The viral video really does tell the story. Over the weekend, a senior adviser at the World Health Organization abruptly shut down an interview after being asked about Taiwan’s role in the organization. The episode has been interpreted correctly as a marker of how China has used the WHO as a tool in its diplomatic struggle to isolate and delegitimize a democratic Taiwan.
Yet China’s influence in the WHO is only a small part of a much larger story involving Beijing’s relationship to international organizations. For decades, U.S. officials hoped that bringing Beijing into those organizations would change China, by socializing it into the patterns of responsible global governance. They paid less attention to the danger that has now materialized — that China might change those organizations instead.
The logic behind America’s “responsible stakeholder” approach was that the best way to keep China from challenging the international order was to demonstrate that it could thrive within it. Encouraging Beijing to expand its role in international organizations — from the United Nations to the alphabet soup of bodies dealing with specific issues from international communications to civil air traffic — was crucial.