Diplomatic Access: Taiwan

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Diplomatic Access: Taiwan

Lyushun Shen on Taiwan’s role in the world and the Asia-Pacific, and its relationships with China and the U.S.

Diplomatic Access: Taiwan
Credit: TECRO

For 2015, The Diplomat presents “Diplomatic Access,” a series of exclusive interviews with ambassadors from the Asia-Pacific region. By talking to these diplomats, we’ll give readers a sense of each country’s perspective on various regional economic and security trends — from TPP to the Silk Road Economic Belt; from the South China Sea disputes to the Islamic State. Check out the whole series to date here.

In this interview, His Excellency Lyushun Shen, Representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the U.S., discusses Taiwan’s role in the world and the Asia-Pacific, and its relations with the United States and mainland China.

The Diplomat: From Taiwan’s perspective, what are the greatest threats to regional security?

Amb. Shen: From our perspective, it’s our restricted international space. Today, altogether, there are only 22 countries in the world that diplomatically recognize us, the Republic of China (ROC) – Taiwan. We’re not a UN member, nor a member of most international governmental organizations. Especially as a diplomat, this is my number one concern.

We, however, have done a lot of things to try to make it up, and the fact that the cross-Strait relationship has improved in recent years has made the enlargement of our international space somewhat easier. But there are a lot of things that remain to be achieved, and the issue has two sides. I usually say that it’s not only that we need the UN and the UN specialized agencies, but they also need us to make the UN system global. In this regard, we’re very grateful for American assistance because, in a way, when these UN agencies close their doors to Taiwan, the United States helps us to open a window.

When I was formerly posted at our mission in Geneva, more than 12 years ago around the late spring in 2003, we suffered from a very exotic epidemic disease called SARS. At that time, it was the United States that helped pass a WHO (World Health Organization) resolution so that we could go to some technical meetings to know how to deal with this previously unknown disease.

Today, the WHO, except for the annual WHA (World Health Assembly), still does not open its door widely to us. But we have also tried to assist in fighting Ebola. We went through American channels to contribute our knowledge and resources — we’re probably more experienced than some other countries, because we experienced SARS, an epidemic disease as well.

For example, we contributed, through American channels, 100,000 sets of what we call PPE – personal protective equipment – to West African countries. We couldn’t donate money directly to WHO but donated last December $1 million to the U.S. CDC Foundation for the use of Ebola prevention and control. My government and the American authorities assisted in setting up a regional Ebola prevention and control center – a training center – in Tainan, Taiwan. We hope that the spread of Ebola has stopped, but the United States and Taiwan already tried to get the region ready and prepared for fighting the disease. This regional control center in Tainan is mainly for the training of experts in Southeast Asian countries.

Just as much as we need UN agencies, they also need us. For example, the WHO already has made some improvements. Since 2009, we have been able to go to the WHA meetings every year. But as you know, the WHA – the World Health Assembly — only lasts for eight days a year. The rest of the time, we still have a lot of difficulties in participating in the organization’s professional activities.

As for other efforts to expand Taiwan’s international space, I can give you a long list of examples. The U.S. House of Representatives just adopted a resolution aimed at helping us get into INTERPOL, the international police organization. The reason is very simple: we need to get access to their resources and information, and they also need our assistance, especially because Taiwan is an international air hub. It is in neither Taiwan’s nor the rest of the world’s interest to make Taiwan a gap in the global system of crime prevention and anti-terrorism. We are grateful that the U.S. Congress is now trying to help us.

Taiwan is too big to ignore. There is also ICAO, for example – the International Civil Aviation Organization – we’re trying to knock at its door. As I said, Taiwan is an air hub. Every week, between Taiwan and the United States, there are 541 direct flights. And in the Taipei FIR, the Flight Information Region, which is the airspace under our air traffic control, every year we serve from 1.2 million up to 1.8 million flights, most of them international flights. Not being a member of ICAO, we sometimes don’t have access to even its technical information. If there’s any change in the international air traffic rules, how could we get to know those changes? How do we adjust our own operations accordingly?

So this should be an international concern – not just ours. In this regard, ICAO should be grateful to us as well because, even though without membership or observer status, we have made a lot of efforts to get the right operational manuals, trying to keep ourselves up to international standards and regulations, and so on. They, however, still refuse to include us in some technical meetings  – we’re talking about technical meetings, not political meetings. Technical meetings are very important for the technicians and professionals to understand why such regulations are made. We need to synchronize with the developments in the rest of the world.

This is why we have an office in Geneva, because Geneva has more UN-specialized agencies than any other city in the world. I was chief of mission there for more than five years. But I always worried – as I sometimes told my colleagues, we don’t even know what we have missed. There are so many international meetings there to make new regulations and resolutions. As a modern country, you have to keep yourself updated with international standards all the time. But Taiwan doesn’t have that kind of access. So there’s nothing political about this.

What can be done to address this concern?

