Can the ICAO Recover After Chinese Stewardship?

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Can the ICAO Recover After Chinese Stewardship?

Jul 29th, 2021 4 min read

Commentary By

Brett D. Schaefer

Senior Research Fellow, International Regulatory Affairs

Danielle Pletka @dpletka

Senior Fellow in Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute

Passengers stand and walk in front of a display board for departures at the BER "Willy Brandt" airport in Brandenburg, near Schoenefeld and Berlin, on July 28, 2021. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Colombia’s Juan Carlos Salazar will have his work cut out for him when he takes over as Secretary General of the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO.

Liu mishandled a 2016 Chinese state-sponsored cyberattack on the ICAO itself and focused almost obsessively on denying Taiwan access to ICAO.

After years in which aviation safety has been sidelined and member government complaints have been ignored, ICAO is ready for an upgrade.

Colombia’s Juan Carlos Salazar will have his work cut out for him when he takes over as Secretary General of the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, on August 1. His predecessor, Fang Liu of China, is leaving the place a shambles.

The Organization exists to bring the world’s governments together to negotiate and agree to practices, standards, and procedures that ensure aviation safety and security. More than 12,000 of these standards are now on the books. But during Liu’s six-year tenure, the Organization has become a poster child of failure, suffering internal management problems as well as breakdowns in performing its assigned role in global aviation.

>>> International Civil Aviation Organization: United States Should Repair Chinese Damage and Focus the Organization on Its Core Mission

Under Liu, reform languished, and the Organization failed to promptly address growing threats to the safety and security of commercial aviation. Instead, she used her position to advance policies dictated by Beijing (including new air routes instituted in violation of ICAO procedures). She tolerated a hostile working environment for women and whistleblowers, and concealed security breaches that threatened the security of ICAO, its member states, and the aviation industry. 

In one of her most serious derelictions of duty, Liu mishandled a 2016 Chinese state-sponsored cyberattack on the ICAO itself. She initially concealed the situation from member states. After outside actors discovered the breach, she oversaw an inquiry characterized by repeated cover-ups. The attack was likely aimed at obtaining access via malware to the governments and defense contractors that regularly use ICAO’s services. But in the absence of a serious investigation, the matter remains unsolved. No one, including likely ICAO internal facilitators, has been brought to justice.

Nor were Liu’s leadership lapses restricted to politically sensitive questions. When consultants hired by the United Nations identified organizational problems that had fostered egregious sexual harassment at the organization, Liu slowed efforts by member states to address ICAO’s poisonous environment. Indeed, her failure to protect whistleblowers and address harassment led the United States to withhold funding in 2019.

Unsurprisingly, the former leader of the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China proved eager to please Beijing and focused almost obsessively on denying Taiwan access to ICAO. Despite Taipei’s status as a major air traffic hub, under Liu, ICAO repeatedly rejected Taiwanese efforts to attend meetings as an observer, and it adamantly refused to share information about aviation operations even as COVID-19 spread globally. Her antipathy to Taiwanese membership ranged broadly, from serious actions such as blocking critical communications with Taipei, to petty moves like forcing the ICAO communications team to block Twitter accounts that criticized the organization’s exclusion of Taiwan.

While pursuing Beijing’s global political agenda, Liu neglected ICAO’s most important mission: responding to threats to civil aviation.

In May, the Belarusian air force intercepted a commercial jetliner, forcing it to land so that Belarusian agents could arrest a dissident on the flight. ICAO’s response? Agreeing to undertake a “fact-finding mission” at a special session. This is a step up from ICAO’s lackluster response to Iran’s shooting down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in 2020, but it is hardly decisive action.

If dictatorships are given a pass to hijack commercial jetliners crossing their airspace, it poses dramatic risks to aircraft and passenger safety. Think Iran. Think China. The government of Taiwan took this threat so seriously that in May it flew a shipment of Covid vaccines on a circuitous route simply to avoid Chinese air space. 

And there are other growing challenges to civilian air traffic routes. In recent years, China has exploited loopholes in the Chicago Convention that underpins ICAO to advance its disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea. In some instances, Beijing has done so while violating ICAO-designated Vietnamese air traffic control (so-called flight information regions) with military flights that crossed commercial jet flight paths. There is no public record of ICAO responding to Vietnam’s formal complaint.

Drones pose yet another, newer threat to civil aviation. For example, Houthi rebels in Yemen have repeatedly used armed drones to attack civilian airports in Saudi Arabia. These tactics have taken dozens of lives and represent a major threat to all civilian aviation.

While ICAO has no enforcement power, it can refer matters that represent serious threats to international civil aviation to the U.N. Security Council. Its failure to do so in these cases demonstrates a strange indifference to the organization’s mission.

>>> China Transparency Project

ICAO also wields a key stamp of approval in civilian aviation: certification of national safety standards. Yet, as we recently wrote, as of March 2020, audits indicate that the organization’s member states have implemented, on average, barely two-thirds (68.83%) of the ICAO safety standards. Fewer than half of the nations audited had effectively implemented more than 75% of the standards. Eight member states had an effective implementation rate below 20%.

Moreover, from 2017 to 2019, a third of governments that ICAO notified of a potential security inspection declined to welcome inspectors. Nonetheless, these governments remain in good standing, and ICAO has not issued public warnings about potential safety concerns.  

Clearly, Salazar will have his hands full when he takes office. After years in which sexual harassment has been rife, whistle-blowers have been punished, aviation safety has been sidelined and member government complaints have been ignored, ICAO is ready for an upgrade. It can’t happen soon enough.

This piece originally appeared in RealClearWorld