Experts: China Bullying Interpol, Global Health and Aviation Groups into Excluding Taiwan

The Heritage Foundation held an event to discuss Taiwan’s role in international organizations on Thursday, with an emphasis on the way China is using its growing economic and diplomatic clout to block Taiwanese membership in vital organizations related to health, safety, and security.

Heritage Foundation Asian Studies Director Walter Lohman began by citing the example of the World Health Assembly, where “Taiwan has been denied some role after many years of participation.” Taiwan was similarly blocked from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and, perhaps most outrageously, Interpol. In some cases, even limited observer status granted to Taiwan in previous years has been revoked.

Taiwan’s Deputy Minister for the Mainland Affairs Council, Dr. Cheng-yi Lin, gave an extensive presentation on Beijing’s aggressive and potentially unsafe deployment of new air travel routes over the Straits of Taiwan.

“Even Beijing believes that there is a potential risk of an air-traffic close encounter in the air in the Taiwan Strait,” Lin pointed out.

He said mainland China’s unilateral opening of air routes so close to Taiwan’s airspace was in part motivated by a desire to “constrain the airspace of Taiwan,” including for Taiwanese military aircraft. Later in the presentation, it was noted that expanding Chinese civilian airspace gives Taiwan less time to identify a potential Chinese military incursion into its territory and prepare a response.

Lin said the effort represented an example of China using its “sharp power”—aggressive diplomatic and economic pressure that lies somewhere between the traditional understanding of “hard” military might and “soft” diplomatic influence—to punish the administration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

He added that Taiwan believes Beijing’s new air routes violate ICAO regulations. This would be a much easier case for Taiwan to press if it had not been shut out of membership in the U.N.’s civil aviation agency thanks to Chinese interference.

University of Pennsylvania law professor Jacques deLisle noted that China has been able to shut Taiwan out of numerous international bodies it is eminently qualified to join, based on Taiwan’s exemplary conduct, its economic significance, and the internationally-recognized definition of a legitimate nation-state.

He said one of the reasons China is so eager to checkmate Taiwan’s attempts to join international bodies is that membership in such organizations is one of the recognized criteria for independent statehood. The more groups Beijing successfully blackballs Taipei from joining, the easier it is for China to deny Taiwan formal recognition as an independent state.

This is such an urgent objective for China that it shuts Taiwan out even when Taiwanese membership would clearly benefit the safety and security of Chinese citizens, as with health, environmental, and law enforcement agencies.

DeLisle observed that China moved swiftly and aggressively to isolate Taiwan as Chinese economic power and diplomatic influence grew over the past few years. Taiwanese resistance has fared best at economic organizations since the island nation “punches so far above its weight” in such matters.

DeLisle bluntly stated that China is able to keep Taiwan out of some important international bodies simply because citizens of the People’s Republic of China happen to occupy the chairman’s office at the moment. A paramount example of China commandeering important international organizations by filling the top seat is, unfortunately, Interpol.

Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, reviewed the case of Interpol in detail. He was outraged by Taiwan’s exclusion, pointing out that it defies common sense, might possibly violate Interpol’s constitution, and most certainly violates American law.

On the latter point, Bromund scolded the U.S. State Department for doing a poor job of following up on legislation requiring the U.S. government to push hard for Taiwanese inclusion in Interpol.

“The law is there. The policy is real,” he said, lamenting that so little has been done to effectively implement it. He also critiqued the law for being drafted too vaguely and referring to an “observer” limited membership for Taiwan that might not actually exist under Interpol’s constitution.

Bromund saw the State Department as a less than optimum choice for implementing congressional instructions since State actually has very little to do with Interpol coordination. He reflected that the United States tends to treat Interpol as what it actually is—essentially a global bulletin board for the police—and uses law enforcement agencies to interact with it, whereas China and some other members view Interpol as a political entity and use political and diplomatic agencies to deal with it.

Bromund was unsparing in his criticism of how China has abused its membership, and now the leadership of Interpol, despite providing such a tiny portion of the funding for the international law enforcement agency.

“The 2017 meeting of Interpol’s General Assembly happened to be held in Beijing,” he pointed out. “Enough said.”

But that was not quite enough said, because he went on to note that the current head of Interpol is a “former” Chinese security official, scoffing at the notion of truly retiring from a high position in the Chinese security apparatus.

“There is no chance that Taiwan is going to gain any status in Interpol as long as it is run by the PRC,” Bromund said bluntly, using the mainland Chinese government’s name for itself, the People’s Republic of China.

Bromund found it absurd that Taiwan was blocked from Interpol membership while the Palestinian Authority was accepted. For that matter, he argued that China is not truly fit for Interpol membership because it engages in a number of clearly unacceptable activities, such as using politicized “corruption” investigations to get rid of officials who fall out of favor and threatening the Chinese families of individuals abroad to secure their compliance.

“Taiwan should be a member. China should be expelled under Interpol’s own rules,” he declared.

The panel participants worried that China is flexing its muscles in various international organizations at the same moment that American influence is waning, and that Beijing acts aggressively to prosecute agenda items such as isolating Taiwan while Washington is often unclear about what it wants from international bodies. This has allowed China to become the “gatekeeper” for membership in some important organizations, especially those where each member state is allowed a single vote no matter how large and powerful it is, since China can wrangle supporting votes from a large number of smaller nations in its orbit.

Bromund, however, argued that it is more a problem of the United States failing to appreciate how actors like China are willing to politicize and manipulate agencies with noble humanitarian charters.

“Step up and recognize that there is a political game going on in these organizations, and that in order to fight the politicization of these organizations, you have to be willing to call it out for what it is, and to appoint individuals to U.S. leadership positions inside the U.S. government who are willing to fight to keep these organizations technical and apolitical, by recognizing that other people want to treat them as political,” he advised.

DeLisle had some concrete suggestions for Taiwan to fight back against China’s campaign of isolation, such as insisting on the “principle of universality,” which stated simply means pointing out the absurdity of arbitrarily excluding 22 million people from organizations dedicated to world health or global environmental issues.

He also recommended highlighting the damage done to Taiwanese citizens when China unfairly excludes their country from important bodies, and for that matter the damage done to Chinese citizens and the international regimes themselves.

DeLisle suggested Taiwan can play the “values card” by arguing that it plays by the rules of global agencies much better than China does, and if all else fails, Taipei can get some diplomatic mileage out of simply acting like a full member of international regimes, even when Beijing blocks formal membership.

As Bromund summarized with respect to Interpol, there are many reasonable accommodations that could be made for effective Taiwanese participation in world organizations, even when the rules prevent states from securing full membership with the kind of asterisk on their credentials that Beijing’s “One China” policy represents for Taiwan.

“The problem is not Taiwan,” he said. “The problem is not Interpol, or Interpol structures, or its requirements for membership, or its forms of cooperation. The problem is quite simple. The problem is the People’s Republic of China.”


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