taiwanese sovereignty. I write not from the middle, but rather as someone who championed the Taiwanese cause in the Senate and who now, as a private citizen, helps to advance the country’s agenda in Washington.

China’s blocking of Taiwanese status in the International Civil Aviation Organization carries Beijing’s nonrecognition policy past the point of absurdity. Put aside the political and legal issue of sovereignty and diplomatic recognition and consider only the facts on the ground — or, in this case, also in the skies. The airspace under Taiwan’s control covers 180,000 square nautical miles, and Taipei provides air-traffic control services to approximately 1.2 million flights annually. Each year, 40 million passengers pass through this zone. The airport in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, is one of the 10 largest cargo and 20 largest passenger airports in the world.

Taiwan’s economy is correspondingly large. None of this can safely be ignored, nor should it be brushed under the rug for political reasons. Air transport is vital in the modern world, and the United States’ interest in safe and efficient passenger air traffic to and from Taiwan recently became even stronger: Last October, Taiwan became the 37th nation admitted into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which means that Taiwanese citizens no longer require visas to enter the United States for short commercial and personal trips. This is expected to increase dramatically the number of Taiwanese visitors to the United States. Already, there are 400 flights per week between our two countries.

What Taiwan’s attainment of observer status in the International Civil Aviation Organization means in all of this is painfully obvious; namely, increased safety and reliable air service for passengers and cargo. Specifically, this status would enable Taiwan to maintain up-to-date aviation practices with greater efficiency, quickly secure time-sensitive amendments to organization regulations, and prepare more ably for implementation of new organization systems and procedures. It would also translate into increased cooperation and coordination — and greater potential for pre-emption and swift, unified action — in the global war against terrorism.

Leading efforts to secure status for Taiwan as an observer is consistent with the U.S. government’s policy of supporting Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations. Indeed, there is good, recent precedent for this on both the United States’ and China’s parts: In 2009, in the wake of the swine flu epidemic and following intense criticism of Beijing’s handling of the 2003 SARS pneumonia crisis, China dropped its objections and allowed Taiwan — albeit as “Chinese Taipei,” a less sovereign-sounding appellation of Beijing’s choosing — to obtain observer status in the World Health Organization. Here, too, it made no sense to do less than everything feasible to prevent the spread of communicable illnesses and, more generally, improve the public health. As with the WHO, mechanisms are already in place in the International Civil Aviation Organization to allow non-contracting countries, such as Taiwan, and other bodies to be accredited formally as observers.

Congress is right to call upon the administration to correct this potentially dangerous wrong at the next triennial International Civil Aviation Organization assembly, which will be held in Montreal this month. Once in a great while, diplomacy and statecraft present apparent dilemmas that are, in fact, no-brainers. This is one of them.

Bob Dole is a former Senate majority leader and was the 1996 Republican nominee for president.