Knowing how skillful China’s foreign relations officials are, I expected them to handle Taiwan’s attendance at this year’s World Health Assembly (WHA) by tormenting Taiwan until the last moment and then “magnanimously” allowing the WHO secretariat to send it an invitation to attend as an observer.
Apart from such an invitation making it abundantly clear that Taiwan is part of China, China would have said that although the Democratic Progressive Party does not accept the so-called “1992 consensus” or the “one China” principle, in consideration of “Taiwanese compatriots’” health and welfare and in the interest of worldwide disease prevention, it still agreed to allow “the authorities of Taiwan, China” to send observers to the WHA under the “one China” principle.
It would have been hard for Taiwan’s government to decide whether to accept or reject such an arrangement, but luckily no such thing happened.
When the campaign for Taiwan to take part in the WHO first started in 1997, anyone with expertise in diplomatic relations would tactfully tell campaigners that Taiwan was in a weak position and that there was no point to these hopeless efforts.
At the beginning, the response of friendly nations to the nation’s lobbying ranged from indifference to diplomatic niceties at best, but there was no great enthusiasm.
However, gradually, some friendly nations became willing to talk to Taiwan’s lobbyists and listen to their tale of woe.
Next, some of those nations began to think that it was wrong to completely exclude Taiwan from the WHO, and more and more of these allies made formal interventions at the WHA in favor of Taiwan’s right to attend.
This kind of support reached a high point in 2008, when — apart from the nation’s diplomatic partners — the US, Japan, some EU member states and other Western countries openly voiced their support for Taiwan.
However, that same year, the government of then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), perhaps because of poor diplomatic judgement or as an expression of its policy of fawning over China (or a combination of the two), sent emissaries to Geneva, Switzerland, where they reached an understanding with China.
This understanding placed Taiwan’s attendance at the WHA within the model designed by China for Taiwan’s participation under the “one China” principle. It also involved accepting an arrangement whereby China decides whether Taiwan can attend, thus putting all the power in China’s hands.
Therefore it should come as no surprise that this year, after China said that Taiwan could not attend the WHA because it does not recognize the “1992 consensus,” the WHO secretariat said it could not send Taiwan an invitation because the two sides of the Taiwan Strait had not reached a consensus.
Although China has a hard-line policy of blocking Taiwan’s participation in international organizations wherever possible, Taiwan is not completely at China’s mercy.
China is big and keeps getting stronger, but it is not so strong that the whole world must obey it, and although Taiwan is relatively small and keeps getting weaker, it is not so weak that it can only accept China’s arrangements without the ability to resist.
This can be seen with regard to many international organizations, such as the WTO and regional fisheries management organizations: Although China does not want Taiwan to participate in any of these bodies, it is still an observer in some and a member of others, and China cannot eliminate Taiwan’s space for independent participation.
No matter how unhappy China might be, it cannot instruct these organizations not to send invitations to Taiwan for the simple reason that participation in these organizations is not subject to China’s approval, and Taiwan takes part in them in its own independent capacity.
In contrast, Taiwan’s attendance at the WHA is based on the understanding between the Ma administration and China under which Taiwan has no diplomatic space, but merely “attends” with China’s agreement; it can only attend if China gives permission.
This is the arrangement that Ma’s government accepted.
It also accepted that China would request for the WHO secretariat to send Taiwan an invitation every time.
Because the decision is in China’s hands, Taiwan has to leverage its resources and keep China happy, otherwise China can terminate or suspend its participation at any time.
The question President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) government should be asking about attendance at the WHA should therefore be how to get out of this model, because only by getting out of it will the nation be able to carry on as normal even when it has incurred China’s displeasure.
If the WHO secretariat does not send Taiwan an invitation this year, Taiwanese will feel shocked and angry, but they will soon get over it.
The best approach to participation in the WHO would then be to start over again.
China may be powerful, but it has made a foreign-policy mistake by negating the cross-strait “status quo,” because this allows Taiwan to escape the framework that was set up by the Ma administration and China.
Furthermore, China’s statement that it is blocking Taiwan’s attendance for political reasons gives Taiwan an opportunity to regain the moral high ground.
If the door to Taiwan’s attendance at the WHA opens again, China will of course be standing in the doorway. What happens next will depend on the determination and efforts of all Taiwanese.
Chiang Huang-chih is a professor in National Taiwan University’s College of Law.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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