Since taking office in May, obtaining observer status for Taiwan at the World Health Assembly (WHA) has been trumpeted by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government as a top diplomatic task and a barometer of cross-strait relations. The nation’s bid this year, if successful, would indicate “goodwill” from China, the KMT government has said, apprently hoping for a positive outcome at the WHA session this May amid ostensibly warming cross-strait relations.
While the government’s efforts in that regard should be acknowledged, there is, however, more here than meets the eye and failure to scrutinize the deal could have serious long-term implications for the nation’s sovereignty.
There is no such thing as WHA “observer status” in the WHO Constitution. The so-called WHA observership appears in the WHO’s Rules of Procedure. According to Rule 47 of the Rules of the Procedure of the WHA, “Observers of invited non-Member States and territories on whose behalf application for associate membership has been made may attend any open meetings of the Health Assembly or any of its main committees. They may, upon the invitation of the President, and with the consent of the Health Assembly or committee, make a statement on the subject under discussions.”
In other words, as long as China is in a good mood, a nod from Beijing would enable Taiwan to attend a WHA session as an observer. One detail that is often overlooked, however, is that observer status is a one-time event, meaning that even if Taiwan were granted the status this year, there is no guarantee it would be allowed in the following year. Everything, therefore, hinges on whether Beijing opposes the measure at a given time.
The question is, therefore: How much is Taiwan willing to demean itself if Chinese “goodwill” means having to beg, year after year, for crumbs from Beijing?
The implications for President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) ability to act as head of state are severe, as he could find himself having to give a little more to China each year to be allowed into the WHA. In such a scenario, the great diplomatic accomplishment would be nothing more than abdication, turning the nation into a beggar and, by contrast, Beijing into a gatekeeper.
To avoid giving the international community the impression that Taiwan is nothing more than a pawn of China — or part of it — Taipei must continue seeking full membership at the WHO, as was done under the previous administration.
It is one thing to compromise as part of a strategy to gain international space. But any compromise must not cross the line into threatening or eroding the nation’s sovereignty.
Without sovereignty, there is simply no international space. If Taiwan is to forsake its national dignity in seeking an international presence, it might as well declare itself part of China, in which case international recognition would be a moot point.