Politicians and diplomats from most countries are well-schooled in the language and art of diplomacy. They are able to sit down around a table with opposing political figures and discuss issues like adults, dealing with their differences firmly, but politely.
When it comes to major public health or security concerns, most are also able to put such differences aside for the greater good and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the common interests of their people.
It has become clear in recent weeks that these basic political skills are well beyond the representatives of the China’s Communist Party.
The astonishing scenes at the recent intergovernmental meeting on the Kimberley Process in Australia last week were described by one delegate as “disgusting and extraordinary”. Those words barely do it justice.
In repeatedly shouting down Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop as she welcomed delegates and then forcing proceedings to be halted, the Chinese delegates behavior was more akin to a child in a nursery whose favorite toy has just been snatched away, than professional diplomats.
If the delegates of any other country present at the meeting had behaved in such a manner, they would have been condemned in their national media, fired from their jobs, and their government would have issued groveling apologies to the hosts and other delegates.
Not so the Chinese, who instead denied their behavior was disrespectful and in line with diplomatic norms. Within Communist China that might be true, but in the rest of the world, standards of respect are significantly higher.
What made the situation worse was that after throwing such a tantrum, the Chinese delegates (who quickly rallied the support of delegates from other countries their government bankrolls) actually got their way. And remarkably, it was the polite and innocent Taiwanese delegates who were removed from the meeting rather than their deeply rude and aggressive Chinese counterparts.
It is difficult to know who is more at fault. The Chinese for their indefensible behavior, or the international community for kowtowing to their outrageous bullying. Taiwan has been an observer at Kimberley Process meetings for a decade now. Their presence at this meeting was not setting any kind of precedent and there was no reason whatsoever for them to be excluded.
What the incident shows is that when China stomps its feet, the international community still bows down rather than daring to stand up to them. But that they would do so in the face of such behavior is difficult to stomach.
WHO Head addressing WHA. (Wikimedia Commons)
At present, China seems determined to try to and undermine Taiwan’s presence on the international stage. Alongside this incident, the failure to invite Taiwan to the World Health Assembly (WHA), which Taiwan has attended since 2009 after the Chinese Communist Party once again put undue pressure on organizers is yet another example of this.
But the issues being discussed at these events, and many others to which Taiwan has either attended or attempted to attend in the past, are ones which should go beyond petty political arguments.
The chief of China's Taiwan Affair Office, Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), has been quoted as saying about Taiwan’s WHA attendance, "if Taiwan wants to participate in international organizations, it must return to the 'one-China policy' and recognize the ‘1992 Consensus.'”
But the "one-China policy" is irrelevant when it comes to issues like public health and the blood diamond trade. It is on such occasions that most countries would drop such objections for the greater good. But for the Chinese, their domestic political agenda is always the priority and they are all too willing to play politics with people’s lives.
As the Office of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has said in a statement, “health is a human right, and disease prevention transcends national borders.” This is something that the international community should be standing up for and, if they want to be credible international players, the Chinese too should be advocating.
If, as the Chinese Communist Party claims, Taiwan is a part of China, shouldn’t the Government of China be acting in the interests of "their citizens" in Taiwan, rather than sacrificing the health of 23 million people to prop up their own political agenda?
As even occasional observers of Chinese politics will know all too well, it is the best interests of the party and not the people that really interests the Chinese regime.
Instead, their attitude towards bodies such as the WHA and Kimberley Process meeting in Australia betrays the real views of the Chinese regime towards the international community.
They view such bodies as a necessary inconvenience. They know they have to go through the motions to secure the trade and economic relations that help keep the Chinese Communist Party in power. But they don’t really care about international norms and have a long track record of flagrantly ignoring international agreements when it suits them.
Yet, again and again, their arrogant and disrespectful approach to international bodies goes unchecked.
WHO Head meets Taiwan Minister for Health at WHA. (Wikimedia Commons)
As things stand, their intransigence on Taiwanese participation is to Taiwan’s detriment, which is why the Chinese carry on, but with some smart diplomatic steps, the situation could be turned on its head.
Taiwan sometimes approaches the international community with too much of a small-state mentality. Taiwan has the world’s 22nd largest GDP and should approach such meetings as the big global economic power it really is.
The global headlines about the behavior of Chinese delegates at the Kimberley Process meeting were embarrassing and damaging for the regime. Taiwan should now push hard to attend every possible international meeting and then make every effort to highlight the lengths that China will go to block them.
A subtle media campaign, an effective global hearts and minds campaign and the impression that Taiwan belongs on the international stage may not shift China’s stance, but it will begin to win over more and more countries. By being the bigger man, Taiwan can show up China’s childish tantrums for what they really are and maybe, just maybe, shame a few international bodies into doing the right thing.