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A nation must think before it acts.
On May 24, the World Health Assembly began its annual meeting, again focusing on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And again, for the fifth straight year, Taiwan has been excluded from participating as an observer despite significant international support. Last year, Taiwan made a good case for its participation due to its successful early efforts to contain the spread of the virus. Taiwan was one of the first countries to have COVID-19 reach its borders after the outbreak in China, and up until May 2021, Taipei had managed to prevent mass community spread throughout its population. Now, the country is facing its worst outbreak over one year into the pandemic.
The issue of Taiwan’s exclusion from international organizations has received greater attention over the last few years due to a general increase in awareness of less-than-savory actions by Beijing and Taiwan’s generally stellar COVID response. Since last year, those two particular issues collided with the WHA’s exclusion of Taiwan because Beijing used its political and economic heft to force Taiwan’s continued absence. Beijing’s political pressure has the potential to backfire as other countries around the globe pay more attention to such actions.
Every year, for the last five years, observers, analysts, policymakers, and government officials have had the same conversation about why Taiwan should not be excluded from having a seat at the WHA. The general logic—before COVID—was that health and disease know no boundaries and excluding one country based on its relationship with another was dangerous for the entire world. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and proved that point, except Taiwan continued to be left out.
As long as President Tsai Ing-wen is in office, it is clear that Beijing will exert whatever pressure is required to keep Taiwan excluded from the international arena. That pressure is not limited to the WHA and includes attempting to poach Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies. Most recently, Beijing has tried to poach Paraguay and Honduras with the lure of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines. Given that Taiwan cannot realistically expect this pattern to change in the near future, what is the path forward for its international participation? Can Taipei use Beijing’s political pressure to its advantage by expanding its presence in other venues?
As in past years, Taiwan and its diplomatic allies and partners launched a public relations campaign demonstrating the importance of Taiwan’s inclusion at the WHA, with the hope that public pressure would be enough to surmount Beijing’s block. Last year, Taiwan launched its #TaiwanCanHelp campaign in which it shared its COVID-19 containment best practices and donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to countries in need. If Taiwan could help countries facing PPE shortages, then it would be able to help even more countries and people with the large platform that is the WHA.
This year, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an international group of legislators focused on China issues, launched the #LetTaiwanHelp campaign, a play on Taiwan’s own campaign: Taiwan can—and did—help despite its WHA exclusion, so now it’s time to let the country help. The campaign launch included individuals from 12 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Australia, and Canada, among others. Foreign diplomats stationed in Taiwan also expressed their support, and Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies also used their platforms to try to help the effort inside the WHA.
The United States took the campaign even further, beyond members of Congress expressing support. The Biden administration participated in the #LetTaiwanHelp campaign, with Secretary of State Tony Blinken releasing a statement calling for Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHA. His statement said, “There is no reasonable justification for Taiwan’s continued exclusion from this forum, and the United States calls upon the WHO Director-General to invite Taiwan to participate as an observer at the WHA – as it has in previous years, prior to objections registered by the government of the People’s Republic of China.” The State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs’ Twitter account posted a series of tweets calling for Taiwan’s inclusion as well. On May 20, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra held a virtual meeting with Taiwan’s Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung, in which Becerra expressed his support for Taiwan’s inclusion at the WHA and Chen pressed Becerra on access to American vaccines for Taiwan.
Despite the international support and renewed campaign for Taiwan’s inclusion at the 2021 WHA, Taiwan was “shut out of #WHA74 & can’t fully contribute to achieving #HealthForAll.”
Given Taiwan and the greater international community’s failure to get Taiwan a seat at the WHA, the next step is to examine how to move forward. Considering that some of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) top funders have supported Taiwan’s inclusion to no avail, it might be time for a policy recalibration. For the 2018-19 biennium, China was the WHO’s 15th largest funder, providing slightly more money than Canada and Sweden, but less than Norway and Kuwait. Despite not being in the top ten of funders, China has exerted undue influence over the WHO/WHA when it comes to Taiwan’s inclusion. The United States was the organization’s top funder, but that has not translated into success for its campaign to get Taiwan back in.
