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Benefiting from Taiwan’s expertise

By W. Andy Knight, Taipei Times
June 09, 2009

After many years of trying to join the WHO, Taiwan was finally allowed to send an observer delegation to the World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting last month in Geneva. Taiwan is not a full-fledged member of the world health body, but it has at last been able to get its foot in the door.

One year ago, I wrote in the Taipei Times that the time had come for the international community to recognize Taiwan as the de facto state that it is, and that the WHO should invite Taiwan “to become a full-fledged member of the global body. Failing that, Taiwan ought to be considered, at the very least, for observer status in the WHA.

I acknowledged then, and still do now, that Taiwan is not yet a de jure state, i.e. it is not recognized by a majority of the international community. However, other non-state entities, in the legal sense, have been awarded WHA observer status in the past, e.g. Palestine, the Holy See, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Even the Sovereign Military Order of Malta was given observer status at the WHA.

So why not Taiwan?

We are all aware that Beijing has insisted since the 1970s that Taiwan is a “breakaway” province of China that ought to be returned to the “motherland.” The government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has used every coercive diplomatic measure, including the threat of the use of force, to deny Taiwan the kind of international recognition that would see it become a member of the family of nations.

China has persistently utilized its “one China” policy to block Taiwan’s appeal for membership in the UN, as well as the WHO and other intergovernmental bodies, from even being included in the UN agenda.

The PRC has maintained that the principles of universality and self-determination — which are entrenched in the UN Charter — do not apply to Taiwan. In fact, the Chinese government refuses to use the name “Taiwan,” insisting on the moniker Zhonghua Taibei (中華台北) — or Chinese Taipei.

Since 1997, the PRC has vetoed every attempt made by Taiwan to join the WHA as an observer. So why did China suddenly choose last month to allow the WHA to grant Taiwan this status?

One answer could be that the election of the pro-China Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as the new government of Taiwan in May last year, replacing the Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party, created a climate of improved relations between Taiwan and China.

Indeed, since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was inaugurated on May 20, he has tried to make good on his campaign promises to seek better relations with China. We have seen evidence of his conciliatory moves with the opening of direct cross-strait charter flights and cargo, the increase in Chinese visitors to Taiwan, the conversion of the Chinese yuan in Taiwanese banks and the removal of some investment restrictions by the Taiwanese government.

But could there be another reason?

Perhaps even the PRC has come around to recognizing the importance of having Taiwanese public health expertise represented in the world health body, especially since the outbreak of the A(H1N1) influenza.

China, along with Taiwan, is among the 40 countries across the globe reporting laboratory-confirmed cases of the new influenza. After the experience with the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Chinese government seems to have become much more pragmatic about ways to deal with swiftly spreading pandemics.

Perhaps it now realizes that shutting out Taiwan’s highly respected public health expertise from the WHA back then was a major mistake. Note that it was the current Taiwanese minister of health, Yeh Ching-chuan (葉金川), who helped expose Beijing’s attempt to keep the outbreak of SARS secret.

Clearly, the PRC is now realizing why some of the world’s leading medical organizations have been calling on the WHO to include Taiwan in the WHA. Taiwan has one of the best public healthcare systems in the world as well as one of the highest life expectancies in Asia.

Taiwan has been successful in eradicating such infectious diseases as the bubonic plague (1948), smallpox (1955), rabies (1959), malaria (1965) and polio (2000). It was the first country in the world to implement a hepatitis B immunization program.

It shares its advanced medical knowledge and technology with several developing countries that have poor or non-existent medical institutions. It has provided medical humanitarian assistance to places like Haiti, Guatemala, Fiji, the Marshall Islands and Kenya.

Thus, valuable lessons can be learned by all UN members from Taiwan’s experience in public health and its response to disease outbreaks and crises. With the outbreak of swine flu, the Taiwanese government also moved quickly to create the Central Epidemic Command Center to contain the spread of the A(HINI) virus across the region.

Pragmatists in China should understand by now that the globalization of disease does not respect jurisdictional boundaries and that there should be no “gaps” in international disease prevention.

The warming of relations between Taiwan and China could in fact lead to mutual vulnerability when it comes to the spread of pandemics like SARS and swine flu. International cooperation to beat back these fast-spreading diseases should therefore come before political posturing.

Let’s hope that this pragmatism prevails the next time Taiwan makes a request to join another UN specialized agency. If the world can benefit from Taiwan’s expertise in the area of public health, it can also profit from its expertise in other areas, such as environmental protection, sustainable economic development, trade and labor standards, educational policy and democratic practice.

W. Andy Knight is a professor of international relations at the University of Alberta.

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