By Adam Minter
Next week’s inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s new president has got China agitated. Tsai, leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, has so far refused to reiterate the formula used to dodge questions about Taiwan’s status—that there’s only “one China,” even if the two sides disagree about what that means. China has darkly warned that any breakdown in relations will be on Tsai’s head. It’s even threatening to cut off Taiwan’s access to the World Health Organization, one of the few global bodies in which the island is allowed to participate.
The threat itself isn’t surprising. Ever since the United Nations voted in 1971 to kick out Taiwan and give its seat to China, the mainland has sought to block anything that might raise Taiwan’s international stature and thus imply that the island is a sovereign state, rather than just another Chinese province. The rest of the world has generally gone along, especially as China’s global clout has grown.
Yet given the challenges China itself faces—from the environment to public health to the economy—this strategy is looking increasingly counterproductive. If anything, Chinese leaders should be promoting a Taiwan that’s more, not less engaged with the world.
A similar realization—albeit on a limited scale—is how Taiwan ended up working with the WHO in the first place. Back in 2003, as a deadly SARS outbreak swept the island, Taiwanese doctors were denied information, virus samples and even diagnostic tests because the island wasn’t a member of the WHO (which called the outbreak a “worldwide health threat”).
Even China eventually had to admit this was foolish and dangerous. Taiwan’s SARS cases were almost certainly imported from the mainland, which was then struggling to understand the disease; Taiwan’s far more advanced medical facilities would’ve been in a strong position to help. (At the time, Chinese doctors were under intense pressure to cover up their own outbreak.) To hinder the investigation and treatment of a potentially explosive epidemic just 100 miles off the Chinese coast bordered on medical malpractice.
In 2005, China secretly agreed to allow Taiwan to engage with WHO experts in health emergencies. Even then, it took another health scare—a 2009 outbreak of bird flu—before China relented and allowed Taiwan to participate openly in WHO activities as an “observer” under the name “Chinese Taipei.” To this day, the Taiwanese medical community remains excluded from important WHO committees, limiting the island’s ability to serve as a kind of early-warning system for China.
Similarly, China’s insistence on excluding Taiwan from the recent Paris climate talks hardly helped its own efforts to reduce emissions. For years, China has consciously modeled its environmental regulations (especially in waste management) on initiatives pioneered in Taiwan, a highly industrialized CO2 emitter. For its own sake, the island should continue to pursue innovative environmental solutions. But its leaders would have more incentive to do so if they were part of the international dialogue over how to address global warming. That in turn would be better for the air on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
China has a more mixed record when it comes to dealing with the Taiwanese economy. Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2002, a year after the mainland did. But the prospect of Chinese opposition has successfully kept Taiwan out of several regional trade agreements, including the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Perhaps some Chinese leaders imagine a weaker and more isolated Taiwanese economy will be more dependent on trade with the mainland. In fact, China benefits immensely from Taiwan’s openness to the world. In part because of those links, the island’s tech sector has grown into one of the globe’s most innovative and vibrant, both in designing products and the processes to produce them. Much of that innovation makes its way, via companies such as Foxconn and semiconductor giant TSMC, to the mainland. Given the urgent need for China to move up the value chain as labor costs rise, it’s foolish to undermine such a profitable source of inspiration and technology.
For an increasingly nationalistic China, none of these arguments are likely to matter much when counted against the danger—however exaggerated—of Taiwanese independence. Before piling on the threats, though, mainland leaders might want to recall just what China gains from a vibrant and connected Taiwan, not what it supposedly loses.