INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Ian H. McDougallNews Weekly
Taiwan's WHO entry breakthrough
, May 16, 2009
For over 20 years, Taiwan has been prevented from China from gaining membership of the World Health Organisation. Ian H. McDougall reports.Swine flu - be it a journalistic beat-up or potential disaster - shows the dangers for the world of a gap in its defences against a major pandemic. That gap was Taiwan, and now the gap has been filled.
For over 20 years, Taiwan has been attempting to gain membership of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Now, Taiwan has succeeded in gaining observer status at the World Health Assembly, the policy-making body for the WHO.
Previously, Taiwan has been defeated by the intransigent opposition of the People's Republic of China. While China has only one vote in the WHO, it carries such weight, especially among its client states, that its opposition amounted to an effective veto to Taiwan's bid to gain entry to the world's premier public health institution.
What brought about China's change of heart? For one thing, Taiwan has entered the WHO as Chinese Taipei, a formula Taiwan uses in other international organisations, such as the Olympic movement. Taiwan is still officially known as the Republic of China, but it was never likely to enter the WHO under this title.
The PRC is intransigent in its policy that there is only one China and that its capital is Beijing. The PRC demands that any nation that recognises Taipei break ties immediately with Beijing.
Similarly, Taipei severs ties with any nation that recognises Beijing. Taipei now has formal ties with only 23 nations, which, apart from the Vatican, are small impoverished countries mainly in the Pacific and Central America. Thus it was something of a back-down for Taiwan to use the "Chinese Taipei" formula to enter the WHO, but it was a price the authorities in Taipei considered worth paying.
Second, the WHO has an established observer status category, which allows organisations such as the Red Cross and the Palestinians to join in the deliberations of the WHO. As these are non-state actors, the clear implication is that Taiwan is an established organisation but not a state, a proposition that buttresses Beijing's own policy with regard to Taiwan in other international organisations.
Also, Beijing has been pursuing a policy of accommodation with the relatively new administration of President Ma Ying-jeou. Ma, a Harvard-educated lawyer, has shown himself to be a pragmatist in dealing with the emerging great power across the Taiwan Strait.
The former president, Chen Shui-bian, is now in detention on corruption charges. Chen followed a pro-independence policy. Apart from putting as many obstacles as he could in the way of development of cross-Taiwan Strait relations, however, his policies were richer in symbolism than substance.
For example, the foreign trade development body, the China External Trade Development Council, better known as CETRA, substituted "Taiwan" in its title, becoming TAITRA, a change arguably long overdue. Passports for the Republic of China had the word "Taiwan" added to the front cover. These symbolic acts riled the power across the water, but apart from some sabre-rattling, Beijing showed itself to be more at ease with Chen than with his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui.
Chen also fostered the pro-independence Taipei Times
, a new English-language daily newspaper launched to support his administration. Although the allegations against him remain unproven, many in the independent media asserted that Chen supported the Taipei Times
Taiwan has been autonomous and self-governing since the Republic of China government, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, retreated to Taipei in 1949 after Mao's Communists took power in Beijing. The one thing Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang and China's Communist Party agree on is that there is one China and that it is indivisible. That being said, the Ma administration can't turn back the hands of time.
Chen built the idea of a separate Taiwan identity into a concept accepted by the majority of Taiwan's population. Reunification, in the sense that Beijing will rule Taiwan and extinguish an independent government in Taipei, would not be acceptable to the people of Taiwan.
The strong pro-independence element, known as the "deep greens", is already enraged by the moves to further integrate the economies of Taiwan and mainland China. The "deep green" element is probably only about 15 per cent of the population, but what they lack in numbers is compensated for by the vehemence of their opposition to closer cross-Strait ties.One step
Taipei has long been seeking more international diplomatic space and is likely to view WHO entry as a step along the long road to observer status at the United Nations.
Beijing has demonstrated it can be flexible and has shown it understands the anxieties of the people of Taiwan in the face of a potential flu pandemic. The SARS epidemic, which claimed scores of lives in Taiwan, is still fresh in the public memory.
Taiwan is now in the international public health loop, which Beijing hopes will reassure the people of Taiwan of China's good intentions.- Ian H. McDougall.