Sadly, for the 11th time, Taiwan's bid for admission to the WHO has failed and the humiliation of its 23 million people continues. Despite Taipei's insistence that it will keep up the fight, the time may have arrived -- and I write this begrudgingly, having placed my hopes in international institutions for many years and enthusiastically supported Taiwan's latest effort -- for Taiwan to face reality: the WHO constituents are locked in the past and refuse to abandon the parochial, realist system of sovereign states, of which the UN serves as a symbol.
As activist and long-time chess champion Garry Kasparov recently wrote in Foreign Policy magazine, the UN (and its agencies) is "now so outdated that suggestions to reform it are themselves past their time." Just ask anyone in Darfur nowadays if the UN is a functioning organization.
As China's political weight is unlikely to diminish in coming years, for Taipei to stay the course and keep applying at the WHO will assuredly be a costly exercise in futility that in the long run can only sap Taiwanese morale. Fought with the honorable intention of changing the UN's views, the battle is an unwinnable one for Taiwan.
What it must do, then, is embrace the 21st century and approach the problem from a different perspective. The way to achieve this is asymmetrical -- in other words, just as in armed conflict, the weaker party must avoid fighting on its stronger opponent's terms and exploit the latter's foibles. Consequently, Taipei must abandon the state-based approach of applying with member states at the WHO who are beholden to China and instead exploit, a la Sun Tzu's Art of War, the system's weaknesses -- and Beijing's.
This guerrilla tactic should be buttressed on the dire state of the health system in China and the fact that its government is less than open about issues regarding health and the environment, which are now in fact state secrets. Where Beijing is weak, Taipei must therefore be strong. As such, in contrast to China, Taiwan should become a beacon of monitoring and openness on epidemiology by greatly investing in its scientific research apparatus and facilitating exchange programs with scientists across the globe. It could, for example, turn the fiasco of the SARS epidemic in 2003 to its advantage and use the lessons learned from this traumatic yet unique experience to become a leader on surveillance and crisis management in time of epidemic.
Furthermore, as WHO membership will feasibly remain an elusive dream for years to come, Taiwan must emphasize its connections at the non-state level and develop its own, parallel networks. One great advantage Taiwan has over China is its respectability on human rights issues, which has earned it the trust and friendship of many non-governmental organizations. During this year's WHO bid, for example, the France-based Reporters Without Borders was vociferous in its support for Taiwanese reporters receiving accreditation so they could cover the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva. From an asymmetrical point of view, Beijing's horrendous reputation with rights groups can only but play to Taipei's advantage.
Through skillful diplomacy and perhaps some investment, Taiwan could establish or consolidate alliances with health organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to give but two examples, or research labs in other countries. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are other non-state actors Taipei could certainly do business with.
Beyond the WHO, beyond the states locked in the realpolitik mindset, are thousands of dedicated scientists, researchers, reporters and donors who would be more than happy to see Taiwan seamlessly integrate the global health system. This, too, Taiwan can use to its advantage. As a technologically advanced state with tremendous connectivity, Taiwan need not seek to tap into or solely rely upon the WHO network to access the information and expertise it needs or to fulfil its role within and responsibilities toward the international community.
If the WHO doesn't want Taiwan, then so be it. For the truth of the matter is, in the 21st century, Taiwan doesn't necessarily need the WHO.
By turning its health system into an innovative model for research and prevention, and by actively pursuing asymmetrical access to the global health community via modern, non-state-based channels, Taiwan could bypass the archaic Cold War mentality that unfortunately prevails to this day and ensure that the right of its citizens to full information on health isn't curtailed by Beijing's narrow-mindedness. It would also help demonstrate, yet again, that when it comes to responsible global citizenship, Taiwan is light years ahead of China.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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