by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: TaKungPao

THERE IS NOTHING particularly new about the WHO debacle in regards to what it means for Taiwan’s international status in the world, except recapitulating the same issues which have plagued Taiwan for decades regarding Taiwan’s lack of acknowledgement in the world and will continue to do so as long as Taiwan is yoked to the Republic of China framework. The WHO debacle, however, marks Tsai Ing-Wen’s first substantial engagement with issues concerning Taiwan’s lack of recognition in the lead-up to her presidential inauguration.

Last week, Taiwan was invited to participate as an observer in the annual conference of the World Health Association (WHA), the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO). The conference is slated to take place from May 23rd to May 28th. Taiwan’s invitation was expected, but marked by some anxiety because this year’s notice came later than usual. The latest an invitation had arrived at in the past was on May 1st, prompting anxiety whether China was blocking the invite after the election of Tsai Ing-Wen of the DPP, and leading to preparations to attend the conference in a non-observer status in the case no invitation arrived. Observer status grants Taiwan the ability to deliver a five-minute statement at the assembly, though still not the status of a full participant.

World Health Organization LogoWorld Health Organization logo. Photo credit: WHO

Taiwan has attended meetings of the WHA as an observer since Ma Ying-Jeou’s presidential term began in 2009 under the name “Chinese Taipei.” However, unlike previous invitations, this year’s invitation contained mention of “One China”, with reference to “United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758 (XXVI)”, “WHA Resolution 25.1”, and “One-China principle” in the invitation. It is popularly questioned whether Chinese pressure led to this addition, China having been emphatic on the “One China principle” in the lead-up to 2016 presidential elections, as well as after the election of Tsai Ing-Wen. The current director-general of the WHO, Margaret Chan, who hails from Hong Kong, is sometimes seen as having shifted the organization in a direction which favors China. Chan, for example, has praised the healthcare system of Chinese ally North Korea when it had been criticized by preceding WHO director-generals.

China is, of course, wary that the election of a DPP and not a KMT president could lead to Taiwan drifting further away from China and towards de jure independence. The “One China principle” originates from the fictive 1992 Consensus, which states that the ROC and PRC agree that there is only one China but that the ROC and PRC disagree on their interpretation of that China. In practice, however, the aspect of the “two interpretations” of China is usually dropped, with there being emphasis only on that there is “One China”—this being the “One China principle.”

In regards to the decision of whether to attend the conference or not, Tsai faces calls not to denigrate Taiwan’s sovereignty in doing so. In the end, the incoming Tsai administration decided to attend the conference under observer status and under the name of “Chinese Taipei”, as in previous years. Thus, there was no change from previous years in Taiwan’s actions, apart from the mention of “One China principle” being a new event. Yet in this way, the hullaballoo about the invite is reflective of challenges faced by the Tsai administration regarding its intent to preserve the ROC framework, while still needing to distinguish itself from the pro-China policies of the Ma administration in order to prevent backlash.

Ma Ying-Jeou, for example, hailed the invite as a triumph of the “One China principle” in his foreign policy. But legislators from the DPP and KMT alike expressed criticism of the WHA invitation as a slight to Taiwanese sovereignty. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Bureau have also criticized the mention of “One China principle” as denigrating of Taiwan’s sovereignty and security. Security concerns have also been raised regarding the leak of news about the invitation. Even some KMT legislators protested the invitation, stressing that that the ROC’s interpretation of China was the Republic of China and not the PRC, but this was disregarded in the invitation.

Tsai signaled her intent to preserve the ROC framework and constitution in order to conduct cross-strait relations on that basis shortly after election, with reference to such in her victory speech. But this has seen criticism from civic groups and youth activists which supported Tsai during elections with the hope that she would take Taiwan in a direction away from the pro-China policies of the KMT and towards greater localization.

Yet, as we see in present events, it remains a challenge as to whether under the ROC framework, Taiwan would forever remain shackled to “One China” and this would be a means for China to inveigh upon Taiwanese sovereignty. This is far from an abstract matter of merely fussing over the official name of Taiwan along the lines of political correctness, but one with concrete effects upon the welfare of the Taiwanese people.

In the case of the WHO, Taiwan’s lack of member status has in the past led to slowdowns in securing sharing of data, sample viruses for the development of vaccines and treatment, expert assistance, or international aid during disease epidemics, as was quite visible during the 2003 SARS crisis despite Taiwan being one of the countries with the most cases of SARS. During the SARS crisis, for some time, Taiwan received no international aid from the WHO, aid only coming from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The handling of the 2003 SARS crisis led to calls for allowing Taiwan to join the WHO. But the “One China principle” rears its head to prevent Taiwan being allowed into the WHO and the “One China principle” will always remain so long as Taiwan is yoked to China through the Republic of China framework.

However, we’d do well to remember that the SARS crisis occurred during the Chen Shui-Bian presidency. Taiwan was only allowed to attend the WHA annual conference—and even then, only as an observer under the name of “Chinese Taipei”—after the election of Ma Ying-Jeou in 2009. Thus, we will see as to similar challenges regarding Taiwan’s exclusion from international bodies under the Tsai Ing-Wen presidency.

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