Despite having served in an administration that was battered by a series of diplomatic setbacks, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Wu Chih-chung (吳志中) said that Taiwan’s experience interacting with other nations is proof that improving its international status is possible.
Wu, a French-educated political science professor, said during a group interview with media on Jan. 20 that his optimism is largely due to his experience helping Taiwan secure participation in the WHO during former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) time in office from 2000 to 2008.
Taiwan had since 1997 sought in vain to participate in the WHO, from which the Republic of China (ROC) was expelled in 1972.
It was not until after 2009, under the leadership of perceived China-leaning then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), that Taipei was able to attend the UN health body’s annual World Health Assembly as an observer, under the name “Chinese Taipei.”
However, the WHO’s invitation last year, which arrived considerably later than in previous years, was attached with an unprecedented “one China” proviso, seen as Beijing’s warning shot at then-president-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
“Since 2000, I have traveled to Switzerland almost every year with the Foundation of Medical Professionals Alliance in Taiwan to deal with the issue of Taiwan’s attendance at the assembly,” Wu said.
The Taiwanese delegation received little attention in the first few years, until the international SARS epidemic in 2003 changed the attitudes of WHO members, Wu said.
Taiwan’s lack of direct access to WHO data about the outbreak in the early stages was believed to be one of the main reasons for the nation’s high fatality rate.
Although Taiwan’s bid to join the WHO was vetoed after the SARS outbreak — due to most European countries’ adherence to Beijing’s “one China” principle — some countries expressed verbal support for Taiwan, Wu said.
Taiwan’s continuous striving to participate, arguing that diseases transcend national boundaries, prompted WHO members to come close to voting on a resolution in support of the nation’s participation in the global health body in 2008, Wu said.
“If that had happened, we would not have to worry about receiving an invitation to the assembly every year,” he said.
Wu said that experience convinced him that through constant communication, as well as the provision of sufficient information and a sound argument, changes are possible.
“That is also the direction I am going with after joining the foreign ministry,” he added.
Singling out one of the Tsai administration’s diplomatic achievements, Wu said the number of mutual visits by deputy ministers of Taiwan and EU nations after the Democratic Progressive Party government took office on May 20 last year was six times higher than that recorded in the preceding months.
However, improving Taiwan’s international status is his biggest challenge, he said.
“Diplomatic achievements require daily effort and the challenge lies in seeking to make gradual improvements day by day,” Wu said. “Our hope is that improvements in our relations with other nations would help consolidate our international status. Personally, I believe that we can make a real contribution to the international community.”
Wu said that when he applied for visas to Germany and France back in the 1990s, officials refused to stamp his ROC passport and instead issued the visas on separate pieces of paper.
“Now we do not even need a visa to travel to these countries,” he said, referring to the EU’s inclusion of Taiwan in its visa waiver program in January 2011.
Asked what is the biggest difference between being a professor and a deputy foreign minister, Wu said: “I used to be able to speak freely as a professor, but now I represent the government.”
“That being said, I am still an idealist. I want to make the government more efficient and bring Taiwan closer to the world,” he said.
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