Why Taiwan cares so much about getting an invitation to the World Health Assembly

And why Beijing likely hopes Taipei won’t get to go this year

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 May, 2017, 2:22pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 May, 2017, 4:03pm

It’s the day e-registration closes for the World Health Assembly, but Taiwan has still not received an invitation to attend. Without the invitation, the self-ruled island cannot sign up and will hence be left out of the annual international meeting that it has had a part in observing since 2009.

In the run-up to the close of the online registration process, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has posted repeatedly on her Facebook and Twitter accounts, explaining why Taiwan deserves a seat at the table of the international health network.

Why does Tsai care so much about having a role in the WHA, and what is Beijing’s stance on the issue? We tell you.

What is the World Health Assembly (WHA)?

The World Health Assembly is the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) decision-making body.

The assembly, which is held in Geneva, Switzerland, every year, is attended by delegates from all WHO member states, focusing on a specific health agenda prepared by its executive board. This year’s assembly will take place from May 22 to 31.

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The WHA’s main functions are to determine the WHO’s policies, appoint its director-general, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed programme budget.

The WHO is a specialised agency of the United Nations that works with governments and other global agencies to monitor international public health with the aim of combating diseases.

Has Taiwan ever participated in the WHA?

Only WHO member states can attend the assembly. Like all other UN organisations, only sovereign states can join.

Since the UN switched recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing in the UN Resolution No. 2758 in 1971, the People’s Republic of China, represented by Beijing, has replaced the Republic of China, represented by Taipei, in all UN organisations including the WHO.

As a result, Taiwan – not being recognised as a member state – can no longer join the WHA, except as a part of China under Beijing. But the self-governed island, in its bid for greater international space, has been continuously calling for a role in the assembly.

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During then Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, mainland China extended an olive branch to the Beijing-friendly leader in 2009, allowing Taipei to attend the WHA as an observer.

Hence, Taiwan has attended the assembly as an observer since then, receiving an invitation each year to attend under the name of “Chinese Taipei”.

In 2016, however, the invitation – which came just a day before registration closed – explicitly mentioned the UN Resolution No. 2758 and the one-China principle, which states that there is only one China, with Beijing interpreting that to mean the People’s Republic of China encompassing Taiwan.

The pro-independence Tsai was elected to office in January 2016 and assumed her role as the island’s new leader in May that year. Tsai has so far refused to explicitly acknowledge the 1992 consensus, which stipulates that there is only “one China”, but each side can have its own interpretation of what constitutes “China”.

Why does Taiwan want so badly to join the WHA?

Taiwan’s yearning to join the international assembly is not just for public health alone.

In July, Tsai told the Washington Post it was unfair that the island could not be recognised by the world on its own.

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Access to the WHA, for Taiwan, means an opportunity to exchange ideas about public health and hygiene on an international platform. It would also serve to increase Taiwan’s international space for manoeuvre, which might help consolidate global support for a move towards independence for the island.

How does this concern Beijing?

Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway Chinese province, awaiting reunification and to be reclaimed eventually, by force if necessary.

As China’s only recognised government, Beijing does not tolerate moves by any country or organisation to encourage spliting the nation, whether through support for the independence of Taiwan, Xinjiang or Tibet.

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Beijing is also sensitive to the choice of word when Taipei refers to the mainland. When Tsai met a small group of international journalists last Friday and commented on Taiwan’s new southbound trade policy, she referred to the mainland as “China” three times instead of her past public reference as “mainland China” ­– and soon invited mainland media criticism for that.

If Taiwan is indeed excluded from even simply observing the WHA this year, Beijing would likely applaud the move, as this means Tsai would have a smaller chance of promoting her notion of Taiwan independence to the rest of the world.