by Martin Boyle
Photo Credit: Thorkild Tylleskar/WikiCommons/CC
ON MAY 20TH, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party was re-inaugurated as President of the Republic of China. That’s “Taiwan” to you and me. In her address, she highlighted international praise for her country’s sovereignty, its democracy and its COVID-19 epidemic prevention work and drew attention to the fact that this had been the result of a concerted international media campaign.
She did not explicitly mention the core aim of that campaign, Taipei’s attempt to regain observer status at the WHO’s decision-making body, the WHA. This campaign had just ended catastrophically, having been successfully blocked by the People’s Republic of China. That’s China to you and me. At Beijing’s behest, almost the first thing the WHA had done on opening its two-day annual meeting on May 18th was to defer discussion of Taiwan’s application until later in the year.
Taipei had in fact dropped and deferred its bid the same day in favor of donating medical supplies around the world. It could be argued that this ostensibly unilateral action enabled Taiwan to gain the moral high ground (of which more later). Perhaps sensing the futility of its bid and possibly in consultation with other countries, though, Taiwan may have been attempting diplomatically to avoid being perceived as provoking China. After all, the vast majority of countries that had offered kind words to Taiwan did not seek to back those words up with full diplomatic recognition.
Meanwhile the US, having rewritten its Taiwan policy under Donald Trump and become embroiled in a diplomatic and trade war with China and the WHO, deliberately provoked Beijing by officially congratulating Tsai, whose country the US does not officially recognize. Trump’s May 19th broadside against the WHO, in which he demanded “they have to be much more fair to other countries”, was launched with Taiwan in mind. But the WHA’s actions left Trump and Taiwan isolated.
Cue frantic backtracking in more liberal sections of the Western media on what had threatened to become an embarrassing unholy alliance with Trump over Taiwan. The Guardian rapidly reported that Trump’s letter to the WHO had made unwarranted accusations against China, accusations that it had itself repeated over the previous fortnight. Sustained media support for Taiwan’s case then ceased.
On May 22nd, Beijing opened the 13th National People’s Congress on a high note, announcing that it had brought COVID-19 under control while the rest of the world was crippled by it. China had absorbed the over three percent growth hit that its economy had taken as a result of the epidemic and was on a roll. Premier Li Keqiang warned Taipei, reiterating Beijing’s resolute opposition to “separatist activities seeking ‘Taiwan independence’”, then held out an olive branch to encourage cross-strait détente.
Fresh from its victory at the WHA, Beijing could afford to be magnanimous. Beijing’s calm but relentless One China message, its Belt and Road initiative and international ambivalence around Trump’s message on China and the WHO had ensured the support of almost all UN member states. Any kudos and sympathy Taiwan had accrued from its vibrant civic democracy and its exemplary handling of COVID-19 evaporated as its most recent soft power operation appeared to have crashed and burned.
Then on May 29th, Donald Trump fueled the flames further by announcing that the US would be “terminating its relationship” with the WHO. Leaving aside the opposition of international health experts and House Democrats, Trump’s move threw Taipei’s whole argument, rationale and strategy into turmoil, leaving it in the lurch and exposing its reliance on the US. Taipei now faces a dilemma: continue to engage with the WHO or disengage and side with a Trump administration apparently intent on abandoning it. Taipei has already acknowledged its dilemma by combining enthusiasm for joining any rival health organization the US might set up with concern that such a body may not get international support and a long-term desire to re-engage with the WHO.
This recent diplomatic imbroglio has thrown into sharp relief what Taiwan is and how it seeks to present itself. In the run-up to the WHA, Taipei claimed that the world might learn from Taiwan’s success in responding to COVID-19, and framed this as a liberal appeal to expertise and fairness, adding:
“Taiwan is a responsible member of the global community with a democratically elected government and we do not believe that Beijing should be able to dictate the terms of our participation.”
China, Taipei had claimed, had demanded that Taiwan “accept Chinese status” as the price of WHA access. Yet, this is disingenuous. Taiwan is excluded from the WHA, not because it refuses to say it is part of “China”, but because it refuses diplomatically to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus of One China Respective Interpretations (OCRI), or the “One China Principle”. In other words, Taiwan’s attempt to re-enter the WHA is more about power politics than health.
Most recent commentary ignores this and crosses the line from analysing Taiwan’s potential contribution to global health to judging what constitutes “fairness” and more-or-less advocating for Taiwan’s formal independence in the face of alleged Chinese aggression. Yet, the English term “Taiwan Independence” is a misnomer that misunderstands the reality of Taiwan’s status in relation to China. It is a misconception that is repeated ad infinitum in the Western press.
In a recent book chapter, I argue that it is actually Taipei’s “Republic of China Independence”, or huadu, identity that secures its de facto independence as the “Republic of China (Taiwan)” . Huadu is the outcome of the democratization and Taiwanization of the former Chinese Nationalist, or Kuomintang (KMT), regime on Taiwan. It is encoded in the 1992 Consensus as OCRI. That is, the 1992 Consensus recognizes Taiwan’s appropriation of the ROC and forces Beijing tacitly to endorse a de facto independent Taiwan as long as it retains the shell of the ROC. These terms of reference make cross-Strait relations de facto international relations.
Although hardly ever uttered (except as a pejorative in domestic politics) huadu is endorsed by Taiwan’s elites, its electorate and by the international community as well. So, it achieves buy-in within and beyond Taiwan’s borders and mollifies Beijing while compelling it to accord Taipei de facto recognition. This phenomenon represents adherence to the cross-Strait status quo in contradistinction to “Taiwan Independence”.
Since 1992, Taipei has held that the ROC is not “China” in the sense that the PRC is “China” and that its authority is limited to the Taiwan Area while Beijing’s authority covers the mainland. The 1992 Consensus makes the ROC and Taiwan de facto the same thing and it was the basis of Taiwan’s rapprochement with China under the KMT between 2008 and 2016.
Yet, in 2016, Tsai’s incoming DPP administration refused to endorse the 1992 Consensus. This led Beijing to break off relations and subject Taiwan to a campaign of diplomatic isolation that left it on the ropes. COVID-19 came to Taiwan’s aid and the WHA and Trump’s beef with China and the WHO provided a potential escape from that isolation.
But if Taiwan seeks a more international profile and China has a veto on it, Taipei’s refusal of the 1992 Consensus while retaining the ROC framework presents a puzzle. The DPP refuses to endorse the 1992 Consensus, arguing first, that it is not a ‘consensus’ in the semantics of that word and, second, because the term was a post hoc articulation coined by the KMT foreign minister, Su Chi, in 2000.
Yet, both lines of reasoning are faulty. As far as the first is concerned, the Merriam-Webster dictionary [Taiwan’s English is American English] defines a consensus as (1a) a general agreement : unanimity; (1b) the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned; and (2) group solidarity in sentiment and belief. Thus, a group agreement to disagree is a consensus. Regardless of the dictionary definition, there is group solidarity in sentiment and belief on what “One China” does not mean. It does not mean two Chinas, Taiwan Independence as a Republic of Taiwan, unification, or that either polity has authority over the other. There is nothing to say that it cannot mean that the ROC and Taiwan are the same. Nor does it say that that one-and-the-same polity includes the PRC.
Semantic meanings are thus a dead end and it is OCRI’s implied meanings that matter. Yet, Taipei’s post-2016 stance has reverted to a strict legal understanding of the wording in the 1992 Consensus (which it claims not to recognize anyway) and to have ditched its earlier pragmatism regarding the wording which gave it leeway to interpret the ROC and Taiwan as being the same.
As far as the second line of reasoning is concerned, the fact that the term 1992 Consensus is a post-hoc articulation cannot invalidate it. After all, nobody denies that the horror of 228 happened simply because the term was not first uttered in February 1947. Furthermore, the textual content of the “Consensus” remains, and it is this content that matters, not semantic quibbling over what to call it.
The DPP stance is puzzling because Tsai was at the ROC’s National Security Council when Su Chi coined the term “Consensus”, Chen Shui-bian proposed discussing it as a basis for cross-Strait rapprochement. and it aligned with the DPP’s 1999 Resolution on Taiwan’s Future, which saw Taiwan as de facto independent under the name of the ROC. Yet now the wording is problematic not only for literal-minded deep-Greens but also for the administration. Is this because they perceive that Taipei’s identity has shifted so far from any possible meaning encoded there? Or is it because the convergence of US-China rivalry, the COVID-19 pandemic and the WHO presented an opportunity for Taiwan?
This brings us back to the recent brouhaha over the WHA. It is not clear under what name Taipei wanted to enter the WHA. However, Beijing suggested Chinese Taipei, Taiwan’s name at the Olympics, its bracketed name at the WTO and the name it used at the WHA before 2016. None of the attendees at these fora genuinely believes Taiwan is China because of that name. Everyone involved understands the game being played. If Beijing had genuinely considered Taiwan to be part of the PRC, then it might have demanded that Taipei attend as part of Beijing’s delegation.
Taipei cannot have its Republic of China (Taiwan) cake and eat it. Either it accepts its pragmatic encoding in the 1992 Consensus, or it reverts to dictionary definitions by attempting to distinguish the ROC from Taiwan so that it can enter the WHA as Taiwan. Apart from being a non-starter for Beijing, this would entail Taipei denying its own governing authority over Taiwan. It does not take long to see a contradiction as far as Taipei’s status is concerned.
