Politics Complicate Taiwan Earthquake Relief Effort

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Rescue teams Friday fought their way through rubble to rescue a six-year-old Taiwanese boy found buried alive under an apartment block, more than 80 hours after an earthquake devastated the island, killing more than 2,100 people.

Chang Chin-hung's was one more life saved from among the hundreds still trapped. International rescuers are aware that time is running out for any who may still be alive.

Tuesday's quake, measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale -- the largest ever recorded in Taiwan -- attracted help and sympathy from around the world. Apart from the immediate emergency operations, around 80,000 people left homeless are also in need in aid. Many thousands have been cut off in areas without water, food or power.

But the island's peculiar diplomatic situation - its sovereignty is not recognized by the international community, and China regards it a renegade province - has complicated the relief effort.

Unlike the partial rapprochement between rivals Greece and Turkey in the aftermath of the huge Turkish quake in August, tensions between Taiwan and China have not eased following the disaster.

The United Nations held back from launching a quick, coordinated response, as witnessed after the earthquake in Turkey, awaiting prior Chinese approval.

While individual countries rushed search and rescue personnel to the stricken island, the UN only announced it was dispatching an assessment team.

A UN spokesman in Geneva was quoted earlier as saying the world body recognized the sensitivity of the diplomatic situation. "We would rather do it [respond to the disaster] in a way that does not disturb the environment between the two parties, China and Taiwan."

The ambassadors of three small countries which do have diplomatic relations with Taiwan - Liberia, Nicaragua and El Salvador - are quoted in Friday's Taiwanese press as saying it was unnecessary and inappropriate for the UN to seek Beijing's go-ahead before sending humanitarian aid.

China offered to send funds and teams of experts to Taiwan, but Taipei expressed annoyance that Beijing wants international Red Cross aid to be registered with the organization on the mainland, before being sent to the island.

Hsu Ko-sheng, spokesman for Taiwan's "Mainland Affairs Council," was quoted by the Central News Agency in Taipei as calling the stipulation "very improper and inappropriate." He said it would not help relations between Taipei and Beijing, strained in recent months over comments by the Taiwanese president regarded by the communist mainland as "separatist."

Foreign Minister Jason Hu accused China of violating humanitarian principles.

"They not only cannot be accepted by our 22 million people but also will be condemned and regarded with shame and regret by members of the international community."

The China Daily said Friday "people on the western side of the Taiwan Straits" were ready to send funds and rescue and medical personnel to the island, "once they are permitted to enter the province."

Taiwan has turned down the offer of assistance, but said it would accept the emergency financial aid from China.

Taipei was also upset when the Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement thanking the world community, on Taiwan's behalf, for its response.

Russian television reported that a Russian military aircraft ferrying experts to Taiwan had been refused permission to cross Chinese airspace, and had been forced to alter its flight plan as a result.

Britain sent a professional rescue team Wednesday to help search for survivors, Dennis Huang of the Taiwanese information office in London told CNSNews.com.

Beijing broke off contacts with Taiwan in July and held threatening military exercises after Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui said relations between the two parties should be conducted on a "special state-to-state" basis.

China saw the remarks as an indication of continuing attempts by Taiwan to resist eventual reunification with the mainland.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow