A Relentless Quest for Breathing Space
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
May 12, 2011
The World Health Organization recently sent a private message to its member states. President Ma Ying-jeou held a press conference, loudly protesting its contents. He criticized Beijing, using uncommonly harsh language. President Ma's anger echoed public sentiment on Taiwan. Beijing has recently made a number of concessions to Taipei, including allowing it to attend the WHO conference. But the goodwill gained by this gesture has probably taken a serious hit.
Since President Ma took office, he has made a concerted effort to promote cross-Strait reconciliation. An implicit "diplomatic truce" is now in place. The two sides no longer try to lure away each other's allies. They no longer engage in a tug of war within international organizations. They no longer engage in checkbook diplomacy. Beijing sought to demonstrate its understanding of public opinion on Taiwan. It allowed Taipei to enjoy observer status at the World Health Assembly, under the name "Chinese Taipei." Our own Director of Health, who led the delegation, was addressed as "Minister," and was allowed to address the General Assembly. From Taipei's perspective, these were extremely encouraging developments. They were the Ma administration's most significant diplomatic achievement.
Given this positive precedent, the government hoped to strengthen contacts and exchanges with other member states. It hoped to replicate this model in other organizations. It hoped to participate in the International Civil Aviation Organization and the United Nations Climate Change Convention, also as an observer. It had already gained the support of the U.S. Congress and State Department. Taipei was all set to return to the world stage. The World Health Assembly was an important starting point.
But the leaked WHO documents show that Beijing's generosity toward Taipei remains limited. Basically, Beijing has no intention of giving way. The September 2009 letter, sent to member states by the WHO Secretariat read, "WHO Administrative Regulations pertaining to China's Taiwan Province." It specified that if WHO member states receive documents from Taipei, they should not contact Taipei directly, but should contact the WHO Secretariat. It specified that all WHO documents should use the term, "China's Taiwan Province." All information relating to Taiwan must be classified under "China." Taiwan must not be considered a separate state.
In terms of international law, the WHO is one of the UN's subsidiary organizations. Therefore its China policy must adhere to the position of the United Nations. This is no surprise. The United Nations recognizes the People's Republic of China as the sole legitimate representative of China, and Taiwan as part of China. But after Beijing's demonstration of goodwill, the WHO granted Taipei a number of concessions that transcend the United Nation's principles of recognition and acceptance. For example, it invited Taipei to its annual meeting. It allowed Taipei to use the name "Chinese Taipei." It did not classify the Taipei delegation as part of the Beijing delegation. It allowed Taipei's representatives to be addressed as "ministers." These could be seen as "exceptions." But they could also be seen as "precedents."
Judging from the contents of the letter, Beijing granted Taipei much face, but little substance. It refused to allow Taipei's attendance at the WHA become a precedent. It stipulated that Taipei's attendence was a "temporary exception" limited to the General Assembly session. It stipulated that no change whatsoever was allowed regarding the WHO's position on Taiwan per se. It hoped that member states would not misunderstand. It forbade member states from direct contacts and exchanges with Taipei.
Put more directly, Taipei hoped to take advantage of the WHO General Assembly model. It hoped to increase its participation in the international community. It hoped to actively develop relations with other countries, and gain greater support and sympathy. But Beijing is unwilling to see Taipei use such opportunities to become ever closer with other nations, and perhaps even breaking out of its isolation. Therefore it wants to prevent exchanges between other member states and Taipei. It has the same attitudes, and uses the same methods it did in the past, when it maintained a diplomatic blockade.
But the Secretary-General of WHO has no power to regulate the behavior of member states. Will member states play along? That remains to be seen. Taipei seeks international breathing space. It must rely on its own efforts, on its own strength. Taipei is an integral part of the global health system. It cooperates with the nations of the world in medical treatment, disease prevention, and health maintenance. Before Director of Health Chiu Wen-ta attended the WHO General Assembly in Geneva, he first visited the UK. Our own national health and disease control agencies also remain in close communication with other nations. The WHO missive may interfere with Taipei's efforts to communicate and cooperate with other nations. But it will never make us shrink or despair.
The two sides of the Strait have fundamental disputes over sovereignty. Exchanges allow the two sides to seek common ground, But when reconciliation reaches a certain stage, it will inevitably reveal contradictions over key issues. As Beijing sees it, allowing Taipei to attend the WHA was a major concession. If Taipei wants even more, it may need to offer something more substantial in exchange. These bargaining chips are in Beijing's hands. It is not about to relinquish them willingly. That may depend on political developments on Taiwan
As Taipei sees it, this adverse international situation is not surprising. We are not unduly naive. We do not engage in wishful thinking, We now have an opportunity to attend the WHA. Taipei must cherish this rare opportunity. We must not forsake it lightly. Our survival and dignity require strength and wisdom. Cross-Strait relations may be moving in a more positive direction. But we still need more international breathing space.