The outbreak of a new illness caused by a coronavirus—one that threatens a global pandemic, although the World Health Organization (WHO) has yet to declare it a “global emergency”—is drawing attention to Taiwan’s continuing exclusion, at China’s insistence, from the WHO and other international organizations. When the WHO once again failed to issue Taipei an invitation to the annual World Health Assembly in May 2019, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu described the decision as “morally wrong.” In a prescient appeal, he described a “pandemic or epidemic outbreak in countries nearby Taiwan, especially China and Japan, or Southeast Asia” as one of the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s biggest concerns, explaining that “we need the WHO’s guidance in dealing with this [potential] situation, and excluding Taiwan is going to put neighboring countries in great jeopardy as well.”
Clearly, memories of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which originated in China and spread throughout Asia and further afield in 2003, remain fresh in the minds of officials in Taiwan. During the SARS crisis, Taiwan quarantined approximately 150,000 people and 37 people died of the illness. Foreign Minister Wu told the Telegraph last May that the WHO waited six weeks before responding to Taiwan’s request for assistance. “It’s our belief that if the WHO had provided Taiwan with necessary help at an early stage, we could have prevented the situation from happening, we could have prevented the situation from getting that bad.”
Fast-forward eight months to January 2020 and, at the time of this writing, Taiwan has confirmed five cases of the coronavirus that has thus far infected at least 2,879 people, 81 of whom have died worldwide. Additional cases are probably going to be identified in days and weeks ahead. And although Taiwan is able to access WHO information indirectly through the United States and other friendly governments, such procedures can be inadequate when lives are at risk and time is of the essence. To put the matter into perspective, while SARS reportedly took three months to become easily transmissible between humans, the new coronavirus became transmissible in one month, according to one leading epidemiologist.
Importantly, the WHO is not the only international organization from which Taiwan is excluded that has a role to play in the current crisis. Consider, for example, Taiwan’s exclusion from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, has pointed out that despite Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport’s role as a major transportation hub in Asia, Taiwan’s aviation authorities are left in the dark about any WHO-ICAO coordination. ICAO’s website notes that the WHO may call upon it “to take action in order to assist in limiting [a disease’s] spread by air transport.” Additionally, ICAO has prepared guidelines for member countries, airports, and airport operators to manage health risks in the event of the outbreak of a communicable disease. People in Taiwan may not have direct and immediate access to these protective measures nor input into their development. This is especially troubling in fluid circumstances where guideline updates may be frequent.
Taiwan’s exclusion from the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) may even come into play as the virus continues to spread. Countries near and far are instituting new precautions at the borders to screen travelers for signs of illness. Interpol provides member countries—but not Taiwan—with access to a number of “databases against which they can check people, passports and vehicles.”
Enhanced scrutiny at border crossings and points of entry could, moreover, have unintended consequences, such as obliging smuggling operations to adopt new methods and find new routes. Another possibility is that, with Chinese travel restrictions in Hubei Province now affecting some 35 million, there could be a surge in people smuggling in the region. Via police operations, “investigative support for complex international cases,” and the INTERPOL Specialized Operational Network (comprised of experts on smuggling), Interpol plays an important role in combatting transnational criminal acts, like trafficking in people, drugs, and wildlife. Yet, Taiwan is not permitted to directly participate in those operations, rely on that investigative support, or make use of the expert network.
Perhaps the current crisis, once it is resolved—halting the spread of the virus should be the priority right now—will galvanize international support for Taiwan’s formal engagement with the WHO and other international organizations going forward. The US position, of course, has long been to support Taiwan’s participation in organizations and meetings in which statehood (as defined by the United Nations) is not a requirement. Members of Congress have written letters over the years calling on the administration to make efforts to ensure Taiwan’s inclusion. A particularly strong congressional statement of support came in the introduction of last year’s Taiwan Assurance Act, sponsored by Senator Tom Cotton. The bill describes China’s “attempts to exclude Taiwan from international organizations” as “detrimental to global, health, civilian air safety, and efforts to counter transnational crime” and as “a national security concern of the United States.” It furthermore states it is US policy “to advocate for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the United Nations, the World Health Assembly, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Criminal Police Organization, and other international bodies as appropriate.”
A number of European countries, Australia, and Japan have similarly supported Taiwan’s participation in these organizations, as have Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies. Yet, these efforts have, to date, been fruitless. Where the United States and its partners in this effort coax and cajole, Beijing undoubtedly bribes and threatens. Taiwan’s friends have, essentially, brought knives to a gunfight.
If global leaders were to genuinely prioritize Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” going forward, what would a serious effort look like? There are two, potentially complementary routes.
First, Taiwan’s allies in this effort should strive to convince China to shift its approach. Importantly, China can do so without abandoning or altering its own “One China principle.” Taiwan participated as an observer in the World Health Assembly from 2009 to 2016, so Beijing does not oppose Taipei’s inclusion as a matter of principle. (It has objected in recent years because the Tsai Ing-wen government does not accept the so-called “1992 Consensus.”)
Step one is for countries to make clear to Beijing that they conceive of Taipei’s exclusion from the WHO, ICAO, and Interpol as national security concerns. China should understand that the United States and likeminded states see Taiwan’s exclusion as dangerously undermining global health, the safety of civilian air travel, and efforts to combat transnational crime and as thus detrimental to their national security interests. The point is to convey to Beijing that the issue has taken on new importance and that, when it comes to including Taiwan going forward, Taipei’s allies have a new seriousness of purpose.
Step two is to impose costs if China refuses to shift gear. Given that the WHO, ICAO, and Interpol are all United Nations organizations, Taipei’s allies should campaign against all Chinese candidates put forward for senior leadership roles in any UN agency. China’s expulsion from the G20 and, especially, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping (APEC), where Taiwan is a full member, would have symbolic importance and real reputational costs. But ejecting China from these organizations will be no easy task, as Washington will find it difficult to convince sufficient numbers of other member states to go along.
This is where the second, parallel line of effort comes into play. If Washington and its allies are serious about seeing Taiwan’s exclusion as a national security concern, they should move beyond coaxing and cajoling and toward the sharper use of carrots and sticks in order to secure Taipei’s participation in (or Beijing’s ejection from) international organizations. Yes, this could require diplomatic horse-trading, threats to withhold aid (or promises to increase it), or reassessing other priorities of uncooperative member states. And yes, this might be distasteful, but it also may be necessary.
It is not simply Taiwan’s “international space” that is at stake, but human lives. In the quest to secure a role for Taiwan in organizations relevant to US national security, it is time to leave the knives at home and instead enter the arena packing heat.
The main point: Taipei’s exclusion from international organizations is not only detrimental to Taiwan to but to global health. Taiwan’s friends should make a more concerted effort to ensure its meaningful participation going forward.
Tagged 2020 Taiwan Work Conferencebilateral trade agreementcoronavirusinternational organizationsKMT electionsPalauport callsPreferential Economic MeasuresSoft-hard MeasuresSouth PacificUS-Taiwan FTA