Editorial: Even without an invite, Taiwan should travel to the WHA

Then-Health Minister Lin Tsou-yen at last year's WHA. (By Central News Agency)

Certain international meetings involving Taiwan return each year on the calendar.

One, coming shortly after the summer closes, is the General Assembly of the United Nations, when Taiwan, unable to attend, tallies the number of diplomatic allies who spoke out in its favor.

Another is the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which not so much involves the question whether Taiwan will be allowed to participate, but who will represent the president.

A third such occasion, coming in spring, is the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.

For eight consecutive years, Taiwan received an invite from the secretariat of the World Health Organization to attend its decision-making body as an observer.

This year, all that could be different. While the WHA meets from May 22 to May 31, the date to watch out for is this coming Monday, May 8, the deadline for official registration.

If no invitation arrives in Taiwan by the end of that day, what most commentators expected, will have become reality. China is once again playing games and trying to push Taiwan out of the international scene.

Just within the last few days, there was another example of Beijing’s pettiness when it demanded the removal of Taiwanese delegates from a conference in Australia about the fight against blood diamonds.

Then there is of course the detention of Taiwanese non-governmental organization activist Lee Ming-che (李明哲) on the vague accusation of alleged “involvement in activities harmful to national security.” He was detained after entering China from Macau on March 19 but it took ten days before the authorities actually admitted they were responsible for his disappearance.

Since then, all legal and humane principles have been flouted, with Beijing refusing to provide information about Lee’s whereabouts and health, and preventing his wife from traveling to find out more by unilaterally canceling her visa document.

Attendance at the WHA should not have been politicized in the first place. Last year, the meeting came at an awkward time for Taiwan, with the invitation arriving when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was spending his final days in office, with his Kuomintang already having lost the January 16 presidential and legislative elections in a decisive way.

In the end, the new health minister in the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) succeeded in traveling to Geneva and attend the WHA, despite what some might describe as “rough weather” on the way in, such as the mention of Beijing’s “One China Principle” in the letter of invitation and the minister’s failure to mention Taiwan by name in his speech. He did deliver a letter of protest to the WHO secretariat about the needlessly political reference to One China.

This year, while still far from certain the minister will even be invited to attend, Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) nevertheless said a delegation would be flying to Switzerland come what may. The intention is not to “gate-crash” the event, as some media have reported, but to hold an international news conference to tell the world why Taiwan deserves to take part in the WHA and why it has not been allowed to.

Anyone living in Taiwan understands why the island of 23 million deserves to sit with other nations in that meeting hall in Geneva. It has highly qualified and well trained medical personnel, modern hospitals with high-tech equipment and an efficient health insurance system.

While Taiwan might be isolated diplomatically, that does not mean it has stayed away from the rest of the world. Taiwanese teams of experts and rescue workers have been working on improving health care and assisting with health emergencies around the world, first of all in its two dozen official allies but also at other scenes where assistance is needed.

President Tsai has been spreading that message, sending out tweets in English and Japanese to promote Taiwan’s case. An encouraging sign has been that a Canadian senator has warned against the negative effects of the island nation’s exclusion, a message that should not be underestimated by the international community.

Whether that international campaign will be sufficient to persuade the WHO secretariat to extend an invite within the next few days remains to be seen.

In any event, Taiwan is ready and willing to offer its health know-how and technological prowess to the world, and a presence at the WHA – whether inside the assembly hall or outside at an international news conference – is the optimal method to let the world know that only China’s lack of elementary goodwill is standing in the way.