The World Health Organization’s (WHO) decision, under enormous pressure from China, to refuse to invite Taiwan to the annual World Health Assembly (WHA), has received a great deal of media attention around the world. And it is in Taiwan’s interest that every effort is made to ensure this continues.
The whole sorry saga has seen China playing the part of the schoolyard bully and refusing to let Taiwan play if she refused to agree with what it says. The Taiwanese response meanwhile has been dignified yet defiant and has seen the government, its diplomats, and the Taiwanese people emerge with a great deal of credit in the eyes of the international community.
"Province of China"
This has been in the face of increasingly provocative behavior from the Communist regime in China, which reached a peak with its letter about the matter to the WHO.
Firstly, there was the pomposity of the language used in the letter, which stated that “the Chinese Government has decided” who should or should not attend this international forum. That an independent international body should allow itself to be dictated to by the Chinese regime in such a way has raised plenty of eyebrows around the world.
In Taiwan, it is the Chinese use of the name "Taiwan, Province of China" which has upset people more than anything else. Taiwan has consistently shown itself willing to put politics aside on the matter of universal interest such as healthcare. This is demonstrated by its willingness to accept the terms previously laid-down by the Chinese regime on their attendance at the WHA, including the use of the highly unsatisfactory name Chinese Taipei for the country’s delegation.
It is, therefore, refreshing to see the robust response which the President’s spokesman gave to the use of this term.
Presidential Office spokesman Alex Huang. (CNA photo)
Alex Huang (黃重諺), who is the spokesperson for the Presidential Office, said: "the Republic of China is a sovereign state and Taiwan is not the next province of the People's Republic of China."
Given the offense that the Chinese regime has taken to President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) refusal to acknowledge the so-called 1992-Consensus, it is probably safe to assume that they will take none too kindly to hear Taiwan describing itself as a "sovereign nation."
That is precisely what Taiwan is, whether the Chinese Communist Party likes it or not. But for President Tsai and the DPP to say as much so starkly and publicly is a bold step.
It is likely to play well at home, where a significant majority of people identify themselves as Taiwanese and reject the notion of closer ties and eventual reunification with China. Given Tsai’s falling approval ratings, this could be a calculated risk to take advantage of the situation on her part.
But the likelihood of a further deterioration in relations with China is obviously high and there will be an inevitable economic cost to this. The Taiwanese economy is robust enough to cope with this and the emerging success of Tsai’s southbound policy should mitigate any costs, but that will not be enough to please everyone, and the KMT will no doubt look to make political capital off the back of it.
The conclusion that should be reached is that Taiwan should no longer allow itself to be economically beholden to an aggressive neighbor, but rather push on even harder with the current government’s ‘southbound policy’.
The benefits of responding with dignity
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. (United States Mission Geneva flickr)
But from an international point of view, Taiwan is behaving in a statesmanlike, dignified, and diplomatically professional manner in the face of huge provocation. Nowhere is this more evident than at the WHA itself, where there have been no shortage of countries coming out to bat for Taiwan.
The outspoken support of diplomatic allies such as Swaziland, the Solomon Islands, and Saint Vincent and Grenadines is to be expected and was most likely coordinated by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) as I would suspect, was the petition on Taiwan’s participation to the WHO General Committee.
Perhaps more important are the comments of those countries which do not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Tom Price, the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary said that the US Government was “very disappointed” and “supports Taiwan's attendance at WHA." Others, including representatives from Germany and Australia, also voiced similar sentiments.
Taiwan's Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) arriving in Geneva.
Such support is a testament to Taiwan’s handling of the matter, but should also point the way to Taiwan’s future efforts to participate in such international events.
As long as the Communist Party retains power in China, the likelihood of Taiwan taking part in formal international political or economic events seems remote. But on matters such as health, education, the environment, human rights, international aid, the non-proliferation of weapons, and so on, Taiwan can make a strong case for participation.
This case is based on the argument that such matters should transcend political differences and are based on the values that Taiwan shares (and China doesn’t) with much of the free world. The approval today of equal marriage rights in Taiwan is just another example of this.
Taiwan will not always succeed, as it has not at the WHA. But it will continue to occupy the moral high ground on the international stage, while China is made to look petty and irresponsible.
But even if Taiwan is not able to take part in the main event, important bi-lateral meetings can still be held and Taiwan’s international relations can continue to develop and prosper.