Written by Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley.

Image credit: 05.27 總統接見「台灣世衛行動團」,並於團旗上簽名 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

When the International Journal of Taiwan Studies (IJTS) 3.1  published a topical section on ‘Taiwan, Public Diplomacy, and the World Health Assembly (WHA)’ in February/March 2020, we could hardly have anticipated that the world would soon be managing an epidemiological crisis on a scale not seen since the threat of Spanish Flu in 1918. The coronavirus—now known as Covid-19—has affected every continent, and is having a substantial but as yet unmeasurable impact on the global economy, education, and health infrastructure. While China returns slowly to normality, Europe has become a new epicentre. At the same time that some continue to point the finger at China’s initially handling of the crisis, others (e.g. NBC News) are beginning to praise Taiwan’s efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic, and wonder why, at such a critical juncture, Taiwan continues to be excluded from the World Health Organization (WHO). What is most clear is that claims that the WHO no longer needs ‘experts’ are far from credible: the capacity to manage such crises requires a fresh injection of expertise from a range of backgrounds and disciplines, including the social sciences.

This was a core theme of a workshop we held in Aberystwyth University in 2018. We began from the premise that understanding Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO and WHA, and the ongoing consequences of its exclusion, requires analyses that are not only informed by medical sciences, but also political science, international relations, and an area studies approach to Taiwan, China and cross strait relations. The experts we brought together from these different disciplines recognised the limits of public and cultural diplomacy initiatives in mobilising international support for Taiwan’s inclusion. There is an array of structural constraints on Taiwan’s international relations that ‘better’ public diplomacy will not change. Rather, a carefully crafted communications strategy guided by appropriate structures and feedback mechanisms may help Taiwan manage and perhaps work around such obstacles. On this point, the current Covid-19 outbreak confirms the value of a strategy that students of public diplomacy have long recognised: the bigger the distance between government and its audience, the better, and the more civil society can communicate its own narratives without government interference, or the need to adhere to government agendas.

The current public health crisis has reinforced some of the core messages in this IJTS topical section: viruses know no geographical or political boundaries, and Taiwan’s expertise and experiences of mitigating pandemic influenza could have been shared more promptly had it been allowed to participate in the WHA and WHO. Official discussions on how to design a public campaign for inclusion should therefore begin with the discordance between Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHA/WHO and its substantial contribution to global health science and healthcare. Taiwan was the first country in Asia to introduce universal healthcare coverage, creating a system similar to the UK’s National Health Service, and has extended this to foreign workers. The strategy should also highlight that Taiwan’s healthcare professional routinely volunteer to help neighbouring countries.

The SARS crisis in 2003 demonstrated the value of collaborative approaches to medical care. And at that time, Taiwan developed methods to immediately share medical samples for research and treatment. In that topical section Yen-Fu Chen discussed Taiwan’s contribution to medical science research. His essay helps us appreciate the enormous progress made in Taiwan’s medical services and healthcare, and understand the key role Taiwan has played—and continues to play—in providing healthcare within and beyond the region, and in medical research. Chen’s essay helps answer the question: why is membership of the WHA important not only for Taiwan, but also the wider international community?

This connects with the more provocative contribution to this issue by Colin Alexander.  Dr Alexander raised questions about the value of Taiwan’s membership in such international organisations – the starting point for any strategy for inclusion. In so doing he queried the utility of moral arguments for membership. He concludes that moral arguments rarely work in diplomacy, which means Taiwan must re-examine its public diplomacy messaging.

As Taiwan is striving to find a new formula, external challenges are continue to grow for its current president Tsai Ing-wen. These include a destabilisation of international politics, the prospect of a global recession due to the Covid-19 crisis, and the reality of a more nationalist Chinese government – one currently facing problems in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Kerry Brown’s contribution to this topical issue helps us understand the impact of this evolving context, and discusses in particular how the Chinese government has restricted Taiwan’s space during Tsai’s presidency. Professor Brown placed special emphasis on the impact of China’s domestic politics in the Xi Jinping period; in particular the rise of nationalism, and a historically rooted sense of mission that is reshaping both propoganda and policy.

To respond to this situation Taiwan must turn to a range of foreign policy instruments. While hardly a panacea for the problems Taiwan faces in international politics, public and cultural diplomacy can reshape the way Taiwan interacts with the world and responds to the challenges it faces. Since the mid-1990s Taiwan’s external communicative activities have turned towards public and especially cultural diplomacy to raise Taiwan’s international profile, explain Taiwan’s position and predicament, and advocate policies that may benefit the island politically and strategically. In her essay for this topical section Carla Figueira examined the issue of cultural diplomacy, and more specifically the role of Taiwan’s indigenous communities as cultural ambassadors. She explores the strengths of non-state diplomatic actors in Taiwan’s public/cultural diplomacy and demonstrates how the engagement between Taiwanese indigenous peoples and an international community can happen in practice.

Diseases and other dangers to public health care not about national borders and politics. We may lament the sometimes uninformed, at times unduly harsh opinions that are published on social media platform. But it is clear that Taiwan’s management of the current crisis and its exclusion from the WHO/WHA has generated wider debate, including among political elites in the US. Taiwan’s visibility has risen and more people are now aware of the political problems Taiwan faces—and this has occurred without Taiwan’s government having to be heavy-handed in its official communications. This teaches us a valuable lesson about soft power: do what is right for your country, and the story will follow.

Dr. Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley is Editor-in-Chief, International Journal of Taiwan Studies (IJTS). She is also Research Associate, Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London and Non-Resident Fellow, Taiwan Studies Programme, University of Nottingham. This article is part of special issue on the WHO and Taiwan.

Along with Taiwan Insight’s special issue, we also introduce a timely special issue of the International Journal of Taiwan Studies (IJTS) on “Taiwan, Public Diplomacy, and WHA”. Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO and the WHA is now a major cause for concern. To understand the reasons, consequences and possible remedies for Taiwan’s exclusion, one has to adopt a multi-disciplinary perspective. In this IJTS’s special issue, we have brought together political scientists, IR specialists, communication scholars, and health experts. For more details, please visit here.

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