First of all, we have tried to concentrate on our NGO participation, but even there I have to raise serious questions. Because sometimes with some UN agencies, even when our NGO delegates have already received the proper invitation from the conferences, they have problems getting into the meeting site because Taiwan passports could not be accepted as a valid ID to get into the UN compounds. We, however, have made efforts to improve the acceptance of our passports in this regard and also on a global scale. We have achieved great success: in recent years, we have concentrated on obtaining visa-free treatment from countries that do not have diplomatic ties with us – the EU, the United States, for example. Over the last seven years, we have gone from 54 to 158 countries or territories where we have visa waiver status for our passport holders. This has made our passport one of the most convenient international travel documents.

This is a remarkable record considering we only have 22 countries in the world diplomatically recognizing us. It’s not just convenient for our people; it brings a certain amount of dignity as well.

Also, despite the limited number of our diplomatic allies, we have not been limited in our ability or space to set up representative offices with similar functions. For example, we altogether have 13 offices in the United States. Why? One reason is that we are the United State’s 10th largest trading partner in the world. The U.S. trades with 224 countries and territories in the world. We’re number 10. It’s not a small deal. Last year we overtook two countries to be number 10 – we used to be number 12. What were those two countries? One is Saudi Arabia, the other is India – a very impressive record.

Now, if you talk about TPP, can you ignore a trading partner that’s so big?

You mentioned TPP — there is a growing trend toward regional economic integration, whether through bilateral free trade agreements or multilateral arrangements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific. What plans does Taiwan have to try to join the process of economic integration?

We have to make efforts on two fronts. One is our domestic front. We have to update and deregulate some of our old regulations so that we meet the international standards of liberalization – we have to reach the TPP standards, so to speak. For that we need to make efforts and we also have to educate our people. So this is the domestic front.

Internationally, we have to try to convince every other member state of the TPP to accept Taiwan. Because we have no diplomatic relations with most, if not all, relevant countries, we need to redouble our efforts.

People ask us about the factor of mainland China. Indeed, this certainly would make our TPP bid even more complicated or difficult. But there have been a few precedents regarding the co-existence of both sides in the same international organizations, even though not entirely to our satisfaction. For example, look at our experiences with WTO accession. We waited for mainland China for almost two years. We already finished all the negotiations, but they insisted that they had to get in first. We’d been told that they would get in first, and only after a coffee break would we get in. In the end it was a lunch break – they got in in the morning, we got in in the afternoon.

Why did we have to wait for them for two years? We’d already finished all the negotiations at that time. So I hope this time there would be no more unfair political restraints as such.

This is why I’m saying our international space is our number one concern. We do not mind and we are not afraid of competition on an equal footing, but we need to have an equal footing first. We only ask for fairness.

We are only one-third the size of the state of Virginia, but we are the United States’ 10th largest trading partner. We are comparable to countries like India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, even bigger than Russia or Australia as a trading partner to you. So the Taiwan story deserves your notice and support, or maybe even some admiration. Even though we are a small and remote island 10,000 miles away, we are a big player that nobody can ignore.

Taiwan’s government has proposed “peace initiatives” as a way of dealing with territorial disputes in both the East and South China Seas. How can Taiwan help defuse potential crises in these regions?  

President Ma’s proposal in 2012 is called the East China Sea Peace Initiative. And this May he also proposed the South China Sea Peace Initiative. Basically, they are proposals asking the parties concerned to set aside territorial disputes and instead to concentrate on joint exploration or cooperation on economic resources, because if you only concentrate on sovereignty, you can never resolve the problems.

Take the East China Sea Peace Initiative for example, concerning the Diaoyutai Island, what the Japanese call the Senkakus. We tried to negotiate with the Japanese for a fishery agreement to resolve or diffuse fishery disputes for 17 years. We didn’t get too far until April 2013. Finally, based on President Ma’s peace initiative, we and Japan signed a fishery agreement. Altogether, we enlarged the fishing area up to 74,000 sq. km to let our fishermen fish freely within these waters. Today, the fishermen can increase their fishing harvest while in the last two years there’s been only one fishing incident since the agreement was signed. Each side still retains its basic position of sovereign claims — nonetheless the fishing issues have been largely resolved.

So this is something we’ve been doing. We have been able to apply this kind of practice to the South China Sea as well. Taiwan and the Philippines just signed a similar kind of fishing agreement in early November after negotiations over the past two years. This agreement also reflects the spirit and principles of the South China Sea Peace Initiative.

However, I would also like to take this opportunity to express our position on a unilateral plea filed by a claimant in the South China Sea dispute for international arbitration. It is extremely unfair for Taiwan because our voice cannot be heard, and our intention to send observers was rejected, but it involves one of the islands under our sovereignty and effective control for more than six decades – Taiping Island (Itu Aba).

The arbitration will largely decide whether the land feature concerned constitutes an island that can sustain human habitation or economic life of its own. If yes, then based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), you can claim not only territorial waters, but also other maritime entitlements, such as the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), and continental shelf.

To our surprise, the lead legal counsel for the applicant country recently made several factual errors when interviewed by a think tank here in Washington, DC. He first said that Taiping Island does not have fresh water, implying it cannot sustain human habitation. But the fact remains that the island has four wells, which can produce about 65 metric tons of fresh water daily for drinking and cooking needs. The purity percentage of this water can reach 99 percent.

