Taiwan “Unlikely” to Receive Invitation to WHA Amid Intensifying Diplomatic Lobbying Efforts
Amid a concerted diplomatic lobbying effort triggered by Taipei at the end of the 71st World Health Assembly (WHA) last year, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) conceded on April 4, 2019 that the prospects of receiving an invitation to attend the upcoming 72nd WHA, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), as an observer was “unlikely.” However, a flurry of statements made by various governments and organizations in the past week suggest that Taipei is stepping up its diplomatic campaign in order to avoid being sidelined for a third consecutive year at the WHA.
Taiwan’s peculiar international legal status, owing to historical circumstances and contention with Beijing over being the legitimate representative of all China at the United Nations (UN), severely limits its options in international diplomacy and participation in intergovernmental organizations. While Taiwan has been able to participate in multilateral fora under alternative names that do not specifically reference its formal name of the “Republic of China” — such as the “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu” at the World Trade Organization or “Chinese Taipei” at the Olympics — Taiwan faces considerable difficulty in participating at UN and UN-affiliated bodies owing to the objections of the People’s Republic of China.
Under Taiwan’s previous President Ma Ying-jeou of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the cultivation of closer ties with Beijing led to a fleeting detente between the two rival governments that saw Beijing permit Taipei to participate in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the WHA in the early 2010s as an observer. The election of Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to the presidency in 2016 and resulting chill in relations across the Taiwan Strait, however, has seen Beijing step up its efforts to diplomatically isolate Taipei, which culminated in rejections from ICAO and WHA starting in 2016 onwards and several longtime allies formally switching recognition from Taipei to Beijing as the legitimate representative of all China by the end of last year.
After the 71st WHA declined to invite Taiwan to observe its activities last year, Taiwan’s MOFA named attendance at the 72nd WHA a “priority despite the expected opposition from China.” While Taiwan declined to ask its allies to broach the topic of inviting Taipei to the WHA at the 114th session of the WHO’s Executive Board in January this year, eight out of the 34 members of the board — representing the eSwatini, Guatemala, Haiti, Japan, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the Solomon Islands, and US — expressed their support for Taiwan’s participation in the upcoming WHA.
The US-based non-profit World Conference of Mayors, Inc. passed a resolution on Jan. 30 at their annual collaborative conference that praised “Taiwan’s contributions to international society” and declared support for “Taiwan’s meaningful participation” in a whole host of international organizations, including INTERPOL, WHA, ICAO, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Taiwan pledged on Mar. 22 to send a delegation to Geneva regardless of an invitation to participate in the 72nd WHA, with Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung slated to lead a team to hold talks with WHA delegations outside of WHO headquarters should Taiwan not be invited to observe WHA proceedings.
A European Union spokesperson was quoted by Taiwanese media on April 12 stating that the EU was seeking a “pragmatic solution for Taiwan’s international participation,” as Taiwan’s participation in multilateral fora “is in line with the global interests of the EU.” Additionally, Taiwan friendship groups in the European Parliament and the legislatures of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom jointly authored a letter on April 16 to the WHO Director-General urging an invitation be extended to Taiwan as its “meaningful participation in the WHO is of vital importance to the global health network.”
The de facto US envoy to Taiwan, at an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act on April 15, expressed the continued commitment of the United States in promoting Taiwan’s increased participation at international organizations, with Washington “actively lobbying with international partners… to help Taiwan gain the recognition and access it deserves to such organizations.”
Taiwan faces an uphill battle to participate at the upcoming 72nd WHA, scheduled to take place at Geneva from May 20 to May 28, 2019. While other diplomatic allies continue to express their support for inviting Taipei to observe WHA proceedings, it remains to be seen if Beijing’s formidable political clout at the UN — most recently seen via the exclusion of Taiwanese journalists from attending and covering UN events, a situation deemed a contradiction of the “fundamental right to free information” by Reporters Without Borders — can be overcome by Taipei’s eleventh hour diplomatic initiative.