Why did Taiwan's bid to gain observer status in this May's meeting of the World Health Assembly fizzle? Because neither Washington nor Taipei wanted a public rout and both saw one coming. And because China was fully prepared, it seems, to call their bluff.
While the George W. Bush administration repeatedly said that it would speak out on the floor of the WHA meeting on May 19, the day the session opened, it was silent when it came to supporting Taiwan in the WHA agenda committee on May 17 and May 18.
The reason for this, according to a Taiwan supporter in Washington who received information from informed congressional staffers, was that "China had threatened the US that it would ask for a vote on Taiwan's participation in the Monday [May 19] assembly if the US supported Taiwan in the agenda committee. And, according to the US, `We don't want Taiwan to humiliate itself.'"
Taiwan supporters and lobbyists in Washington followed the unfolding saga of the WHA meeting closely and have come up with an extensive record of what happened, based on contacts with congressional staffers, administration officials and others.
During a State Department briefing on May 16, the eve of the WHA meeting, one congressional staffer asked an official why the US didn't let a vote take place the following week "so that we can tally the countries that now support Taiwan."
The answer, according to a Taiwan supporter, appeared to be that it would be highly unlikely that more countries would support Taiwan's participation than in the past. Since the US did not announce it would explicitly support Taiwan in Geneva until a week or so before the assembly, there was no time for the health ministers attending the meeting to contact their foreign affairs ministries on whether to support Taiwan in view of Washington's late decision.
This seemed to conflict with the optimistic message the State Department was putting out at the time.
On May 13, three days before the congressional briefing, a senior State Department official told reporters Washington was optimistic about gaining more support than in the past.
In a rare on-the-record session at the State Department, Randall Shriver, the deputy secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, told reporters he expected the number of countries supporting Taiwan to be "substantially higher than the last time this was put to a vote," in 1997, the year Taiwan began its campaign for WTO participation.
"We're working with like-minded countries and those we hope can be persuaded to show support for Taiwan. We'd like to see progress this year," he told reporters, noting that the SARS epidemic might make some countries come around.
He described the US effort as "a little bit more aggressive," saying "we think there's a possibility of greater support out there."
Shriver's and other US officials' comments were seen by much of Taiwan's media at the time as a sign of vigorous US support.
Shriver was, in fact, more circumspect, saying only that the US would be "overt ... and vocal" in pressing for Taiwan's case.
If Washington did want to push for a vote on Taiwan, it was thwarted by another, more important consideration -- Taipei itself was worried about being embarrassed and losing face, and asked the US not to push for a vote that might expose its weak position.