Twitter row over Taiwan virus response hits UN aviation body

People wear masks at a metro station in Taipei. (AP pic)

TAIPEI: A Twitter row over Taiwan’s lack of access to international agencies to fight the new coronavirus outbreak has landed the UN aviation body in hot water after it blocked followers who criticised its refusal to work with the self-ruled island.

The spread of a new deadly virus in central China has sparked alarm throughout the region and sent countries scrambling to reassess international flights as they try to stop the epidemic spreading.

But it has also highlighted a pressing problem for Taiwan – its increased isolation from global bodies under pressure from Beijing.

Neither the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) nor the Geneva-based World Health Organisation (WHO) will deal with Taiwan directly and only recognise Beijing.

That is because the People’s Republic of China has since 1971 been the only one of the two allowed a seat at the UN.

Taiwan – which has eight confirmed cases of the virus and is a significant regional air hub – was often allowed to attend annual assemblies and sideline meetings of such bodies as an observer.

But in recent years it has been frozen out as Beijing takes an increasingly combative stance towards democratic Taiwan, a place it considers its own territory and has vowed to seize one day.

That isolation has been thrown into stark relief by the coronavirus outbreak and has prompted calls for international bodies to allow the island of 23 million people to be included.

But when academics and analysts made those calls on Twitter, many found themselves blocked by the ICAO, which is currently headed by Fang Liu, a former Civil Aviation of China official.

Among those stopped from seeing ICAO’s tweets were Jessica Drun, a Taiwan-China expert at the Project2049 think-tank, Taiwan-based academic J Michael Cole and Michael Mazza, a foreign and defence analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

‘Silencing voices’

ICAO’s move prompted a backlash, particularly in Washington where there is growing bipartisan concern about Beijing’s influence over international institutions.

“Silencing voices that oppose ICAO’s exclusion of Taiwan goes against their stated principles of fairness, inclusion, and transparency,” the House Foreign Affairs Committee said.

Senator Marco Rubio, a staunch China hawk, called the move “outrageous”.

“Another sign that the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to pressure and bully international organisations to bend to its demands are working,” his office wrote in a tweet.

In a statement to AFP, ICAO said it welcomed “robust and fact-based discussions on all of its social media platforms, and we’re always grateful to be challenged by innovative and challenging viewpoints on civil aviation affairs”.

It said it blocked some “activists … who were deemed to be purposefully and publicly misrepresenting our organisation in order to draw attention to their own campaign objectives”.

But those who were blocked rejected that argument.

“It is disingenuous to label us as perpetrators of misinformation or as ill-informed advocates,” Drun wrote in response.

“We were simply pointing out that Taiwan has been included in the past and that there are ways for Taiwan to be included in current debates on the coronavirus that do not touch on issues of sovereignty,” she added.

“Taiwan is excluded from ICAO. This is a fact,” wrote Mazza.

“That exclusion is problematic. This is an opinion, but a well-founded one. I’d be happy to hear ICAO’s counter-argument, but ICAO has instead refused to engage in dialogue on the matter.”

Taipei’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said in a statement that Taiwan had “expressed its strong regrets and objections” to the ICAO over the decision to deny it access.

“Only when all members of the international community put aside political prejudice and personal gains and work together, can we effectively contain this virus outbreak and ensure global flight safety.”