By Daniel Hamilton
In the lexicon of states with limited diplomatic recognition, Taiwan is unique. While most are marked by poverty and political instability, the inhabitants of the island enjoy a level of economic prosperity and quality of life that easily rivals that in Western Europe.
Eighty miles of water is all that divides Taiwan’s twenty-three million people from mainland China. The political distance between the two entities, however, is akin to that between the Earth and Mars.
On one side of the ocean straight lie a people who enjoy freedom of speech, movement, religion, thought and association. On the other, a more than a billion people still toil under the very worst kind of communist oppression; their political and civil rights severely curtailed by an all-powerful government.
Since the United Nations voted in 1971 to expel Taiwanese representatives from the Chinese seat on the Security Council, the island has endured a the gut-wrenching spectacle of watching country after country severe diplomatic links with Taipei in favour of the communist regime in Beijing. Today, only twenty three states recognise Taiwan of which Guatemala and the Dominican Republic are the most notable.
It’s very easy, when you’ve grown up in a democratic country such as ours, to fail to fully appreciate just how special freedom is. After all, less than a third of the world’s people enjoy the same freedoms we do. When we go to bed tonight, 1.33 billion people in China will still be unable to participate in multi-party elections, offending the “Dear Leader” will still be a crime punishable by a decade of hard labour in North Korea and the people of Venezuela will still be powerless to halt their country’s slide into authoritarianism.
As such, I was proud to last week have the opportunity to visit Taiwan to learn more about the island which has operated in a bizarre form of diplomatic limbo since 1949.
As my friend Alex Deane wrote last week, our delegation entered the “eye of the storm” insofar as the island’s local election campaign was concerned. The proliferation of colourful posters, tub-thumping election rallies and the deafening noise from campaign vehicles playing jingles on behalf of candidates may not be how we conduct elections – but it’s certainly a way of demonstrating what the Taiwanese people proudly refer to as “our democracy”.
Watching a queue of highly-enthused voters snaking out of the polling station and around a street corner in a nation which was only recently under the grip of an authoritarian regime is a humbling experience I will not forget in a hurry. While the average turnout in elections across EU member states bottoms at around 50%, Taiwanese participation at last Saturday’s elections hit 72.5%.
It is perhaps because of their struggle for survival against the communist government of Mainland China or the island’s own recent memories of its authoritarian past, that Taiwan is so committed to the democratic process. While in Taipei we had the privilege of meeting with representatives of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), a government-endowed charity which provides funding for human rights and democracy movements worldwide.
During this meeting, we were introduced to the TFD-funded Council of Asian Liberal Democracies (CALD), who were holding one of their regular training programmes for political groups across Asia for democracy activists from states in the grip of dictatorships. Among them was an impressive and articulate representative from Burma’s National League for Democracy to whom the British delegation gave a standing ovation. On reflection, while our standing ovation was directed towards all those who have fought against oppression in Burma, it was also directed at the work our Taiwanese hosts for their commitment to global human rights and democracy.
When it comes to building links with our centre-right sister parties around the world, I would hazard a guess that the majority of even very senior Conservative Party members, have never heard of the International Democrat Union or the invaluable work it carries out. In Taiwan, however, such links are invaluable.
Given that so few global foreign ministries are willing to engage directly with Taipei for fear of offending the People’s Republic of China, outlets such as the IDU are crucial to Taiwan’s ability to influence policy on the global stage. In the case of the ruling KMT, they have long used their membership of the IDU to strengthen contact with the Conservative Party; regularly attending our party conferences and holding bi-lateral meetings at the very highest levels. The same is true for the opposition DPP who, after failing to find much enthusiasm for their prospective membership bid among the senior ranks of Socialist International, now work constructively inside Liberal International.
As one would expect in a state that enjoys limited international recognition, Taiwan’s ability to engage in the work of global organisations is severely limited. Indeed, the very mention of giving Taipei a voice at the table of many global bodies is enough to trigger threats and recriminations from the government of the People’s Republic. In one memorable incident, a mainland Minister screamed “go away, nobody cares about you!” at a group of Taiwanese protestors seeking the island’s admission to the WHO.
The Taiwanese are a realistic people; understanding the robust position of the mainland to any moves that could be seen as codifying the island’s separation from the remainder of the country, yet still recognising the practical necessity of obtaining some form of representation in global forums. As such, they have stopped short of requesting full membership of global bodies and have instead focussed on obtaining the same type of observer status afforded to the Palestinian Authority and Vatican City.
At present, Taipei has identified obtaining ‘observer status’ in the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as key objectives.
On a practical level, Taiwan’s exclusion from ICAO poses significant problems for the island’s government, both in terms of their ability to ensure their aircraft are compliant with international safety standards and equipped with the latest anti-terrorism measures. When it comes to the UNFCCC, Taiwan’s inability to engage with the body in effect precludes the island from participating in global initiatives to tackle climate change –an obvious problem given their large manufacturing base and position as the world’s 17th largest trading nation.
Diplomatic sensitivities aside, the practical benefits of Taiwanese engagement with global bodies have not gone unnoticed even in the People’s Republic.
Back in 2003, the insistence of the Republic of China that Taiwan should not be admitted to the World Health Organisation meant that local officials on the island were unable to obtain timely evidence about the spread of SARS and measures they could put in place to combat the spread of the virus. As a result, it took seven weeks for international experts to reach Taiwan in order to stem the spread of a disease which ultimately claimed 73 lives in the island and undoubtedly contributed to its further spread across Asia. As such, the decision of China to drop their objection to Taiwanese observer status at the World Health Organisation means Taipei will now form part of the WHO’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network and be able to actively participate in stopping the global spread of diseases in the future.
The British government – and all those who are happy to enjoy the benefits of trade with Taiwan – should actively seek to put pressure upon the People’s Republic to deepen Taipei’s engagement with bodies such as ICAO and the UNFCCC. Such a compromise by Beijing needn’t be one that loses them face but rather a public recognition of the joint benefits that can be gained by both sides in respect of great cooperation in relation to their shared airspace and the reduction in climate change. The sovereignty question simply doesn’t come into it.
The situation in Taiwan is too sensitive, too complex and too emotional for one to easily understand.
It is likely, if opinion polls on the island are to be believed, that there is little end in sight to the impasse in relations which has scarred both Taiwan and Mainland China for more than half a century.
What is clear, however, is that democratic nations like our own have a duty to do all we can to give Taiwan a voice in international affairs.
This thriving, liberal democracy deserves nothing less.
Wǒ ài Táiwān!