On Taiwan: A Bushel and “APEC” of “Meaningful Participation”

Taipei Times

On Taiwan: A Bushel and “APEC” of “Meaningful Participation”

The 2023 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum Leaders Meeting in San Francisco will be a particular challenge because President Joe Biden is obliged to host both Chinese state chairman (國家主席) Xi Jinping (習近平) and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Of course, Putin will not attend. He’s very busy and, well, he’s a war criminal. The International Court of Justice indicted him in March for “the war crimes of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.” The Department of State is “now documenting and assessing those war crimes.” Putin’s “no-limits” “best-friend-forever” Chairman Xi wouldn’t be Biden’s ideal houseguest either.


So, the year 2023 will test the imagination and ingenuity of the hard-working diplomats at the US State Department who are charged with managing the year-long schedule of more than one hundred events (workshops, ministerial meetings, policy symposia) of this year’s APEC. As always, the biggest event in APEC’s annual calendar is the “Leaders Meeting”.


But there may be an out. The United States Congress and President Joe Biden have passed broadly bipartisan laws mandating: 1) US policy support for Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in international organizations; and 2) Taiwan’s full membership in organizations “for which statehood in not a requirement.” APEC is one of the latter (along with the Asian Development Bank and the World Trade Organization).



44 years ago, America’s founding text of Taiwan policy, the “Taiwan Relations Act” of 1979, was explicit that nothing in it was to be “construed as a basis” for excluding of Taiwan from membership in any international organization. Most recently, each US national defense authorization act (NDAA) of the past four years declares it “the policy of the United States to advocate for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the United Nations” and its affiliated agencies.


“Meaningful participation,” you ask? According to Mr. Matt Lee of the Associated Press (and dean of the State Department press corps), the Department of State tacitly defines “meaningful participation” as participation “independent of Beijing.”


In these NDAAs, Congress mandates that the State Department provide “a systematic analysis of all IOs [international organizations], [and] as practicable, to identify IOs that best lend themselves to advancing Taiwan’s participation … including an assessment of whether any erosion in Taiwan’s engagement has occurred within those organizations.”


Well, well. Let’s do the math. 2023 is the 30th year in a row where Taiwan’s APEC “engagement” has been “eroded” at the annual “Leaders Meetings.” It would look bad if the State Department had to report that in 2023 the United States itself is complicit in keeping Taiwan on the sidelines.


Let me explain.


Back in 1989, two of the Asia-Pacific region’s biggest economies — China, and Taiwan — had been excluded from the founding APEC roster because of recent unpleasantness in Tiananmen Square. The twelve original APEC “economies” felt that, if China weren’t invited to join, then inviting Taiwan might make Tiananmen’s perpetrators even more bloody-minded than they already were.


As it was, it took APEC’s founders another year to persuade China and Taiwan to sign up simultaneously without causing a scene.


Even then, formal invitations for China and Taiwan to attend the November 14, 1991, APEC ministerial meeting in Seoul did not go out until November 3. Finally, however, China and Taiwan were invited to Seoul’s APEC forum on the basis of “equal respect.” As The New York Times put it at the time: “At last week’s meeting, in an unusual display of pragmatism over ideology, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan took their seats side by side.”


Of course they took their seats side-by-side! Why wouldn’t they? The 1989 founding “Principles of APEC” grant “equal respect for the views of all participants” and insist that “co-operation should be based on non-formal consultative exchanges of views among Asia-Pacific economies.”


And in 1991, Taiwans delegation took full advantage of its membership in the new club. On Tuesday, November 12, a few days before the opening ceremonies, Taiwans economic minister Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) was able to schedule sleeves-up bilaterals with cabinet ministers from Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and South Korea as well as with the US trade representative. Siew told Taiwan journalists in Seoul that the APEC forum “is a good beginning for Republic of China efforts to reenter the international community. At lunch on Thursday, November 14, Minister Siew bumped into two PRC counterparts, foreign minister Qian Qichen (錢其琛) and foreign trade minister Li Lanqing (李嵐清). He greeted and shook hands with them, but did not talk about matters of substance.” At a press conference afterwards, the Chinese foreign minister was asked if China would welcome Taiwan’s participation in other international organizations: “each international organization has its own charter, APEC’s charter is not necessarily applicable to other organizations,” he said.


Anyway, for its first few years, APEC restricted its forum to economic and trade issues. APEC was intended as a “safe space” for countries of the region to talk shop in an informal setting which might facilitate broader government-to-government agreements on regional economic cooperation. As such, non-political “APEC” earned the sobriquet “a perfect excuse to chat.”


But in 1993, things took an unexpected turn. The US volunteered to host APEC events and planned to organize a first-ever “leaders’ summit” for all APEC chief executives. On July 7 in Tokyo, US President Bill Clinton made his first public proposal for an APEC leadership summit of member economies.


“This fall,” Clinton said, “we will host the APEC ministerial meeting in Seattle,” and that he personally would host the event “to signal America’s engagement in the region. But I hope we can go beyond it. I am consulting with the leaders of APEC at this moment on a proposal that they join me in Seattle in an informal leadership conference to discuss what we can do to continue to bring down the barriers that divide us and to create more opportunities for all of our people.” Clinton waxed, “the experiences of the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, and others prove that the move toward more open economies also feeds peoples hunger for democracy and freedom and more open political systems. This was a clear invitation to Taiwans president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), who immediately signed up. The words democracy,freedom and open political systems however, were trigger terms for Chinas new head of state Jiang Zemin (江澤民).


The Clinton State Department (where I labored for two years), it seemed, had not thought through the next two or three moves. The very next day, China pronounced that Jiang Zemin would not attend President Clinton’s Seattle “Leaders Meeting” because Taiwan was not “sovereign state” and had “no right to attend.” Caught off guard by Beijing’s swift reaction, Taipei’s foreign ministry protested on July 9 to both to APEC and to the US that “it is an indisputable fact that the Republic of China is a sovereign state.” When Chairman Jiang refused Clinton’s invitation, alas, the American president sheepishly disinvited President Lee. It was especially embarrassing because President Clinton, two months before, had threatened to cease “most favored nation” trade relations with China within a year unless it improved its human rights.


Beijing thus was successful in blocking the Taiwanese president’s meaningful participation at the Seattle summit. The US move effectively ceded to Beijing a blanket veto over Taiwan’s choice of attendees at all future APEC “leaders’ summits”. Taiwan had its revenge: the 1993 Seattle APEC summit was more memorable for Taiwans announcement of its interim two Chinas policy (階段性的兩個中國政策 but thats another story.


Fast-forward to 2023. The United States is now host to APEC forum events for the third time since 1989; and again it will face the thorny task of including Taiwan in various conclaves together with China.


Given the several legislative mandates in America’s all-important “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023” regarding “Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations,” the Biden Administration will be under some obligation to ensure that Taiwan’s participation in the 2023 APEC will be more “meaningful” than in previous APECs. Indeed, President Biden no doubt will find it desirable to dissuade Moscow’s Putin (and perhaps Chairman Xi) from even participating in the 2023 APEC leaders’ summit.


Because APEC’s founding principles grant “equal respect for the views of all participants” and insist that “co-operation should be based on non-formal consultative exchanges of views among Asia-Pacific economies,” Taiwan’s 2023 participation ought not be more restricted than that of APEC’s other member economies. And Mr. Xi Jinping ought not be permitted a veto.


After all, for the Americans, inviting a “meaningful” Taiwan “leader” to participate in APEC’s San Francisco summit isn’t just good manners, it’s the law!




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