The 'Chinese Taipei' WHA Controversy: Time to Think Strategically

Photo Credit: 林昶佐 Freddy Lim
Why you need to know

President Tsai has been heavily criticized by the green camp for ‘failing’ to uphold the nation’s ‘dignity’ at this year’s WHA meeting in Switzerland. In reality, Taiwan’s participation was a small victory.

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The political storm that continues to rage over Minister of Health and Welfare Lin Tzou-yien’s (林奏延) “Chinese Taipei” remarks during his address at the World Health Assembly in Geneva last week highlights a longstanding difficulty among many members of the green camp to differentiate between tactical and strategic approaches to defending Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Anger over Lin’s use of a formulation that is self-abasing is certainly justified. After all, the notion that “Chinese Taipei” could have 23 million citizens, or that it stands for an entire nation, is indeed preposterous. Moreover, the fact that he did not once mention the word “Taiwan” in his five-minute speech has drawn accusations that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who was just a few days on the job, had failed to uphold Taiwan’s sovereignty and denigrated the nation by playing into Beijing’s hands.

According to the critics (let’s ignore the KMT legislators who are playing crass politics), Ms. Tsai wasted her four-month transition period, during which she should have ensured that Taiwan participated at the WHA under a “proper,” self-respecting designation.

The blow to Taiwan’s pride notwithstanding, the ramifications are not entirely troubling, provided we approach the whole affair from a more strategic viewpoint. No doubt from a purely tactical perspective, Taiwan’s participation at the WHA this year may seem like a step backward, especially in the context of Tsai’s resounding victory in the January elections and the current political environment in Taiwan. Given the mood in Taiwan, it was not unreasonable to expect that Minister Lin would be more emphatic in how he referred to the country he represented.

What many of Tsai and Lin’s critics probably don’t know is how close Taiwan came to not being invited to attend the WHA meeting, and how much work went on behind the scenes to ensure that it did. Contrary to what has been said, Tsai did not waste her four months. In reality, officials from her incoming administration worked very closely with the outgoing Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) government—then-minister of foreign affairs David Lin (林永樂) and minister of health and welfare Chiang Been-huang (蔣丙煌) among them—as well as foreign allies to secure Taiwan’s participation in a time of greater assertiveness by Beijing. That Taiwan was able to participate this year was in itself a small victory, and the Ma administration, which was still in charge during the backroom negotiations, should be commended for the role it played in all this, as it could very well have decided to sabotage the Tsai administration’s efforts.

Like her predecessor, President Tsai also understands that she has to be pragmatic. In this case, this means agreeing, whenever the situation warrants it, to dance—one step back, two steps forwards—with Beijing. Ultimately, what matters is that Taiwan can participate at international events by “showing the flag.” And once its officials are in, there is very little Beijing can do to prevent them making useful contacts and engaging in substantial dialogue with groups and people who can help Taiwan. This year’s entry ticket to the WHA compelled Taiwan to avoid unnecessary symbolism that could have derailed the whole thing and to allay the fears of a hugely skeptical Beijing. By playing it safe, Minister Lin was able to politely shake hands with his Chinese counterpart and to subsequently focus on establishing connections with the international health community. We can be certain that in his exchanges on the sidelines of the WHA, Minister Lin did not debase himself with that “Chinese Taipei” silliness; his interlocutors knew exactly whom they were interacting with.

Would Tsai’s critics prefer she had traded substance for symbol by insisting on Taiwan’s participation under a proper name, which almost certainly would have made it impossible for the Taiwanese delegation to attend the WHA?

The international community is perfectly aware of Taiwan’s predicament and it, too, has had to dance so it can cooperate with Taiwan in order to plug a longstanding blind spot in the global health system. If that’s the price to pay for now, then so be it. Taiwan needs to accumulate small victories as part of its long-term strategy; it can’t win the war all at once. Meanwhile, it is up to Taiwan’s civil society, academics and friends abroad—not the government—to make as much noise as possible to shape the environment in Taiwan’s favor. This will be accomplished by pressuring international organizations to give Taiwan the access (and eventually the recognition) it needs to become a full participant in global affairs.

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