As shown by an internal memo that recently came to light, the WHO refers to Taiwan as “the Taiwan Province of China.” In response, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has issued statements criticizing the practice, the Taiwanese delegation attending the World Health Assembly (WHA) has presented a letter of protest to the WHO Secretariat and Taiwan’s delegate at the assembly has made an official statement.
So far the demands made in these so-called protests have been limited to dealing with the matter of Taiwan’s “proper title,” calling on the WHO to use the same name under which Taiwan attends the WHA — namely “Chinese Taipei.” The core issue, however, is not just Taiwan’s title, but its legal status.
The WHO documents, both internal documents and those meant for public viewing, clearly express the viewpoint that there is “one China” and three special administrative regions — the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the Macau Special Administrative Region and “Chinese Taipei.”
As far as Taiwan’s participation in WHO activities is concerned, Taiwan, just like Hong Kong and Macau, falls within China’s territory and sphere of control.
Having joined up under such conditions, no matter whether Taiwan is called “Chinese Taipei” or “the Taiwan Province of China,” it will still be considered an “area” of China’s territory. The only difference is that China has given its consent for the “Taiwan area” to be called “Chinese Taipei” for the duration of its five-day participation in the WHA.
The shocking thing is that while expressing “the utmost dissatisfaction” about the “designation” used by the WHO, the Ma administration has paid no heed whatsoever to the real core question of its legal status. In the last part of his protest letter, Taiwan’s delegate even went so far as to thank the WHO Secretariat for inviting him to attend the assembly.
The message that Taiwan appears to be sending to China and the world is that it is only unhappy about having been registered as “the Taiwan Province of China” and would rather be called “Chinese Taipei.” The implication is that Taiwan accepts it is a part of China.
Consider the East Greenland case of 1933. A former Norwegian foreign minister said in 1919 that “the plans of the Royal [Danish] Government respecting Danish sovereignty over the whole of Greenland ... would be met with no difficulties on the part of Norway,” and his words were later taken by the Permanent Court of International Justice as sufficient grounds to determine that Norway had accepted that East Greenland was Danish territory.
An analogy can be drawn with Taiwan’s present situation, in which Taiwan’s government has not just appeared to be at ease with the WHO Secretariat’s treatment of Taiwan as a part of China, regardless of which nomenclature is used, but actually expressed gratitude for being so defined in what was supposed to be a protest letter. It’s no wonder that the US Health Secretary read carefully, word by word, from a script that: “No organization of the UN has a right to unilaterally determine the position of Taiwan.” Anyone familiar with the three-way interactions between Taiwan, the US and China can easily see the seriousness of this situation.
This situation presents a threat, but is not yet beyond control. If our government doesn’t want to say that Taiwan is not a part of China, all it has to do is to borrow the US Health Secretary’s words in its statements, by saying: “No organization of the UN has a right to unilaterally determine the position of Taiwan, and Chinese Taipei does not accept the WHO Secretariat’s definition of Taiwan’s status.” Such a statement would avoid the legal risk of being seen as assenting to being incorporated into China’s territory.
Taiwan is called “Chinese Taipei” in the WTO, the International Olympic Committee, and in various international and regional fisheries management organizations. It is not the best choice for a title, but at least Taiwan is treated in these forums as a separate entity, distinct from China.
Whether our government is aware of it or not, the price Taiwan has paid in accepting this title for its attendance at the WHA is to put up with or even accept “Chinese Taipei” being bundled together with China.
The worst-case scenario is that it leads to Taiwan’s title in other organizations in which it participates as “Chinese Taipei” also being changed to “the Taiwan Province of China.” In that case, our past independent international participation and space will soon be thoroughly “sinicized” in law.
Since 2009, the Ma administration has, for the sake of taking part in WHO-related meetings, repeatedly been drawn into frameworks set up by China.
We now need to consider how best to dispel this legal risk. Instead of doing that, the government has, while arguing about the name under which Taiwan is listed, ignored the threat regarding how Taiwan’s sovereignty is defined.
If this goes on, Taiwan’s breakthrough participation in international organizations such as the WHO, of which the government is so proud, could become a black hole that swallows up the nation’s independence and sovereignty.
Chiang Huang-chih is a law professor at National Taiwan University.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG