The Longest Day

For reporters in Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's travel entourage, May 4th would be the longest day of their lives.  The group traveled from Taipei and eventually landed in Asuncion, Paraguay.  The trip lasted 37-1/2 hours, but the local date was always May 4th.

In the following are two articles.  The first article is from AFP.  The article is relatively short, states only the essential details and quotes the principals.  This is typical of what is in western media.  The second article is translated from China Times and comes a number of reporters including those in the travel entourage.  It has a lot more details, and is very informative about the rapidly evolving situation in the context of global diplomacy and provides a good overview of the space in which Taiwan can operate internationally.

Another thing to note about the China Times article is that you will never see this kind of report in mainland China because this will be called 'leaking state secrets.'  In fact, even the Taiwan government is calling this 'leaking state secrets' and they will eventually investigate and sanction the source of the leak.  As the China Times article indicated, someone revealed prematurely to the press that the intended destination was Beirut, and this caused enough trouble in Beirut that an alternate destination had to be located quickly.


Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's plane landed in Amsterdam for a second refueling stop en route to Latin America, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

"President Chen Shui-bian's plane stopped in Amsterdam for refueling and has left for Paraguay," Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Michel Lu told AFP.  Lu said Chen was due to arrive in Asuncion at about 0940 GMT.

Chen unexpectedly dropped plans to stop in the United States en route to Latin America on Thursday, angered by a US decision not to allow a higher-profile visit.  Chen, on a visit to Paraguay and Costa Rica -- two of just 25 countries that recognise Taipei rather than Beijing -- accused mainland China of bullying Washington about the stopover.

After leaving Taipei, the aircraft carrying Chen and his entourage landed in Abu Dhabi for a first refueling stop after Lebanese authorities, also under pressure from China, denied Chen a stop in Beirut.  The plane was then reportedly headed to the Dominican Republic, another country that recognises Taipei, but instead landed in Amsterdam.

TVBS reported that the plane was unable to take on enough fuel in Abu Dhabi to allow for a flight to the Dominican Republic due to technical reasons, forcing the plane to land in Amsterdam.

"It is an unprecedented experience... We need to safeguard our dignity and adopt flexibility... there has been so much pressure but we must fight bravely," Chen told reporters traveling with him, according to TVBS television.

(China Times)  

From the moment that Taipei decided to stay away from the United States and travel westwards instead, this central/south American trip of President Chen was destined to be an around-the-globe trip with a heavy political flavor and many twists and turns.

It is no wonder that someone commented that this is why a person can end up with a full head of white hair overnight.  The problem was about the emergency countdown to set up a process to transit through countries without diplomatic relationships.

On May 1, the United States was still delaying its approval to let Ah Bian transit through their territory.  This caused the originally scheduled presidential office press conference to be postponed.  The president's office, the national security ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came together in a senior-level meeting and decided on a secret plan to "go west instead of waiting on the Americans."

This plan was to use the Middle-East route that the diplomatic system has been cultivating for many years.  Our diplomatic assets have been shrinking in the past few years and our country does not have an office in Lebanon after breaking off diplomatic relationships.  But we still have connections in terms of strategic military interests.  After the civil war in Lebanon ceased, there is a turning point for us to break through as Lebanon look for diversified strategic diplomacy.

According to information, during the past two years, our senior diplomatic staff have been secretly visiting the Middle East.  Apart from actively working Abu Dhabi, they also went west to open up Lebanon.  Former foreign minister Chen Tan-sun visited there while attending a regional meeting.  Although Lebanon has a presidential system, there are complex relationships among the political parties and religious sects, so that the presidential powers are weak.  Our country was able to connect with important rightwing elements inside Lebanon through Middle-Eastern intermediaries.  This was the main reason that we were able to transit at one point in time.

On May 2nd and 3rd, all our foreign embassies were mobilized to ask their host nations for permission to transit.  But China Airlines does not have a route from Taipei to Lebanon and this trip across the Middle East and Europe will cross the airspaces of many countries.  Therefore, China Airlines as well as the diplomatic system began negotiating for permission to land and to persuade the local governments to permit President Chen to transit.

According to information, on the evening of May 2nd, James Huang was with the chiefs of the western Asia, Central/South American and North American sections in the fifth floor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building and they were sending out instructions all night.  As the reports from the representative in the United States David Lee got more pessimistic, these officials were certain that the Middle-East trip can only "go forwards and not backwards."

On the morning of May 3, James Huang held a press conference and announced that the transit point in the United States will be Anchorage (Alaska) on both legs of the journey.  But the western American foreign office was not working on anything.  By contrast, the western Asian and Central/South American offices were opened all night and the secured fax machines never stopped working: after determining that re-fueling would take place in Lebanon, the diplomatic staff continued to negotiate with Caribbean and south American countries as re-fueling points, and finally got the friendly nation of the Dominican Republic to agree to be a re-fueling point.

But the plan to stop in Lebanon and the Dominican Republic was severely set back before the trip even began.  The first stop had to changed to Abu Dhabi and then surprises kept popping up one after another.  Abu Dhabi was supposed to be used on the return trip.  Once it had to be used first, the entire plan was disrupted and now the return trip will be quite puzzling.

According to information, when the news of the transit through Lebanon was revealed on the morning of May 4th, there were shocks and reverberations in the political circles of Lebanon.  The Chinese Communist government applied pressure through its foreign embassy and instigated leftwing elements to make criticisms in parliament.  For the entire day of May 4th, the Lebanon parliament was in a quarrelsome state.  Ultimately, the rightwing elements conceded and had to renege and apologize.

Then there were unexpected surprises about safety factors.  After being forced to land in Abu Dhabi, if the original plan to fly to the Dominican Republic stayed, it would mean flying against the wind for more than ten hours.  Also the local temperature was 47 degrees which meant that the fuel tanks could not be fully loaded.  This posed a major bottleneck in the considerations because of the fuel problem.

Therefore, when the presidential office people announced that there would only be a one-hour stop for re-fueling, it actually went on for three hours.  Many of the officials and security staff who were held there had nothing to do except to buy some date palms, memorabilia, magic lanterns and decorations.

"There has never been a visit by a head of sate that has so many surprises."  We did not think that the next surprise would be that the plan was changed again and we were going to re-fuel in Amsterdam.  By this time, the whole group can no longer believe that this was an accident.  According to informed sources, "when we departed on the morning of May 4th, Amsterdam was not even on the list."  China Airlines had been toiling hard in the Netherlands for many years and built a huge business.  And that finally served some use in diplomacy.

Although President Chen Shui-bian and James Huang continued to remind people: "The main point is about the friendly nations, so do not lose your focus,"  more than one hundred people spent more than 30 hours to go from Taipei through Abu Dhabi and Amsterdam halfway around the world but without ever leaving the date of May fourth.  So how could the story not be about the international flight to "protect our dignity"?

Three days ago, when we were packing for a trip for which the itinerary was still unknown, a few people joked: "Should we bring bikinis (Hawaii) or fur coats (Alaska)?"  Based upon the fact that things never stopped changing along the way and the senior officials kept making satellite phone calls, Taiwan diplomacy is hard to predict in the current international environment and the only thing that can be done is to react to the everchanging conditions.

When Taiwan was arranging transit for President Chen Shui-bian, they contacted Canada, Mexico and other countries besides the United States.  They all refused.  By comparison, the United States was a friendlier nation about the transit issue.

According to information, due to factors such as the time urgency and the United States' international situation, the relevant departments were negotiating with the United States on one hand and also making backup plans on the other hand.  Canada and Mexico were both contacted.

Yet, those two countries both refused.  The result was disappointing to Taipei, because on one hand time was running out and reserve locations are difficult to find.  On the other hand, these two countries were geographically contiguous to the United States and have close ties in terms of politics, trade and culture.  Taiwan thought that the United States could exert its influence, but both countries considered their own interests foremost and refused Taiwan.

Former US ambassador to China James Sasser openly suggested in Washington DC for senior Taiwan officials to transit through Mexico and he said, "There are several airports in Mexico with good facilities."  But Mexico refused.  Several years ago, then Deputy Premier Liu Chao-Shiuan wanted to transit through Canada but he was also rejected.  Although Liu Chao-Shiuan received a doctorate from the University of Toronto, Canada ignored that relationship due to other considerations.

This time, the President changed his plan at the last minute and went westwards instead.  The trip was long and arduous.  In retrospect, if the trip was made through the United States, everything could have been arranged beforehand.  It would have saved time and effort, it would have been safe and convenient and even though this was not be as impressive as three years ago, the Americans maintain a certain standard in their reception work.  Just looking at the large number of security officers that they were going to send over to Anchorage (note: they were called back after President Chen decided not to transit through the United States), it can be seen that the United States did not treat this lightly.

The United States is saying that the preparations are continuing, so that if President Chen wants to go through Anchorage on his return trip, the United States will stick to its original plan to receive him.

The transit points of President Chen Shui-bian's trip changed over and over again.  They stopped at Abu Dhabi and then they planned to fly to the friendly nation of the Dominican Republic, but instead they unexpectedly stopped in Amsterdam.  According to information, this proposal was raised suddenly.  The other party did not agree at first, but success only came after "multiple guarantees" were made by China Airlines.

According to relevant sources, because the plan to stop in Lebanon suddenly fell through and the trip from Abu Dhabi to the Dominican Republic would be against the wind and the airplane may not be able to complete, China Airlines used its many years of history at Amsterdam to get in there.

The Transportation Minister Kuo Yao-chi said that it was a strong recommendation by China Airlines to land in Amsterdam.  It was through the local connections of China Airlines that the airplane landed as a "commercial charter flight" in order to re-fuel.  Kuo Yao-chi praised China Airlines for its efforts.

"This was better than landing at the Dominican airport where the airport facilities and flight route were unfamiliar."  Informed sources said that after the plan to land at Beirut airport fell through, the airplane had no destination to head for.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposed going to the Dominican Republic but the China Airlines experts estimated that the flight length to the Dominican Republic was 7,400 miles and a Boeing 747 may not be able to make that journey in a headwind from Abu Dhabi.

Informed sources pointed out that China Airlines has a 20-year working relationship with the Amsterdam airport.  It would be much easier with the airport management officials as well as the ground service crew than elsewhere, and therefore they pushed for the airplane to land in Amsterdam.

Kuo Yao-chi confirmed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had considered other locations, but they ultimately adopted China Airlines' plan.  After all, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is no expert on the complexities of air flight.

In order to prepare for the presidential airplane to land in Holland, the China Airlines headquarters and their Amsterdam staff had to hustle.  Based upon past practice, a special flight must apply for a flight plan, flight number and staying time one to three days ahead of time.  But the President's airplane wanted to apply to land in Amsterdam in less than one day's time.  This was almost an impossible mission.

"The Amsterdam authorities did not want to be involved in a political incident, so they were not willing at first to let President Chen's airplane land."  Informed sources said that China Airlines mobilized all its connections and guaranteed that President Chen will not engage in any official activities such as meeting officials and that the airplane will leave immediately after re-fueling.  After a four-hour back-and-forth negotiation, China Airlines was able to obtain permission for its "commercial charter flight" to land and refuel at the Amsterdam airport.

As the itinerary changed against and again, China Airlines made sure that its crew was not overworked.  This China Airlines flight had three teams of pilots (two per team) and two teams of service workers (twelve per team).  This was an unprecedented force.