Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen must get her head out of the clouds

Until the island’s president explicitly accepts the one-China principle, Taipei can only expect further diplomatic isolation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 May, 2017, 4:07am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 May, 2017, 4:07am

Perhaps the most hurtful price of Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation is exclusion from global forums where nations put aside political and socio-economic differences and come together to try to make the world a better place for everyone. The latest snub of this nature is from the World Health Assembly due to open in Geneva on Monday, when the island will not be represented for the second year in a row.

It need not have happened. Taiwan was invited to WHA meetings from 2009 to 2015 with Beijing’s consent. That arrangement was reached under the 1992 consensus that there is only one China.

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

But unlike her Kuomintang predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, President Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party has stopped short of explicitly acknowledging the one-China principle. As a result, Beijing has severed official exchanges. And it is apparent that China put pressure on the World Health Organisation not to extend the invitation Taipei wanted, as evidenced by a comment from a foreign ministry official that Beijing was happy the WHO was sticking to the one-China policy.

The first concern must be with the question whether political obstacles to participation in WHO forums impact negatively on the health and well-being of 23 million Taiwanese, as suggested by Tsai. Given that Taiwanese health professionals continue to have unfettered WHO access at the technical group level, and the organisation can dispatch experts to the island at short notice to advise on health issues, such concerns do not loom on the horizon.

Beijing denies Taiwan put at risk by UN health forum snub

In stopping short of endorsement of the one-China policy, Tsai is doing what core DPP supporters expected when she was campaigning for office. But her attempt to keep faith with them while leaving room for improvement in cross-strait relations has failed. Now, as president rather than a candidate, she needs to acknowledge that the reality is different. She can start by being seen to adopt a more flexible stance. She needs to shape public opinion to accept that she must govern for all Taiwanese. Her unexpected and controversial phone call with Donald Trump when he was still the US president-elect has done nothing to ease the island’s isolation. The WHA snub is a wake-up call.