The World Health Assembly (WHA), the executive body of the World Health Organization (WHO), will convene on May 23-28 in Geneva. While member states have received invitations to participate in this year’s WHA, the only assurance Taiwan has received from the WHO Secretariat is that “internal operations were ongoing.”
Why is the invitation letter from WHO of any significance to Taiwan? Well, over the past twenty years, the Republic of China (Taiwan) has been seeking to rejoin the WHO and WHA. But it was not until 2009—following Mr. Ma Ying-jeou’s electoral victory and the rapid warming of cross-strait relations—that goodwill from the mainland China or People’s Republic of China (PRC) enabled ROC to participate in the WHA as an observer under the title “Chinese Taipei.” Because it was the first time since its withdrawal from the United Nations (UN) in 1971 that ROC formally participated in a UN organization, this move was viewed as a milestone in cross-strait relations, as well as Taiwan’s quest for international space.
Maybe it is still too early for Taiwan to be seriously concerned about its WHA participation this year—in the past, an official invitation to WHA could arrive as late as May. Still, amidst the uncertainties surrounding the cross-strait relations after Mame. Tsai Ing-wen’s successful bid for the presidency in January, few would remain optimistic that Taiwan’s continuous participation in WHA is a matter of course. In a recent meeting with a delegation of the Council on Foreign Relations, Minister Andrew Hsia of the Mainland Affairs Council (the agency charged with PRC relations) pointed out a slew of developments since mid-March that had made his job even more daunting. On March 17, China resumed diplomatic ties with Gambia, a former Taiwan ally, ending an unofficial “diplomatic truce” that had suspended PRC’s efforts to poach Taiwan’s twenty-three diplomatic allies. This was followed by its rejection of Taiwan’s bid to become a founding member of the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. On April 11, news broke that eight Taiwanese involved in a telecom fraud in Kenya (which does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan) were deported to PRC, rather than their homeland. One week later, ROC representatives were expelled from a high-level international steel symposium held in Brussels under alleged pressure from Beijing. These developments, including the delayed invitation from the WHO, are viewed widely in Taipei as signs of Beijing’s hardening stance on Taiwan. In the eyes of many watchers of cross-strait relations, they are warnings aimed at putting pressure on President-elect Tsai to stick to the so-called “1992 Consensus,” which insists that both Taiwan and mainland China are inalienable parts of a single “China.”
Whether or not that insinuation tactic will work remains to be seen, but one thing is clear— it will undermine President Ma’s greatest legacy in cross-strait relations. When receiving the Council on Foreign Relations delegation on April 12, President Ma spent much of the time talking about his accomplishments in promoting cross-strait peace and stability over the past eight years. Tightening the diplomatic screws on Taiwan while Ma is still in office has not only shown how fragile cross-strait relations are, but has also done a disservice to Ma’s efforts to defend his record in handling cross-strait relations. It may further alienate the Taiwan public when support for an independent Taiwanese identity is at an all-time high. According to a 2015 poll, 90 percent of respondents would identify themselves as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese” if they were to choose between the two. As PRC ramps up pressure on ROC, a growing sense of victimhood in Taiwan may further narrow Tsai’s space for political maneuver, encouraging her to jettison Ma’s policy on cross-strait relations and actively quest for Taiwan international space, even though she may still prefer to sustain the existing constitutional order. Already, Tsai has indicated that her administration would reassess the agreements Ma’s administration had reached with the mainland. To many leaders of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), PRC did not really give up much when Taiwan was granted observer status in WHA. As early as 2005, China signed a memo with the WHO Secretariat purportedly stipulating that all exchanges between Taiwan and the WHO have to be approved by Beijing. As chairwoman of the opposition DPP, Tsai then lambasted Ma’s decision to participate in WHA under “Chinese Taipei,” saying that while Taiwan was able to maintain its sovereign status when negotiating the joining of APEC, Asian Development Bank, and the World Trade Organization, Ma had paid too high a price in Taiwan’s sovereignty for a dubious gain in WHA participation. The observer status in WHA, she contended, was no different from an NGO affiliated with PRC.
To be sure, if diplomatic activism were to be rekindled by either side, China’s economic clout and international prestige would make Taiwan’s efforts to keep any of its remaining twenty-two diplomatic allies (not to mention winning over even one from China) an uphill battle. The so-called diplomatic truce hinges more upon goodwill from PRC; in game theoretical terms, the truce is unstable and unsustainable because it is not a Nash equilibrium in which no player has anything to gain by deviating from the existing strategy.
Still, by playing “tit for tat,” ROC can cause more diplomatic trouble to PRC. It could take advantage of the growing international sympathy to beef up its soft power, which happens to be China’s Achilles heel despite the latter’s near one decade’s worth of tremendous investment in this area. It may also lobby for more active participation in international organizations where universality is critical to their effectiveness. Indeed, the need to include every country (region) to forge a seamless global framework against transborder spread of acute disease outbreaks means that states will have to cede sovereignty to a certain extent in specific cases in order to ensure the adequate provision of health security as a global public good.
Taiwan’s odds are pretty good at a time when Washington is disappointed with the lack of reciprocity from China in bilateral relations. Last month, President Obama signed a bill supporting Taiwan’s observer status in the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol). In that sense, it would be diplomatically more productive for PRC to map out a strategy on how to use the WHA model as a template in preparing for ROC’s future access to other global bodies rather than use its gatekeeper status in Taiwan’s WHA participation to marginalize Taiwan in global diplomacy. The effectiveness and replicability of the model, though, depend on whether leaders on both sides can agree upon a new political formula as flexible as the 1992 Consensus to anchor the future cross-strait dynamics.