Since Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) election as the president of Taiwan in January last year and her inauguration in May that year, the People’s Republic of China has increasingly worked to push Taiwan onto the sidelines of international affairs through exclusion and bullying.
China views Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as a threat to its goal of eventual unification with Taiwan, so over the course of the past year, China has worked tirelessly to further isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world.
Most recently, this year’s World Health Assembly — the annual meeting of the WHO held from May 22 to Wednesday — at China’s behest excluded Taiwan from attending for the first time in eight years.
While China has succeeded in isolating Taiwan internationally at official meetings of international organizations, it has failed to get concessions from Tsai or the Taiwanese, and Taiwan continues to enjoy unofficial relations with major countries at the bilateral level.
What does China seek to achieve by continuing this behavior and why will the international community not step up to prevent these passive-aggressive and overtly aggressive actions?
Within the past nine months, China has exerted its influence to keep Taiwan out of important meetings at various organizations and conferences.
In September last year, China pressured the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to exclude Taiwan from its 39th Assembly, even though the Airports Council International noted that “Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport was ranked 11th and sixth-busiest airport in the world in terms of passenger and cargo volumes, respectively.”
In November, Taiwan was not allowed to attend Interpol’s 85th General Assembly; it was the first time in more than 30 years that Taiwan applied as an observer.
Early last month, Taiwanese attendees were ejected from the Kimberley Process meeting, which seeks “to remove conflict diamonds from the global supply chain,” after Chinese attendees hijacked the microphone protesting Taiwan’s presence.
The only logic for China keeping Taiwan out of these meetings is to show that it simply can, because China receives no other benefit from Taiwan’s exclusion.
Now the WHO joins the ranks of those international organizations which have bowed to Chinese pressure to keep Taiwan out.
China has two reasons for treating Taiwan this way. First, Beijing has claimed that Tsai has not publicly accepted the “1992 consensus.”
Of course, the reality is that Tsai has not met China’s one-sided demands in regards to the “1992 consensus.”
Both during her inaugural address and her speech on National Day, Tsai addressed the “1992 consensus,” but according to China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, “[Tsai] did not explicitly recognize the 1992 consensus and its core implications, and made no concrete proposal for ensuring the peaceful and stable growth of cross-straits relations. Hence, this is an incomplete test answer.”
As a result, China has sought to ostracize Taiwan from the international community in an attempt to force Tsai to make a pronouncement that it deems sufficient.
Second, by increasingly pushing Taiwan out of these meetings and poaching its few remaining diplomatic allies, China hopes to force Tsai and her government into making greater concessions.
This approach does not reflect the political reality in Taiwan, as it does not take into account the Sunflower movement protests, the massive swing towards the DPP during last year’s elections, Taiwanese public opinion or the changing trends in Taiwanese political and cultural identity.
A recent poll conducted by the Cross-Strait Policy Foundation shows that the public sides with the Tsai government against China: 71.9 percent of respondents said that Taiwan should not accept the “1992 consensus” despite its diplomatic isolation; 56.29 percent of respondents blamed China for Taiwan’s [World Health Assembly] exclusion; and 58.49 percent said Beijing has been provocative in its interactions with Taipei over the past year.
These numbers do not bode well for China’s increasingly pugnacious attitude towards Tsai and Taiwan’s international participation. They point to a population that increasingly wants to be treated as independent and sovereign.
Despite holding important veto positions in various international organizations and clout with developing countries across the globe, the Chinese government’s approach — bullying until it gets what it wants — has yet to influence the opinions of the Taiwanese, which are unlikely tochange anytime in the near future.
In fact, if Chinese behavior does not change over time, the Taiwanese public might only be emboldened.
Even though many major countries supported Taiwan’s participation at this year’s WHA, their support still was not enough to overcome Beijing’s pressure. Taiwan is not complaining for the sake of making news or evoking sympathy: It is an important player in global health, and its exclusion from important information and data can (and has) cost lives.
Despite not being a full-fledged member of the WHO, Taiwan follows all of its guidelines, provides billions of dollars of aid to countries in need (it gave US$1 million to Ebola prevention efforts in 2014), and has such a successful hepatitis B vaccination program that the WHO adopted it as part of its Expanded Program on Immunization. Taiwan has the strengths of a member, but is not treated like one.
Moreover, at the annual WHA, nations receive important information about new diseases, and treatment and prevention, but Taiwan will not receive all of that material despite following WHO protocol. Preventing Taiwan from accessing all available research did not work out well in the past, and will not in the future.
Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), originally an epidemiologist, in 2003 witnessed firsthand how the WHO’s hesitation to cooperate with Taiwan can cost lives. As Chen noted in an interview with Time, despite calls for help, the WHO never provided Taiwan with the SARS virus and waited two months after the first call for help to send a delegation. Instead, the US filled in the gaps created by the WHO.
In the age of superviruses, Ebola outbreaks and the spread of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, isolating Taiwan from the WHA is a dangerous game.
Despite Taiwan’s willingness to cooperate and its need to receive current disease prevention information, the WHA still refused it — and Taiwanese media outlets — a place this year. Eleven countries, all official diplomatic allies of Taiwan, put forth a proposal to grant Taiwan observer status at the meetings, but China and Cuba rejected it, finally putting an end to the months-long drama.
The US, Germany and Australia all voiced “support” for Taiwan’s participation as well. However, even though they “supported” Taiwan’s participation, none of them put their name on the official proposal mentioned above.
Though Tsai’s government expressed gratitude for this “support,” one must wonder why these key countries supported Taiwan’s observes status, but not enough to sign on to the official proposal.
Preventing a nation that can contribute positively and benefit from attending any of these events and meetings is dangerous not just for Taiwan, but also for the Asia-Pacific region and the world as a whole: Diseases know no bounds.
China is developing a pattern of exclusion with international organizations, and Beijing’s current mindset and attitudes toward Taiwan point to this behavior continuing and even increasing — unless key nations are willing to take more serious, and necessary, steps in support of Taiwan.
Thomas Shattuck is an assistant editor and research associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
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