Is WHA observer status about Taiwan’s contribution to COVID-19 or getting international space as Taiwan? If it is the former, then governments are able to engage with Taiwan outside of the WHO, so access is unnecessary. If fighting COVID-19 were more important than recognition as a state then Taiwan might have swallowed its pride and acceded to the 1992 Consensus. If it is about getting more space, then the same argument applies. The WHO is a forum where power politics prevail and you cannot play, let alone win, a game unless you are in it.
It could be argued that there is another way in which Taipei is playing politics though. If Taipei refuses to accede to the 1992 Consensus and use the previously agreed nomenclature, thus remaining excluded when the WHA reconsiders its case later this year, it can persuade the world that it is a victim. Taipei appears to be winning through with this message, although it has certainly been given a boost by an incompetent WHO.
Taiwan effectively contained COVID-19 and is also a well-functioning liberal democracy. As such, it is categorically different to China. At the same time, though, perhaps Taipei has identified the waning of the liberal international order, even as it continues to invoke it. This might explain its recent WHA stance as an ambivalent appeal to nationalism in the context of COVID-19 permitting a renewed role for states within international institutions. The Trump administration’s recent actions certainly represent a retreat from the multilateralism that Taipei traditionally invokes and that Taipei might seek to go along with such actions potentially puts it on the back foot in terms of its legitimacy.
In 2016, Tsai Ing-wen drew Beijing’s ire by accepting an official phone call from Trump. Since then, Trump has made provocative statements about promoting Taiwan’s “meaningful participation”. In March 2020, the US enacted the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act to support Taiwan’s international presence. Mike Pompeo said the State Department would “do its best to assist” Taiwan’s “appropriate role” in the WHO. As with OCRI, “appropriate role” is open to “respective interpretations”. But some of America’s allies, with only a passing understanding of Taiwan’s political status, took this to mean that “Taiwan” should be allowed into the WHA regardless.
The WHO certainly has a case to answer with regard to China. First, there is evidence that in late January it took China’s COVID-19 data at face value and, despite internal political misgivings, fawningly praised China for its commitment and transparency. Second the May 18th WHA resolution asks the WHO to work to identify the source of COVID-19 and resolve potential intellectual property rights issues around any new vaccine. China pledged support. However, it is unclear how far that support is in response to damage to its image and whether the WHO will be able to work unhindered with Chinese agencies in Wuhan to locate “patient zero”. For the WHO to retain legitimacy, it needs to be able to work credibly with its member states, especially China. Taiwan’s exclusion in-and-of-itself however does not directly impact the WHO’s credibility if the WHO and China can sort out the two issues above. Beijing does not need to justify Taiwan’s exclusion on any grounds other than its de jure non-statehood.
Beijing fears allowing Taipei to enter the WHA without acceding to the 1992 Consensus and under a name other than Chinese Taipei, would legitimize a Taiwanese status that violates the cross-Strait status quo potentially leading to a declaration of “Taiwan Independence”—something that huadu positions and the ROC (Taiwan) avert. This in turn would threaten the framework of US-China agreements on Taiwan’s status, jeopardizing cross-Strait peace by presenting a security threat to China.
If Taiwan seeks to contribute to global health through the WHO and to gain international space by doing so, it could do this in ways that do not threaten China and alienate potential allies. It might recognize some of the principles of the power politics it seeks to exploit. It may be morally right for Taiwan to be at the WHA, but there can be unintended and negative moral consequences to political action.
Invoking liberal norms while free-riding on the US to balance China just as those norms are being challenged by the US itself is risky. There is evidence that Trump is engaged in scapegoating China and seeks to divert attention from his own mishandling of COVID-19 with his own re-election in mind. Trump himself is notoriously fickle and prone to grandstanding as a dealmaker, and it is likely that he is engaged in an extended game of “chicken” with China, using Taiwan as a pawn. The long-term costs to Taiwan of backing Trump in a COVID-19/WHO confrontation with China are potentially high if Trump decides to back down or, as is more likely, his threats become bogged down in legislative horse-trading or simply a hostage to fortune in the event of a change in administration in Washington. In other words, the US is not leaving the WHO any time soon.
American president Donald Trump and other members of his administration. Photo credit: White House/Public Domain
As US policy shows, there is no necessary link between a state’s claim to moral rightness and universal morality. “America First” ought to provide a clue to Taipei’s policymakers to how Trump sees Taiwan. That does not mean that China has Taiwan’s best interests at heart, but Taiwan’s own self-interest might offer another way to save it from being left high and dry. Through prudence and statecraft, Taipei might find a way to make trade-offs to live with China, but this entails talking to China, not just the US. It also entails resisting the urge to believe that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. As a canny actor, Taipei ought to be aware of the “tensions and fissures” in the 1992 Consensus and manipulate OCRI to secure its sovereignty and remake its international identity. After all, Taipei’s diplomats have had plenty of experience of doing this over the years.