In the past few weeks, the nation’s attention was focused on the students’ occupation of the Legislative Yuan. The Sunflower movement may appear to be a domestic issue, but a closer look reveals an important international angle. The Taiwanese government has been adopting a China-leaning approach, basically saying that to join the international community and broaden Taiwan’s international space, it needs to work through Beijing.
However, the Sunflower movement shows that most Taiwanese view the situation differently. They feel that as a full-fledged democracy, Taiwan can and should play a more prominent role internationally. In a way, that is also playing out in the debate on Taiwan’s participation at the WHO.
The World Health Assembly (WHA) is holding its annual session starting on May 19. Taiwan has been invited for the sixth time since 2009 as President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) moves closer to China. On the surface, this looks like an achievement, but a closer look shows that this approach is fraught with problems.
First, while it is a positive sign that Taiwan’s health minister can attend the WHA session, Taiwan, as an observer, does not have the rights and privileges of being a member and is totally dependent on Beijing’s “goodwill.” Should China find some policy or action by Taiwan irksome, it can withdraw its approval and the whole scheme would collapse.
Taiwan’s observer status has also limited its involvement in the work of the WHO, that is, the exchange of information on medical and public health issues.
In its report to the US Congress in April last year, the US Department of State described Taiwan’s participation in the WHO as “sporadic and intermittent.”
Part of the problem is that WHO Director-General Margaret Chan (陳馮富珍), who is from Hong Kong, has let herself be unduly influenced by Beijing on the Taiwan issue. Under her guidance, the WHO issued instructions to its staff to refer to Taiwan as “Taiwan, Province of China.”
This was neither acceptable to Taiwan nor the US, which informed Chan that this practice was contrary to US policy.
However, the US itself can also take a step in the right direction. For a number of years now, US policymakers — including US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel — have stated that Washington supports Taiwan’s participation in international organizations where statehood is not a requirement. This “statehood” clause is an unnecessary self-imposed restriction that hinders rather than helps Taiwan’s participation in global bodies.
Furthermore, it has no basis in the Taiwan Relations Act. The State Department should drop this clause, so Taiwan can be more equally and equitably involved in international bodies. As long as Taiwan is not more fully involved in the WHO’s activities and exchanges on public health, there will be a gaping hole in the global health network.
Due to Taiwan’s international isolation it is in a vulnerable position and cannot play its role in the international health prevention network. Taiwan has a lot to give: It has established a national healthcare system that is generally considered a good example of its kind.
Taiwan is now a full democracy. It aspires to be accepted by the world community as a full and equal member, and has worked hard at membership in the WHO for almost two decades now. The progress has been slow, in part due to Beijing’s recalcitrance, but also in part because of lack of sufficient international support.
The Sunflower activists represent a breakthrough in Taiwan’s political landscape. Perhaps Taiwan can make a similar breakthrough internationally, with the nation receiving equal treatment and joining the WHO without having to go through Beijing.
Joyce Huang has a master’s in human rights from Columbia University.
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