The legal counsel also said that Taiping Island has no soil to grow vegetables or other agricultural production, so it is incapable of sustaining human habitation, and has to be “completely” supplied by outside sources. Yet our Minister of the Interior just visited the island with a group of officials, and they had a nice lunch, including chicken, loofah gourds, bitter melons, etc., all locally raised or grown — that is the best rebuttal.

So I have to reiterate point 8 of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement issued on July 7, 2015, concerning this international arbitration: “Any arrangement or agreement regarding Taiping Island (Itu Aba) or other islands in the South China Sea and their surrounding waters that is reached without ROC participation and consent shall have no legal effect on the ROC and shall not be recognized by the ROC government.”

Let me also emphasize that Taiping island is the largest of the naturally formed islands in the Nansha (Spratly) group. We would like to build the island into a showcase in the spirit of the South China Sea Peace Initiative, that is, a peaceful and low-carbon island as well as an ecological reserve, capable of not only sustaining human habitation, but also offering humanitarian assistance to those nearby or passing through the region.

As the U.S. continues its “rebalance to Asia,” what areas have the potential for closer cooperation between Taipei and Washington?

I usually tell our American friends, why should you support Taiwan? Number one, very simply: Taiwan is the only democracy in the Chinese-speaking world; and, also for the fact that today, for every $5 of U.S. global trade, approximately $1 is done with the Chinese-speaking world – with mainland China, your largest trading partner, with Taiwan, your 10th-largest, with Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, etc. Very soon, probably one out of $4 of trade will be done with the Chinese-speaking world, and we are the only democracy. In this regard, we are probably the role model for the people in Hong Kong, and the envy of the younger generation in mainland China.

And another reason, we offer strategic assets to the Americans – the three “Ls,” where “L” stands for “largest.” Taiwan is probably the single largest external source of investment in mainland China. They don’t call us “foreign investors” but “external investors.” I can give you many examples. A Taiwanese company called Foxconn has created over one million jobs in mainland China. The number one brand-name of fangbian mian, instant noodles in mainland China, is owned by a Taiwanese investor. So we are the largest single external source of investment in China – that’s the first L.

The second L – we are probably the single largest external source of knowledge about mainland China. We know them better than anybody else — the history, the language, the culture, the current situation. For example, look at the historical archives in Taiwan. The best portion of the original art collection of Beijing’s Forbidden City is in today’s Taipei. The Chiang Kai-shek government moved altogether 609,000 pieces of artifacts from the Forbidden City’s collection to Taiwan in 1949. Today we open them up to mainland Chinese tourists. They openly thank us, saying that if you let them stay behind, probably most of them would have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The same can be said of the diplomatic archives of modern China, including the original copies of most of so-called unequal treaties of the late Ch’ing period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And the third L – we are probably the single largest external source of influence over mainland China. Today, we are hosting more than 33,000 mainland Chinese students. When Taiwan has elections, you see the people in mainland China, especially the younger generation, also get excited. Taiwan democracy has become the envy of a lot of people in mainland China, and people-to-people exchanges between the two sides are so extensive and intensive that there have been, according to one statistic, more than 280,000 inter-marriages so far. Of course, some of them may have already ended in divorce.

So social, economic, and cultural integration between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait has already started and is moving very fast, no matter whether you like it or not, no matter which political stand you take. It may be said that the three Ls are also in line with the American strategic interests for the strategy of rebalance to Asia.

The cross-Strait relationship has blossomed under President Ma. As Ma wraps up eight years in office, what should be the next step for cross-Strait ties?

President Ma and his mainland Chinese counterpart held a historic meeting in Singapore on November 7, the first time since the ROC government moved to Taiwan in 1949. In the meeting, the two leaders reiterated the “1992 Consensus,” in which both maintained their adherence to “one China” but agreed to disagree on what that means. For us, of course, this refers to the Republic of China founded by Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1912 and whose government is in Taipei today. This consensus is the very foundation of peaceful cross-Strait relations, which are under constant improvement.

We wish the current approach to continue. The U.S. government has also expressed its welcome to the Singapore meeting of the two leaders many times. It also encouraged further development of cross-Strait relations.

It is also our desire that a lot of the functional exchanges will continue. For example, starting from zero direct flights between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait when President Ma assumed office, today, every week we have about 2,000 direct flights between the two sides. We fly into 61 Chinese cities. So we hope that kind of exchange, together with many other similar exchanges, can be continued or even further expanded. We hope the framework of a mutually beneficial relationship has been set.

The United States has said several times that it would expect that the cross-Strait relations would be conducted on the basis of dignity and mutual respect. This is very important. This also refers back to my earlier point on international space. Hopefully Taiwan can also be a respectable member of international community with dignity, while the cross-Strait relationship can be further developed on the basis of the 1992 consensus.

This is the transcript of an in-person interview with Amb. Shen. It has been edited for length and clarity.