Safer Skies, Better Global Cooperation: Why Taiwan’s Inclusion in ICAO is Necessary

The 38th session of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly will be held this month in Montreal, Canada. Image: ICAO Safe and secure air travel strengthens the global economy and enables our interconnected way of life to thrive. Last year, commercial airlines carried nearly 3 billion passengers to their destinations.

One group that plays a crucial role in ensuring the safety of air travel today is the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). ICAO—established by the Contracting States to the Chicago Convention in 1944—became a specialized agency of the United Nations, with the purpose of garnering international cooperation in developing principles and arrangements necessary for safe and secure air transport. More than one hundred and ninety countries now benefit from these services on the basis of equal opportunity, and strive to preserve safe skies as a public good. However, not all countries are provided with such protection.

Taiwan is an international transportation hub, yet it is excluded from the information sharing and international cooperation that ICAO facilitates. In 2012, the Taipei Flight Information Region (FIR) provided services to more than 1.2 million flights with 40 million air travelers. The Taipei FIR is in the center of four FIRs that are controlled by Japan, the Philippines, and Mainland China, respectively. Despite the fact that Taiwan was one of the original signatories of the 1944 Chicago Convention, the country has had no direct contact with ICAO since its exclusion from the organization in 1971, when Mainland China replaced Taiwan’s seat in the United Nations.

A global aviation system that depends upon international cooperation cannot succeed when 1.2 million flights that pass annually through Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport are forced to play catch-up to critical security and aviation standards. Taiwan’s absence in ICAO impedes the country from receiving such information in a timely manner. But with Taiwan’s admission to the U.S. Visa Waiver program in November 2012, air travel in the region will only increase from the current 400 flights per week. Taiwan is ready to take on the shared responsibility of keeping its skies and air passengers safe, but it cannot hold up its end of the bargain without the necessary tools.

The solution is simple: give Taiwan a seat at the table by granting it an observer status in  ICAO. Taiwan has been upholding the welfare of the people as its ultimate goal in seeking to meaningfully participate in specialized agencies of the UN, and does not wish to create political complications. This was indicated in its efforts to join the World Health Assembly (WHA) in 2008. Prior to that, Mainland China had continued to challenge Taiwan’s application for full member status by demanding that other countries accept the “One China” policy. But political calculations should not block the global need for safer skies. The upcoming triennial ICAO Assembly provides a rare opportunity to right a wrong and address this impediment to universal standards and practices.

Recently, President Obama signed into law a bill directing the Secretary of State to develop a strategy that can help facilitate Taiwan’s meaningful participation in ICAO. The legislation received unanimous support from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The United States should be commended for its leadership on this critical issue, and other countries should to do the same. Another positive sign of support for Taiwan came from twenty countries in the European Parliament that sent a letter to ICAO’s Secretary General urging the organization to grant Taiwan an observer status.

The United States announced Taiwan's membership in its Visa Waiver Program (VWP) in October 2012. Image: Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport

However, Beijing has expressed concerns about growing support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in ICAO and other international organizations. To Mainland China, Taiwan’s parallel representation in the given international organizations would leave the impression of “Two Chinas” or “One China, One Taiwan” to the world. Therefore, Beijing deemed international support for Taipei’s bid as “foreign interference” while maintaining Taipei should consult with Beijing for a “reasonable arrangement.”

Nevertheless, it is in Mainland China’s interest to support international cooperation, especially as cross-Strait ties improve. There are 616 flights commuting across the Taiwan Strait on a weekly basis, all of which need better regional and international coordination to ensure safety in air navigation. Furthermore, supporting Taipei’s bid for ICAO can help Beijing improve its image as a responsible stakeholder worldwide. This, in turn, would help sustain a virtuous cycle for Mainland China, Taiwan, and the world.

Since Taiwan was granted observer status in the WHA, the country has contributed significantly to the international community’s collective efforts in pandemic control, monitoring, and early warning. Taiwan is hoping to make similar contributions to international aviation safety, security, and cooperation as an observer at ICAO. ICAO has already granted observer statuses and participatory roles to many others in the past; it has even approved permanent observer status to the Airline Association of Southern Africa, the International Air Transport Association, the International Business Aviation Council, the International Union of Aerospace Insurers, and others. The international community should demand the same for Taiwan.

International efforts to ensure safe skies will work best when all parties work together to facilitate information sharing and technical cooperation. Taiwan’s exclusion from ICAO constitutes a serious gap in global governance, for Taiwan can neither receive real time information nor share its experiences to update the systems necessary for ensuring safe air travels. Continued opposition to Taiwan’s entry into ICAO as an observer will impede making global air travel safer for the flying public.

The United States and other countries have already expressed their support for Taiwan's meaningful participation in ICAO. As ICAO members prepare to meet in Montreal this September, they should put the interests of the world’s air passengers ahead of politics and grant observer status to Taiwan.