Tony Abbott, in making Indonesia his first overseas visit as Prime Minister suggests that Australian foreign policy under Prime Minister Abbott will place increasing importance on the Asian region. Recent press has focused on how the Coalition will manage the major issues such as Australia's relationship with China and the problem of asylum seekers.
Yet, following the election of the Coalition and the release of its foreign policy statement, there was one aspect that was not widely reported: that the Coalition believed it is possible to have a strong relationship with China, while "managing sensitive issues like ministerial contact … with Taiwan." As part of the release, the Coalition stated that it will restore ministerial-level visits to Taiwan.
As Taiwan is now Australia's sixth largest export market as well as an important source of international students and working-holiday visa holders, this statement is good news for the Australia-Taiwan relationship. However, there are more concrete ways the new Coalition government could voice support for our neighbour.
Firstly, the new government could voice support for Taiwan's support in international organisations. From September 24 to October 1, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) held its 38th assembly in Montreal where one of its deliberations was to consider Taiwan's request to join the organisation as an observer. In July, President Obama signed a bill expressing support for Taiwan's inclusion in this organisation which subsequently easily passed both houses for approval.
While running the risk of raising the ire of China, according to a statement released at the same time the bill is "consistent with the 'one China' policy of the United States." This illustrates that it is possible to maintain relations with both China and Taiwan. Moreover, Taiwan's submission to the ICAO understands the concerns of Beijing about sovereignty claims and has thus, submitted a proposal to be an observer (not a full member) and has agreed to use the name Chinese Taipei, in lieu of its official name, The Republic of China.
But why is Taiwan's inclusion in the ICAO important and why should Australian's care?
The ICAO, a United Nations agency concerning all matters related to aviation and aviation safety, was founded in 1944 to protect all those involved in the aviation industry, including passengers and people working on land. As the aviation industry continues to grow and flying becomes an experience common to more and more people, guaranteeing the safety and security of all involved is of interest to all concerned.
Taiwan, as the world's 17th largest economy is a major player in international aviation. Taiwan is a major international aviation hub in Asia with 50 international aviation companies operating from Taiwan, flying to over 100 international destinations. Taiwan is also responsible for the Taipei Flight Identification Region, connecting the airways of Northeast and Southeast Asia, through which every year almost 1.3 million flights pass, carrying 40 million passengers. It is clear that Taiwan plays a chief role in international air travel.
Taiwan's exclusion from ICAO means that it is unable to obtain information from ICAO networks that outline the procedures of safety standards. Taiwan's non-inclusion also means that it is unable to access the changes in technology and procedures that occur in the aviation industry, which may impact aviation safety. Supporting Taiwan's inclusion in this international organisation would be of benefit to all international travellers in the Asia-Pacific Region.
Secondly, the Australian government could voice support for Taiwan's inclusion in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP has now extended from the original founding members of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement consisting of Brunei, Singapore, Chile and New Zealand to include, Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, the USA and Vietnam. The TPP will lead to greater regional economic integration while providing greater opportunities for Australian exports to enter regional markets and global supply chains.
Taipei has expressed interest in joining the TPP, but has received a lukewarm response from existing TPP members. Yet, supporting Taiwan's membership in the TPP could bring benefits not only to Taiwan but also to Australian exporters. According to a recent Brookings Institute Report, joining the TPP would force Taiwan to undertake a range of economic reforms which would have a positive impact on Taiwan's 'productivity, competitiveness and economic growth' and could be an instigator for domestic economic reform in Taiwan. Yet more importantly from an Australian perspective, according to the report, allowing Taiwan to join the TPP would allow other TPP members to benefit from the Taiwan-China Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and consequently use Taiwan as a springboard to access the lucrative Chinese market.
Due to the ease of conducting business in Taiwan (in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index June 2013 it was ranked 16th out of 189 economies) and an environment which is relatively open to foreign investment, Taiwan could serve as an ideal platform for Australian businesses wishing to enter the Chinese market. Allowing Taiwan to enter TPP negotiations would thus be of benefit to Australian businesses wishing to take advantage of this.
While Taiwan still has some way to go before meeting the goals of an agreement to entering the partnership, Australia could take the lead in TPP negotiations in creating an atmosphere favourable to Taiwan's inclusion in the partnership. Taiwan's membership in this organisation would be of benefit to Taiwan, as well as to other TPP members, not only as a means to take advantage of Taiwan's ECFA agreement, but also as further impetus of allowing the TPP to become a Free Trade Agreement Asia Pacific (FTAAP).
While Taiwan as the world's 19th largest trader and 28th largest economy is an important player in the Asia-Pacific, it is often overlooked in Australian's foreign affairs. Given the recent change of government and its international agenda, which places greater emphasis on improving ties with our Asian neighbours, it would be worthwhile to include Taiwan in this new discourse. The examples of the Taiwan's bid in the ICAO and support for Taiwan in the TPP are indicative of the way the Australian government could initiate greater support for Taiwan.