Taiwan’s bid for observer status in the WHO is often viewed as a key index of cross-strait relations, with President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration constantly expressing optimism that it will succeed. However, the bid is full of worrying sugar-coated content.
Take the WHO’s International Health Regulations (IHR), for example. Bernard Kean, executive director of the WHO’s Office of the Director-General, sent a letter to Taiwan’s top health official in January that proposed the inclusion of Taiwan in the implementation of the IHR.
As Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control stated in an English-language press release, concrete measures proposed by the WHO include accepting Taiwan’s point of contact; allowing direct communication and contact between the contact points of the WHO secretariat and Taiwan; providing Taiwan with a password to a secured event information site; dispatching experts to Taiwan and inviting Taiwan’s representatives to attend WHO emergency committees in the event of a public health emergency in Taiwan of international concern; and inviting Taiwan to nominate a health expert for the IHR roster.
Meanwhile, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has stated that Beijing highly values implementation of the IHR. Based on this, the Chinese government has negotiated with the WHO secretariat over an IHR application for the “Taiwan area.” In other words, arrangements involving Taiwan have to be approved by Beijing, and this approval can be withdrawn at anytime.
Information relating to Taiwan is filed as “Taiwan, China” at the WHO, and Taiwan’s eight major ports are considered Chinese ports. Taipei should have actively protested against this, but it surprisingly accepted the terms. In the face of public concern, Taiwan’s authorities are stressing that these developments represent Chinese goodwill and are diplomatic achievements.
For the Ma government, participation in the WHO is a priority. It therefore tends to report good news, stay silent on negative developments and refuse to look deeper into problems to avoid damaging cross-strait relations.
Allowing Taiwan to participate in the World Health Assembly (WHA) would fulfill Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) undertaking on Taiwan’s participation in WHO events, which would benefit China’s international propaganda campaign. More importantly, the move would undercut accusations that China restricts Taiwan’s international space.
But since Beijing can block Taipei’s participation at any time, it would hold even more power over Taipei.
For Taiwan, the only advantage in all this would be the chance of attending the five-day WHA meeting. However, the transmission of data on global health issues and disease prevention takes more than just five days; we must ask ourselves if it is worthwhile to end Taiwan’s efforts over the years and display this kind of goodwill to China in exchange for a mere five-day meeting. Since Beijing holds all the cards, we must also ask what would happen in succeeding years. Would Taiwan be excluded if it does not obey Beijing?
Observer status is better than isolation. But if obtaining this status depends on China’s assessment of how Taiwan is “behaving,” then members of the international community may come to believe that Taiwan’s international space should be determined by China.