On November 12 and 13, the leaders of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries will meet for their annual summit, which this year takes place in Honolulu.
The organization seeks to promote economic cooperation and free trade among its members, which represent more than half of the world’s gross domestic product, nearly half of the world’s trade, and around 40 percent of the global population.
Clearly the organization is important to all members. But it is especially so to Taiwan, which is largely diplomatically isolated and belongs to few important international or regional organizations. Indeed, APEC is the only noteworthy regional organization to which Taipei claims membership and is therefore, aside from the World Trade Organization, Taiwan’s most important connection to the international community.
But Taipei’s connection with APEC has a rocky history. When the island joined in 1991, it had to do so as ‘Chinese Taipei,’ at China’s request. China was then booming economically, and was able to make such a demand despite Taiwan having the support of the United States and others as a result of its adherence to free trade principles.
In 1993, Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui made a bid for Taiwan to enter the United Nations as the Republic of China on Taiwan. China naturally opposed the idea, and it didn’t get on the General Assembly’s agenda. But as a result of Lee’s move, which caused considerable consternation for the United States, the Clinton administration declined to invite a representative from Taiwan to the subsequent APEC annual meeting in Seattle. Around the same time, Clinton warned that Taiwan shouldn’t expect U.S. support in the event of China using military force against Taiwan if the island declared independence.
Fast forward almost a decade, and Taiwan’s difficult relationship with APEC was still evident. In December 2001, President Chen Shui-bian was also at loggerheads with Beijing over the independence issue, as well as the one-China policy (which Taiwan had ostensibly agreed to, based on the 1992 agreement, but which Chen rejected). China nixed Taiwan’s choice of a representative and Taiwan didn’t attend the annual meeting in Shanghai.
However, since Ma Ying-jeou was elected Taiwan’s president in 2008 pledging to reduce tensions with China, better cross-Strait trade and other commercial ties between the two have had a positive knock-on effect for Taipei’s relations with APEC.
In September, two Taiwanese received awards at the APEC and the Economy Summit in San Francisco. Taiwan is also scheduled to organize a customs and trade workshop at the November APEC meet, and it will also promote its work in the area of green energy.
Former Vice President and Premier Lien Chan will represent Taiwan at the meeting, while Taiwan’s Minister of Agriculture will also be there, where he will have an opportunity to showcase Taiwan’s successful agricultural policies.
This year’s meeting therefore gives Taiwan a valuable opportunity to interact with APEC members and engage in a little public diplomacy. With some voices in the United States suggesting U.S. support for the island should be reconsidered, the value for Taiwan in making full use of the APEC forum is clearer than ever.
John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.