Sovereignty Concerns in Taiwan, After China Okays Its Attendance at World Health Gathering

By Patrick Goodenough | April 30, 2009 | 6:24 AM EDT

Sitting below a portrait of Taiwan’s founding father, Sun Yat-sen, President Ma Ying-jeou said Thursday that being an observer at the World Health Assembly next month will help the island prepare for the possible flu outbreak. (AP Photo)

( – The U.S. has joined Taiwan in welcoming China’s decision to okay observer status for the island democracy at this year’s World Health Organization (WHO) session, but some Taiwanese remain wary.
Coming amid swine flu pandemic fears, Beijing’s move will allow Taiwan to participate in a meeting of a specialized United Nations agency for the first time since it lost the “China” seat at the U.N. to the communist mainland government in 1971.
Since 1997, Taiwan has every year campaigned for admission to the World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s supreme decision-making body which meets in Geneva for two weeks each May. China, which despite Taiwan’s de facto independence views it as a renegade province, has frustrated each attempt.
Taiwanese leaders say China’s stance is not just politically symbolic but has cost lives during health crises such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.
As a non-member, Taiwan was unable to call on WHO experts during crises, or to send health professionals to meetings on the latest technologies in diagnosing, monitoring, and controlling disease, according to officials in Taipei.
Now, China has given approval for the WHO to invite Taiwan to attend the WHA, although solely as an observer. It must do so under the name “Chinese Taipei,” a label tolerated by Beijing because it complies with its stance that the island is part of “one China.”

President Ma Ying-jeou said Thursday the decision would help Taiwan to face a possible flu outbreak because it would now “be able to get information and resources” from the U.N. body.
Earlier, Ma characterized the development as a “friendly gesture” by Beijing and a victory for his year-old Nationalist (KMT) administration’s policy of improving ties with mainland China – a policy his supporters call pragmatic and his pro-independence opponents view as appeasement.
Ma also thanked the U.S., Japan and other countries that have supported Taiwan’s WHO campaigns over the years.
“Participation in the activities of the WHO is not merely a political issue,” he told administration officials at the presidential office. “More importantly, it is a human rights issue, and the health and medical rights of Taiwan’s 23 million people should not get overlooked.”
Welcoming the decision, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the U.S. looked forward to Taiwan’s participation at the annual session, “and the benefits Taiwan’s public health expertise will bring to the international community.”
Taiwanese foreign ministry officials at a press briefing declined to reveal the details of negotiations leading up to China’s decision, but Vice Foreign Minister Andrew Hsia denied there was any “secret arrangement or hidden agenda,” local media reported.
There are unanswered questions, however, including whether China has okayed Taiwan’s participation as a one-off or on an open-ended basis. The WHO invitation received this week refers only to the 2009 session. The agency has not yet responded to media queries.
As an observer, Taiwan’s delegation will have the same status long enjoyed at the WHA by the Red Cross and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Observers may speak, but do not have voting rights at the assembly.
Health Minister Yeh Ching-chuan said it would enable Taiwan to exchange information with the WHO on disease control and prevention, in the interests of the health and safety of the people of Taiwan.
China’s Xinhua news agency quoted a Beijing health ministry spokesman as saying the decision “shows our goodwill to achieve practical benefits for Taiwan people.”
‘What was traded?’
Despite having campaigned hard while in government for WHO membership or observer status, Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) reacted cautiously.
The DPP, whose leaning towards formal independence caused tensions with China under Ma’s DPP predecessor, said it remained unclear what lay behind China’s shift.
“We do not yet know what was traded to gain this invitation,” DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen told reporters, expressing concern that the KMT government had, under the cover of concerns about the new flu strain, abandoned principles of sovereignty.
She noted that the letter received from the WHO “appears to be a one-time invitation,” and pointed out that there was also no reference to a controversial memorandum of understanding, reached between Beijing and the WHO in 2005, under which all WHO contacts with Taiwan have to go through the mainland government.
China that year sought to undercut Taiwan’s annual WHO bid and to fend off allegations of “health apartheid” by quietly reaching an agreement with the WHO that would allow the health agency to send experts to Taiwan in a health emergency.
Few details of the agreement were made public, but Beijing touted it as proof that it was taking the health needs of Taiwanese seriously. The government in Taipei rejected the move, however, saying it amounted to the WHO granting China the authority to make crucial health decisions on Taiwan’s behalf.
According to DPP spokesman Cheng Wen-tsan, the party wants the 2005 agreement to be revoked, and says its participation at the WHA should be based not on China’s whim but on a formal WHO resolution permitting it to participate every year – as do other observers – without requiring tacit acceptance of the “one China” principle.
Grappling with crises alone
WHO’s invitation to Taiwan comes at a time when governments around the world are bracing for the possibility of a flu pandemic after the emergence in Mexico of a new hybrid flu strain.
Although no cases have yet been reported in the region, that could quickly change with suspected cases identified in Hong Kong and South Korea.
During previous health crises, Taiwanese officials say China’s stance on the WHO issue has had a severe impact on the island, which has a larger population than 75 percent of U.N. member states.
During the SARS outbreak – which originated in China and then spread to Taiwan and almost 30 other countries – Taiwan grappled with the disease alone for two months before Beijing agreed for the WHO to send experts to the island to help. More than 70 Taiwanese died.
The Taiwan Medical Association says that when Taiwan suffered an enterovirus outbreak in 1998, 78 children died unnecessarily because the island had to fight the infection alone.
After Taiwan in 1999 suffered an earthquake that cost more than 2,300 lives, China’s insistence that Red Cross aid be channeled through the mainland delayed humanitarian assistance.
Taiwan’s WHO bids over the years have received strong, bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow