On November 8, 2006, the World Health Organization elected Margaret Chan, a Chinese doctor from Hong Kong, as its new Director-General. This dashed the hopes of Shigeru Omi, the Japanese candidate on the short list. This was a setback to the Japanese government, which needs election successes to justify the disproportionately large amount of money it shells out annually to the UN system as part of its Kokuren-chushin gaiko (UN-centered diplomacy). It must be particularly galling to have lost out to the Chinese, who have vehemently opposed Japan's long-held desire and more recent bid to become a permanent member of the Security Council (Not to mention the non-UN defeat of Osaka by Beijing for the 2012 Olympics).
Of more immediate interest is: how will Dr. Chan handle the Taiwan question? During the SARS crisis, one of the thorny issues that came up in the face of China's extreme reluctance to share information was its adamant refusal to allow Taiwan to be involved in any way with WHO efforts to cope with the outbreak. Disease and crime have no respect for national borders and sovereignty. China must be willing to cooperate with any and all parties, since yesterday. It will be too late if we still are squabbling over the rudiments of information exchange when Asian flu finally breaks out in a global pandemic. It is not as if Taiwan is seriously seeking full membership, as in the case of the World Trade Organization, or the admittedly non-UN Asia Development Bank.
Somewhat analogous to this situation from the Japanese point of view is the elevation of Ban Ki-moon, the South Korean Foreign Minister, to succeed Kofi Anan. The Japanese leadership (likely) gritted their collective teeth and voted for this colorless bureaucrat. Indeed, many Japanese openly wonder if Mr. Ban will not seek to bend UN resources in favor of South Korea's Sunshine Policy, still going strong, if largely unrequited, to the displeasure of the hard-line Japanese majority.
I for one welcome these turns of events. It is good to have these East Asians assume positions of responsibility within the international system. For one, they are an important, and peaceful, boost to their national egos. With the growing self-esteem that comes with these victories, things like inopportune remarks of individual politicians, undesirable passages in one history textbook or two will seem less significant, and their sense of national pride will rely less on humiliating Japanese political leaders who step out of line.
On a broader level, they will have to shoulder more of the international burden, some financial, some political, that traditional donor countries have often unwillingly carried. Some people worry about the growing Chinese influence, in Africa, for instance. To them, the most recent Beijing bash that the Chinese government hosted for some 48 African heads of state forebodes the rapacious exploitation of their resources, destruction of the environment, encouragement of political corruption, backsliding on democracy and human rights, and what have you. Some of will undoubtedly prove true. But, leaving aside the point that Western donors haven't done much of a job either on helping Africans manage the never-ending post-colonial transition, this exposes China to all the governance-related difficulties of the region that we have had to deal with. Chinese businesses and oil workers are already becoming the target of local militias and criminal elements. It will surely be a painful learning process, a maturing process, for them.
If, in the meantime, these South Korean and Chinese leaders attempt to twist their institutions to conform to national ends, there will surely be ample opportunities to call them on the transgressions. And if other nations decline to follow our lead in this, perhaps we should rethink our own views on the vexatious question of the moment.