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WHO’s on first — Flu diplomacy in the Far East

Friday, May 1, 2009   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

By John Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — A crisis can bring a family together. A natural catastrophe may often unite a nation. A calamity could make old adversaries blink. Thus as the outbreak of the virile H1N1 influenza now assumes dangerously global dimensions, half-way round the world in the Far East, members of the Chinese family are allowing a cautious political thaw in their once chilly relations across the Taiwan Straits.

The reasons for the diplomatic warming trend are many and have less to do with the current influenza outbreak as with the practical and realistic step-by-step rapprochement in the long strained ties between the two Chinese governments since the communists seized the Mainland in 1949 and the Nationalist went into exile on Taiwan.

When Ma-Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party (KMT) was elected as President of the Republic of China on Taiwan in 2008, the tenor and tones of Taipei’s policy stressed continued democracy, but at the same time stressed the shared “Chinese-ness” of the two separate governments. This was a profound political sea change from the previous administration in Taipei, which was tilting towards Taiwan’s “independence.” Besides pursuing the “status quo” relations as straight and steady ties between to the two de-facto but rival governments, President Ma has wisely avoided the raucous and dangerously provocative confrontations with Beijing as compared to his predecessor.

The business bottom line, already very developed during the past decade despite political acrimony, saw yet-closer commercial ties and the formalization of direct airline flights and mail links, and expanded tourism between the island and the Chinese Mainland.

The political payoff from the People’s Republic of China, came through a quietly expected announcement that Beijing’s rulers shall not oppose Taiwan’s participation in as an Observer during an upcoming meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO), the Geneva-based UN agency which is at the forefront of global flu preparedness.

Though the Taipei government has long tried to join or at least participate in WHO’s deliberations since 1997, Beijing has blocked its democratic cousins from across the Straits. In the PRC’s view, Taiwan is but a “renegade province” of China. Thus with this guardedly optimistic switch, Taiwan’s President Ma, praised the invitation as showing “goodwill” from Beijing. Ma furthermore described the shift as “a matter of human rights, and the 23 million Taiwan people’s health human rights shouldn’t be ignored.”

Actually there’s another very practical reason too. During 2003 during the Asian SARS outbreak and again during the Avian flu pandemic in 2005-2006, both of which affected the Chinese Mainland and the island of Taiwan, cross straits political gales trumped medical cooperation. People died, people suffered.

Beijing’s senseless isolation of Taiwan from WHO had deprived the East Asian region of Taiwan’s advanced medical expertise. Taiwan’s medical establishment and its very well organized and coordinated public health sector preparedness in combating tropical disease, epidemics, and pandemics puts the island in a unique position to help neighboring countries, including China.

Taipei’s participation as a “Chinese-Taipei” Observer means access to proceedings and prestige, but not voting rights or major policy input. The United States and Japan have long favored such an arrangement.

Recalling glaring political ironies, the Republic of China beyond being a founder of the United Nations in 1945 (as one of the Big Five WWII Allies; Britain, China, France, U.S. and USSR) was equally a charter member of the World Health Organization. Back in 1971 when the Beijing communists gained the “China seat” at the world organization, Taipei was ousted from the General Assembly, the Security Council and later the WHO.

Contrary to the German case where both separate states joined and participated in the UN, or the current Koran case where both South and North Korea have been members since 1991, the Republic of China, a UN founder, has been barred from the world body and its agencies such as WHO. For years Taipei faced the Great Wall of China’s diplomatic exclusion with little hope of success.

Naturally the PRC’s turnaround is not based so much on public health concerns as in shifting cross straits political paradigms. Beijing has allowed this overdue but welcome concession, a small step which is immensely significant for politics and public health.

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