Visa-Free Travel in Europe: Fruit of Ma's Pragmatic Diplomacy
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
October 5, 2010
The United Kingdom and Ireland have granted Republic of China citizens visa-free treatment. The European Union is also expected to offer visa-free treatment for tourists holding ROC passports by the end of this year. This will facilitate exchanges and cooperation between the ROC and Europe. It is also an affirmation of the ROC.
Someone with visa-free status who wishes to see the sights or visit relatives in a foreign country, can simply buy a ticket and board a plane. Travel for him is extremely convenient. This is not the case for ROC citizens on Taiwan. They must apply for visas and prepare a whole slew of notarized documents. If they travel with children and family, they must often prove that they have a parent-child relationship. They must expend time, money, and energy.
Some countries have instituted a comprehensive visa-free policies to attract foreign tourism. But most of these countries' visa policies are selective. Different countries have different policies. They make their visa decisions based on a wide range of criteria. These criteria include bilateral relations, national security, national character, whether it will open the floodgates to illegal workers, crime rates, and passport security technology.
In recent years, ROC citizens going abroad have been the recipients of good news. Countries which once refused to grant preferential treatment due to political concerns are changing their policies. The first to do so was Japan, in August 2005. This change was of particular significance. The Japanese Diet passed a special bill granting ROC citizens permanent visa-free treatment. This was the sixth time Japan granted visa-free treatment to another country.
In order to attract tourists for the Aichi Expo, Japan made special provisions, granting tourists from Taiwan six-month visa-free status. When the effective period ended, Japan evaluated the economic benefits of millions of tourists from Taiwan each year, and extended the visa-free period, increasing the privileges granted and decreasing the cost of application. Japan decided to grant ROC tourists visa-free treatment. The decision triggered opposition from Mainland China, leading to repeated delays. But in the end, pragmatic economic considerations trumped political considerations. The Japanese Diet passed a special act granting ROC tourists visa-free treatment. And in contrast to Japan's past practices, it did not simultaneously grant visa-free status to Mainland tourists in compensation. This has allowed the number of tourists from Taiwan to Japan to rapidly increase. It has also brought the ROC and Japan closer together.
This was followed by another indicator of progress. In March 2009, the UK announced that it was granting non-work related visitors from Taiwan, i.e., those engaged in sightseeing, visiting relatives, study, or negotiations, six months visa-free treatment. This established a precedent for Europe and America, enabling them to open their doors to ROC tourists. The measures immediately brought significant benefits. It greatly increased the number of visitors to the UK from Taiwan. It also enabled the ROC to increase non-stop flights to the UK. Ireland followed suit in July, announcing that it was granting 90 day visa-free treatment. New Zealand announced that it was following suit in November of the same year.
In fact, our diplomatic corps' main task has been to promote visa-free treatment. First, the UK and Ireland. Now the EU is expected to grant the ROC a "Christmas present," namely, ninety days visa-free treatment by the end of the year. This is particularly encouraging. Currently a visa application costs two to three thousand NT. It requires a number of accompanying documents. If this threshold can be eliminated, the cost of travel to Europe will fall immediately. Twenty-eight nations in Europe may soon allow ROC citizens to travel freely. This will of course greatly increase people's willingness to travel to Europe. It will also have the positive effect of promoting bilateral exchanges.
The EU is willing to make such a decision. So are Japan, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. Of course they are all doing so for practical reasons. This means that the ROC is economically strong, therefore universally respected by the international community. This is also an affirmation that the ROC is a developed nation, across the board. When countries grant visa-free treatment, they of course consider the economic benefits they can derive. But they also consider the potential negative impact of throwing open their doors. These include illegal workers, crime, and drug trafficking. In this regard, the ROC's crime rates, criminal investigation techniques, and passport security standards have inspired sufficient trust to enable more and more countries to open their doors to ROC citizens. This is a source of pride. It is also something we achieved by our own merits.
Meanwhile, the EU's push for visa-free treatment can proceed smoothly. Clearly this is closely related to the warming in cross-Strait relations. Currently Europe is experiencing an economic slowdown. They are delighted to see tourists from Taiwan spending money. But they cannot withstand a powerful backlash from Mainland China. Therefore, if Mainland China were to resort to hard-line opposition and economic boycotts, it would prevent the EU from granting the ROC visa-free treatment. Since President Ma took office, cross-Strait relations have emerged from past zero-sum confrontations. The two sides now enjoy a "diplomatic truce" in many areas, including diplomatic disputes, participation in the WHA, and the signing of FTAs. If the ROC can win visa-free status for ROC passport holders from the EU, that would amount to another important foreign policy achievement for President Ma.
Many policies involve lofty ideals. But whether a policy is good or bad depends upon how well it stands up to real world tests. Recent experiences shown that the ROC has not been marginalized. It can gradually break into the international community. More contacts and exchanges are in the pipeline. This policy direction should be affirmed, It should also continue to receive public support.