Tue, Apr 14, 2009 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: A participant, not a beggar

Based on a US State Department report leaked to this newspaper over the weekend and a report in the China Times yesterday, Taiwan may be on the brink of obtaining observer status at the World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the WHO.

After many years of unsuccessful attempts to join either the WHO or at least the WHA, the US’ charm offensive on Taipei’s behalf, combined with Beijing’s ostensible flexibility of late, is cause for satisfaction, as Taiwan may finally have a voice at and benefit from the global health body, thereby filling a senseless gap in the global health network.

As Taipei, Beijing, Washington and the WHO work on an agreement, one key element to keep an eye out for will be “compromise” — often a euphemism for political gains by Beijing.

This goes well beyond the name under which Taiwan would be allowed to participate.

One such compromise — supported by the US, as the State Department report seems to indicate — is the possibility that Taiwan’s observer status at the WHA would be renewable on an annual basis. This would be a grave mistake, however, as it would put Beijing in a position to blackmail Taiwan and the US every time renewal is at hand. Each year, China could make demands of Taipei, Washington and the international community. To keep what it has, Taipei and its supporters would have to beg to China, while the latter could use the carrot of participation in the WHA to exert political influence.

This is akin to a mobster striking a pact with a shop owner in which he promises not to harm him as long as he pays “protection” money. Every year, the crook and the shop owner sit down to “negotiate.” The thug uses the threat of violence to gradually increase the fee. For a while, the shop owner may yield to the demands out of fear for his safety, but one year, the list of demands grows too long, he refuses and suffers the consequences.

A situation in which one party’s interests or safety are held hostage can hardly be called a “win-win” scenario.

To prevent this potential subjugation from becoming reality, Taiwan’s observer status at the WHA should be permanent and not subject to Beijing’s whims.

Given the right of Taiwanese to have representation at the global health organization, observer status should not be used to give Beijing any leverage over Taiwan.

Permanent status would ensure that regardless of who is in power in Taiwan — the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the Democratic Progressive Party or anyone else — Taiwanese would continue to benefit from and contribute to the WHO.

Taiwan’s participation at the health body would never be “meaningful” if it became an instrument with which Beijing could make demands of the international community. Condescending as the terminology is (who would want meaningless participation?), Taiwan’s role at the WHA could amount to little more than self-harm if it were hostage to ulterior political motives.

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