How Beijing Could Squeeze Taiwan

A Test for Cross-Strait Relations

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, June 28, 2016. Jorge Adorno / Reuters

Ever since the 2016 election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, whose ruling Democratic Progressive Party rejects the one-China policy, Beijing and Taipei’s relationship has been rocky. A few months after Tsai took office, Beijing paused bilateral talks with Taipei. Relations grew tenser after U.S. President Donald Trump took a call from her a month following his election, after which Beijing cautioned U.S. officials not to speak to the Taiwanese president. Cross-strait relations are now set to face yet another dramatic test: the World Health Organization is currently considering whether to invite Taiwan to its annual World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva in May. Pressure from Beijing could lead them to pull back an offer should Taiwan refuse to comply with China’s terms—namely, attend the WHA formally recognizing the one-China Policy.

The controversy extends beyond this particular meeting. Since Tsai’s election, Beijing has used international conferences to check Taiwan’s stature, nearly blocking it from attending the WHA last year, and successfully pressuring the International Civil Aviation Organization last September to revoke its invitation to Taiwan for a triennial assembly on aviation safety. Such international conferences are important for Taiwan because they grant the territory some sort of international status, even if it is usually only allowed to attend as an observer. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s increasing participation in international events, particularly the WHA since 2009 (which was possible thanks in part to efforts by former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to cultivate ties with Beijing), is a sign of warming relations between Beijing and Taipei. 


In 1971, Beijing replaced Taipei at the WHO, and since 1997, Taiwan has tried applying for reentry into the organization without success. In 2004, after the uproar over China’s mishandling of the 2003 SARS epidemic, in which it initially tried to censor coverage of the outbreak, the international community rallied around Taiwan’s push to partake in global health initiatives. (Taiwan had over 300 cases of SARS with over three dozen

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