History is repeating itself: the ritual of annual meeting of the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), in Geneva is again being hobbled by Taiwan’s annual struggle to have a seat at the table.
For a bit of a historical perspective we need to go back to 2009, when Taiwan was for the first time allowed to attend the WHA as an observer under the name “Chinese Taipei.” This occurred under a vague agreement between the China-leaning Kuomintang (KMT) government of President Ma Ying-jeou in Taiwan, the government in Beijing, and the World Health Organization (WHO), led by Margaret Chan from Hong Kong.
Ma had been elected in 2008, and was eager to show “progress” in cross-strait relations. The move was merely symbolic, as the Taiwan representative was relegated to the back of the room, and had no role in the official deliberations. Medical specialists from Taiwan were allowed into the WHO’s technical meetings on a case-by-case basis, always after a check for approval with Beijing.
Matters changed drastically in 2016 when the KMT was voted out of office, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under President Tsai Ing-wen came in. Tsai and her DPP had always been wary of Beijing’s overtures, and in particular did not accept the “1992 consensus” concept – agreed to by her predecessor – under which both sides agree there is “one China” but each side has its own interpretation. The DPP perceives this concept as a slippery slope toward unification.
Tsai was inaugurated on May 20, 2016, just a few days before the start of the 2016 session of the World Health Assembly. Under the circumstances, Taiwan and its allies – particularly the United States and the countries of the European Union – were able to prevail on the WHO to issue an invitation to Taiwan.
However, the invite came with a couple of major catches: Taiwan was to attend under the name “Chinese Taipei,” and “United Nations Resolution 2758” was stipulated as basis for attendance. I wrote at the time, this was not acceptable for Taipei, but the Tsai administration decided to attend anyway, under protest.
So, what has happened since then? In the run up to the 2017 World Health Assembly both sides have gone through a lot of maneuvering to achieve their respective goals.
The PRC is still determined to force the Tsai government to accept the 1992 consensus and has left no stone unturned in putting the squeeze on Taipei. Unfortunately for Taipei, in the three organizations where Taiwan’s participation has come up — the WHO, Interpol and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — Beijing has a representative in high places, who will not shy away from doing Beijing’s bidding.
In Interpol, it has Meng Hongwei, a former minister of the much-feared Ministry of Public Security, who was elected president at the 85th session of the organization’s General Assembly held in Bali in November 2016. In ICAO, it has Fang Liu, who was elected as the new secretary general of the organization for a three-year term in August 2015. In the WHO, it has Dr. Margaret Chan from Hong Kong, who has served as the organization’s director general since 2006. Chan is retiring as of the end of June 2017.
In the run up to the 2017 World Health Assembly, Tsai administration launched a coordinated effort to convince the WHO to issue an invite, like it had done in previous years. Arguments in favor included a long list of contributions Taiwan’s medical community had made to international health protection, and well as an emphasis on the danger to international health – in particular through infectious diseases – of leaving 23.5 million people out of the system.
Taiwan’s allies weighed in, with particularly EU member states attempting to prevail on the WHO to have Taiwan at the table in Geneva. The United States government made a number of demarches directly to Chan, urging her to do her utmost to send Taiwan an invite.
Also, during a visit to Taipei on April 25, 2017, the top U.S. official dealing with Taiwan, American Institute in Taiwan Chairman James Moriarty, said that the United States looks forward to Taiwan’s continued participation at the World Health Assembly this year.
However, when the deadline for invitations passed on May 8, no invite had been received by Taipei. WHO officials stated that some negotiations were still ongoing: in Geneva. WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said that “the matter of Taiwan’s participation is not yet resolved. Officially the deadline has passed, but yet it is my understanding that discussions are still ongoing and we are also on our side waiting for any developments.” However, the likelihood of anything positive coming out of this was not considered very high.
In the subsequent days, the matter led to a string of denunciations of the PRC’s obstructionist tactics by Taiwan government officials, members of parliament, and civic organizations in the medical field.
The Tsai government also announcement that Taiwan’s minister of health, Chen Shih-chung would still lead a delegation to Geneva at the time of the WHA, and that if the delegation is not allowed to enter the conference venue, it would take the opportunity to hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines with delegations of participating nations
The Foreign Ministry in Taipei stated that Taiwan would have several opportunities to exchange views on global health issues with representatives from other nations during the WHA, and that if the WHO “succumbs to political pressure” and ultimately decides not to invite Taiwan to the WHA, it would affect the health rights of the 23 million Taiwanese and create a serious gap in the international health system.
An opinion poll conducted by the Cross-Strait Policy Foundation in Taiwan on May 9 and 10 showed that a significant majority of the people agreed with the approach of the Tsai government. Nearly 60 percent of the respondents blamed China for Taiwan’s likely exclusion from this year’s WHA, while an even larger percentage said that the government should take a tougher line on the issue.
It must thus be concluded that Beijing’s current approach to Taiwan is backfiring. Instead of convincing people in Taiwan that its policies would benefit the people of the island, it is evoking a negative reaction, leaving the Taiwanese with the distinct impression that China’s leaders are bent on reducing Taiwan’s international space.
This runs counter to a very basic thrust in Taiwan’s political affairs since its momentous transition to the democracy in the early 1990s: that the newly democratic country deserves a full and equal place in the international family of nations.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he also served as editor of Taiwan Communiqué, a publication based in Washington D.C. He now teaches History of Taiwan at George Mason University.