Beijing’s political pressure demonstrates a weird win-lose dynamic for Taiwan, China, and international organizations. In this respect, China “wins” by keeping Taiwan out, and Taiwan “loses” by being excluded. However, China “loses” by showcasing its bullying tactics to the world, and the WHA “loses” by excluding Taiwan and demonstrating the power that Beijing has over it despite international calls for Taiwan’s inclusion. And Taiwan “wins” by gaining international sympathy. These yearly WHA sagas are pyrrhic victories for China since Beijing achieves its political goal of keeping Taiwan out but at the cost of exposing deeper hypocrisy. Taiwan’s exclusion doesn’t really help anyone, especially during a pandemic.
It may be time for Taipei to decide that these yearly battles are not worth the effort. It is clear that the next time that Taiwan can hope for a chance at inclusion is whenever the opposition Kuomintang returns to power. However, given the potential for policy changes within the KMT due to a changed cross-Strait and international environment as well as changes and hardening in domestic opinion on China, the next KMT administration could find itself on the outs as well. The ongoing debate within the KMT about the “1992 Consensus” and the party’s future cross-Strait platform has the potential to anger Beijing, which could result in the same outcome as President Tsai’s refusal to “accept” the 1992 Consensus: no room for compromise on international participation. The KMT’s Twitter account placed equal blame on Beijing and Tsai for the WHA exclusion: “Giving in to Beijing’s harmful demands is folly, and @iingwen’s refusal to even talk to them is just as detrimental.” However, the KMT should be careful about quickly placing blame on Tsai because if the KMT’s future candidate wins the presidency in 2024, that individual and the party may learn that Beijing no longer desires to debate the meaning of the 1992 Consensus and demand acceptance of the Chinese “definition,” or face similar treatment. There are no guarantees that Taiwan can regain its footing in international organizations after 2024. The current situation could very well be a new normal.
Taipei’s putting less emphasis on inclusion at the WHA would reduce Beijing’s “victory.” Time and resources could be better spent more fully engaging with countries on the bilateral or multilateral level. This is not to say that Taiwan should abandon all of its efforts of more fully engaging the international community through the United Nations and its affiliated organizations, but after five years of the same story, it is clear that Beijing has successfully placed a roadblock at Taiwan’s chances of expanding its presence in these organizations. Beijing would have a harder time exerting pressure on countries when Taiwan seeks to engage at the bilateral level or through its Global Cooperation and Training Framework workshops. Especially considering growing international discontent with Chinese government officials’ behavior and intimidation of foreign governments, trying to exert greater pressure on countries’ legislators or heads of state would not go over well. The European Union recently voted overwhelmingly to freeze the ratification of a trade deal with China over the latter’s sanctioning of European Members of Parliament. Countries around the world are waking up and responding to these aggressive tactics, and Taiwan’s consistent and very public exclusion from the WHA further amplifies this point. Now, whenever Beijing exerts political pressure to force Taiwan’s exclusion from an international organization or meeting (not just limited to the WHA), it makes headlines and receives even more international backlash.
Given the likelihood that public health will continue to take center stage in non-United Nations-affiliated international fora, Taiwan should be able to find other openings to enhance its international cooperation efforts. When it comes to the UN, Taiwan may be better off embracing an “if you can’t join ‘em, circumvent ‘em” approach. Enhancing cooperation through the Quad would provide Taiwan with more opportunities with India, Japan, Australia, and the United States. Participating in President Joseph Biden’s planned Summit of Democracies could also provide new avenues if the summit formalizes itself into some sort of non-UN grouping. The Biden administration and a democracy-focused group would be hard-pressed to keep Taiwan out due to Chinese political pressure. With recent statements by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their respective summits with President Biden including concern about security in the Taiwan Strait, Taipei should also work to enhance and expand its bilateral—and potentially trilateral—relationship with Tokyo and Seoul. These three countries have been at the forefront of Chinese economic, political, and military coercion over the last several years. There is potentially a role for Taiwan in reducing tensions between South Korea and Japan over historical issues related to colonization and World War II since like Korea, Taiwan was a Japanese colony. These options are only a few potential opportunities that Taiwan should pursue in the face of its recent defeat with the WHA.
Taiwan’s short-term loss at the WHA could become a longer-term victory. It may be missing on important briefings this week, but the story of Taiwan’s exclusion and Beijing’s political pressure is out in the open. Taiwan may find more opportunities to work around China than ever before—as long as countries stand up and work with Taiwan in the face of Chinese pressure.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.