For several years now in May, Taiwan has launched a futile storm of the Geneva headquarters of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Though rather boring, this story shows that conflict situations, which the system of international relations could not survive in the past, look different in the new century with its new challenges.
Until 1971, the small island of Taiwan, which claimed that the legitimate government of the whole of China was located in Taipei, was presented in all international organisations, including the UN. From 1971, though, all international organisations gradually adapted to reality and Taiwan's place in them was taken by mainland China. It was logical, as both Taipei and Beijing proceeded - and still proceed, though with minor changes - from the same assumption: there is only one China, and Taiwan is part of it. Consequently, membership in international organisations (including WHO) can belong to only one of them.
Taiwan is acting extremely flexibly to win a seat in international organisations. It has been trying to join WHO as an observer with the status of "a health entity" since 1997. However, only countries can be WHO members but, Taipei recalls, its Charter mentions countries that are not UN members. The problem can be solved by a simple majority at the annual WHO assembly held in May, but Taipei has not won this majority so far. Yet this year it has again filed a request and launched a powerful lobbying campaign.
Beijing seems to have few chances. Every spring respected international media publish a host of materials about Taiwan's membership of the World Trade Organisation as an economic entity. Taiwan is also part of the Asian Development Bank as "Taipei, China," and the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation organisation has a seat for Taiwan ("Chinese Taipei"), a seat for Hong Kong (which has become part of China), and a seat for China. To make this possible, the parties are called in all APEC documents and ceremonies as economies and not states. And lastly, even the Vatican, Palestine, the Maltese Order, and several other entities have the observer status in WHO. So, if you want something really bad, you can get it.
The logic of globalisation and the struggle against modern challenges is another argument against Beijing. Viruses, like terrorists, have no nationality; they cross any border, recognised or not. The 23 million Taiwanese deserve healthcare just as all other people on Earth, argues Taipei, and WHO is the organisation that should be free from politicking. This position looks perfectly logical; why then cannot Taipei get the required number of votes? Why did Taiwan's attempt to win the status it wants fail even last year, when it was hit harder by SARS than other countries? Maybe because the lobbying potential of Beijing is substantially larger than Taipei's? One cannot be so sure, as the Taiwanese authorities have an incredible ability to bring their point of view to other countries and nations.
The answer may be simple: Those countries that do not accept Taipei's claim to the observer status are frightened off by the fact that this dispute is political, one way or another, just like anything else connected with Taiwan. For it might interpret - or present - the observer status in the WHO as a mini-recognition of the island as an independent state. This is especially now that Chen Shui-bian is president of Taiwan and relations between the two antagonistic sides have deteriorated.
Not only the diplomatic recognition or non-recognition of the island by a minor state, but also the opening of an unofficial office of a state or organisation, or anything else equally insignificant can be - and is - used as a pretext for a diplomatic scandal. As a result, in the 50 years of the Taiwan problem, the world has become sick and tired of this tug-of-war. The healthy reaction is to try to avoid yet another stage of this competition, especially in such non-political organisations as WHO.
The existence of unrecognised states or territories can be explained and even accepted, up to a certain point. Indeed, there are remnants of former wars and conflicts whose mention makes diplomats scowl and say: Better not touch "this" and try to avoid mentioning it unless it is absolutely necessary. Despite major differences between them, "this" is Northern Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, Taiwan and other territories. In all these cases, the accepted or inferred status quo of these territories is cheaper than enforced decisions, if human lives or property are the unit of measurement.
But globalisation is a fact of life and it calls on the old organisations to learn to react to new realities. WHO was not created to become the scene of political struggle between China and Taiwan; its goal is to improve global health. On the other hand, all and any territories in the world should be open to medics who combat new or old viruses. If the WHO statutory documents are not effective in the situation with China and Taiwan, it will be cheaper to amend them rather than trying to avoid becoming involved in the Chinese dispute. The WHO must not be a slave to its charter, which was written by human beings and can be amended by them.
Do the WHO documents say that only countries can become members? Why not revise these documents so that they would also suit China? After all, this is only a bureaucratic procedure that can be cleansed of all political innuendoes. Humans are intelligent and can negotiate WHO admission not only for sovereign states but also separate territories with any specifics. Or they can invent the status of "friends of the chairman of the WHO," as is the case when a dignitary is in the country in the status of the ambassador's guest. When there is a will, there is always a way.
And lastly, Taiwan is indeed growing into a problem that can affect more than just healthcare. The island is becoming more closely integrated economically with mainland China, while the island's leadership relies on the part of the electorate that is dissatisfied with this trend. Potentially, this is an explosive situation and it may call for original solutions.