The Economist explains
THERE IS an island 180km off the coast of China. Its democratically elected leaders say they run a country called the Republic of China. To the Communist government in Beijing the island is “Taiwan, China” or “Taiwan Province, China”. International organisations, desperate not to offend either side, struggle to name it at all—many opt for the deliberately ambiguous “Chinese Taipei”, after its capital city. To most it is just “Taiwan”, a country that in recent months has drawn attention for its exemplary handling of the covid-19 pandemic.
The country has been preparing for such a crisis since the SARS epidemic of 2003. To combat the spread of covid-19, it has screened inbound air passengers and used national databases and big data to identify those most at risk of infection. Thanks to such measures and many others, Taiwan has managed to suppress covid-19 without closing all schools, restaurants and bars. This success has attracted sympathy in the West for Taiwan’s efforts to secure observer status at the World Health Assembly, the annual decision-making forum of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which starts on May 18th.
Taiwan is not a member of the WHO. Between 2009 and 2016, when a China-friendly government held power in Taiwan, it attended assembly meetings as an observer. But since then it has been prevented from participating, at China’s behest. America and New Zealand have backed its bid to attend this year, but the assembly will only extend an invitation if a majority of the WHO’s 194 members vote in favour on May 18th. Most countries will fall in line with China’s demand that Taiwan be ignored because they do not challenge the view of the government in Beijing that it alone represents China, and that China includes Taiwan. In 1971 the UN voted to recognise that government as China’s sole representative.
Taiwan’s woes stem from the unfinished business of the civil war that brought the Communist Party to power in China in 1949 and forced the deposed government of the Kuomintang (KMT) to flee to the island. The KMT continued to maintain that the Republic of China still existed, and refused to recognise the new People’s Republic of China led by the Communists. It did accept that Taiwan was a province of China, but not of the People’s Republic. In the 1990s, however, democracy began to take hold in Taiwan. This gave greater voice to politicians who saw the island as a country in its own right, with no lingering claims to the mainland. In 2000 an opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won presidential elections for the first time. The DPP’s assertion of Taiwan’s separate identity enraged China, which responded by extending olive branches to the KMT—hence China’s decision to allow Taiwan to attend World Health Assembly meetings during the years when the KMT was back in power on the island.
With the DPP in control again, China is unwilling to make any such concessions. Since 2016 it has been using carrots (large investments) and sticks (such as restrictions on visits by Chinese tourists) to persuade Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies to switch sides. Seven countries have done so, leaving only 15 that still recognise the Republic of China. The holdouts include eSwatini, Nicaragua and the Vatican.
In January 2020 Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP won another four-year term as president, making a cross-strait thaw highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. Ms Tsai is widely viewed in Taiwan as relatively cautious in her handling of relations with China. But the government in Beijing remains suspicious of her party’s pro-independence leanings. Adding to tensions is the pro-Taiwan stance of senior officials in the administration of America’s president, Donald Trump and the billions of dollars of arms sales to the island that Mr Trump has approved.
So China is trying to step up pressure on other countries to freeze out Taiwan. The WHO’s unwillingness even to talk about Taiwan’s successes in fighting the pandemic is evidence that this is working.