Taiwan’s already precarious relations with old rival China took another step back this week after the self-ruled island said Beijing blocked it from the annual World Health Organization assembly, a move that may prompt Taipei to rethink how they treat the other side.
Officials in Taipei said Tuesday the deadline had lapsed to receive an invitation to the May 22-31 World Health Assembly in Geneva. They blamed China for using its clout in the World Health Organization (WHO) to block the invitation.
“If the other side overlooks our appeals and grave reminders, that is sure to severely hurt people’s feelings and spark a backlash in Taiwan public opinion, even causing cross-Strait (China-Taiwan) relations to drift further,” said Chiu Chui-cheng, spokesman for the Taiwan government’s Mainland Affairs Council.
“We want to appeal once more to the other side not to offend Taiwan public opinion,” Chiu said. “The Beijing authorities should reflect deeply on avoidance of old-fashioned, hawkish policy mentalities and actions that could cause huge harm to a resumption of cross-Strait relations.”
Beijing sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory rather than a state entitled to membership in international organizations. The two sides have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan.
Taiwan is unlikely to retaliate in real terms over the WHO slight, but the flap brings a string of other China issues into sharper focus and may increase popular anger in Taiwan while prompting a new search for ways Taipei can work with Beijing without selling down local autonomy.
“Taiwan people will feel frustrated with the assertive response of China,” said Huang Kwei-bo, associate diplomacy professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “Beijing’s image will get worse.”
Over the past year, China sailed an aircraft carrier around Taiwan, scaled back Taiwan-bound tourism and, since March, has detained a Taiwanese activist without announcing any formal charges against him.
Under former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, Beijing let Taipei observe the World Health Assembly every year since 2009 as “Chinese Taipei,” implying a link to China.
A spokesman for the Communist government’s Taiwan Affairs Office said Monday Taiwan could not observe this year’s assembly, where the WHO sets policies and approves a budget, because current President Tsai Ing-wen has not endorsed the Beijing view that both sides belong to a single China – a term Ma accepted.
Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party takes a guarded view of relations with China. Some party members want Taiwan to declare formal independence from Beijing.
China’s actions “will definitely push Taiwan people further and further away and severely destroy peace and stability between the two sides,” Tsai’s party said in a statement Tuesday. “The authorities in Beijing must reflect and correctly see this negative outcome.”
Taiwanese see the world health assemblies as opportunities to learn from the 192 WHO member states and share their own experience in infectious disease control, and improve medical services in developing countries.
Taiwan has just 21 diplomatic allies compared to more than 170 that recognize Beijing, making it hard for Taiwan to gain access to international bodies.
“The only barrier is politics and to speak more specifically, it’s just China,” ruling party legislator Yeh Yi-chin said Monday. “But where we’d like to appeal and remind everyone is, does the whole world want to let China, one country, destroy the global medical safety net?”
Beijing periodically uses its diplomatic connections and clout as the world’s second largest economy to block Taiwan from joining the United Nations, of which the WHO is a special agency. Last year Taiwan was rejected from observing a session of the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization and from participating in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Those barriers would keep affecting how Taiwanese see Beijing. “We need to see what happens next time at the United Nations,” Huang said.
Some Taiwanese may pressure Tsai to find a way of negotiating with China that lets the other side open doors again internationally without making Taiwan give up autonomy. Some scholars expect Tsai to propose a new formula for China relations in the second half of 2017.
The U.S. State Department backed Taiwan’s cause of joining the World Health Assembly this year, saying it supports the island’s “meaningful participation” in international bodies that require statehood.
"The United States remains committed to supporting Taiwan as it seeks to expand its already significant contributions to addressing global challenges,” a spokesperson said this week. “We encourage authorities in Beijing and Taipei to engage in constructive dialogue, on the basis of dignity and respect."