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.”
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.