Mayor of Taoyuan Wen Tsan Cheng (far left) at the court side prior to the Chinese Professional Baseball League game between Rakuten Monkeys and Fubon Guardians at the Taoyuan International Baseball Stadium on May 07, 2020 in Taoyuan, Taiwan.
Gene Wang | Getty Images
Taiwan is campaigning furiously to attend the next World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting to be held from May 18 as the island’s successful coronavirus containment strategy has attracted the world’s attention.
There is just one problem: China, which claims Taiwan as its province with no right to its own diplomatic representation on the global stage and in international organizations. The WHA is the decision making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), a United Nations agency.
Taiwan joined WHA meetings as an observer from 2009 to 2016, when a president deemed to be friendly with China held office. It had campaigned for years before its inclusion at the time.
This time, Taiwan said it has not been receiving first-hand information from the WHO on the coronavirus outbreak, putting the health of Taiwanese at risk.
But that didn’t stop the self-ruled island just across a narrow strait from China from executing a plan using early detection, border controls and intensive contract tracing that has won plaudits the world over. Taiwan wants an observer seat at the next WHA meeting.
Admitting Taiwan to the WHA meeting “will be an occasion where Taiwan can share our experience in areas such as testing, diagnosis, border control, and community outbreak prevention. To avoid a repeat of the current pandemic and effectively ensure global health security, the world must take action to improve communication and transparency,” Chen Shih-chung, Taiwan’s Minister of Health and Welfare said in a statement.
Despite the lack of diplomatic allies, voices from a number of countries have come out to back Taiwan’s participation in the meeting. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lobbied for Taiwan’s inclusion in the meeting. Other countries expressing their support include Japan and New Zealand.
Even though it’s near mainland China, Taiwan – which has not implemented any strict lockdowns – has reported just 440 cases and seven deaths so far in its population of 24 million. In comparison, South Korea has reported almost 11,000 cases so far while Singapore in Southeast Asia has recorded over 20,000 cases.
China will decide if Taiwan can join the meeting
However, Taiwan’s participation in the meeting is not one WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus can decide as member states need to approve the move.
Despite the U.S. being the largest donor to the WHO, China has been making diplomatic inroads into international organizations such as the UN, garnering support from and influencing various member states.
“China has always been the arbiter of whether or not Taiwan can participate in WHA meetings, and it makes that decision based on its own political calculation of the state of cross-Strait relations, rather than concern for global public health,” said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. defense department official responsible for managing bilateral relations with China, Taiwan and Mongolia.
The current Tsai Ing-wen administration in Taipei is deemed to be independence-leaning — a taboo for Beijing. Tsai won Taiwan’s presidential election in January on the back of anti-Beijing sentiment due to concerns over eroding freedoms in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China.
With Beijing-Taipei relations the frostiest in years, this does not bode well for Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHA meeting.
On Monday, the WHO’s lawyer told an online press briefing that director general Tedros has “no mandate” to invite Taiwan to take part in the meeting next week, Reuters reported.
Beijing has repeatedly said that Taiwan is adequately represented by China.
“On the Taiwan region’s participation in WHO activities, China’s position is clear and consistent. It must be handled according to the one-China principle,” said Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry at a scheduled press conference last week, according to an official transcript.
Hua said Beijing has made “proper arrangement” for Taiwan to deal with local or global public health emergencies in a timely fashion, but Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was pushing for independence.
“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the DPP authorities have been engaging in political manipulation and constant hype-up over the issue of Taiwan’s participation in WHO and WHA,” said Hua. “The real intention is very clear. They are taking advantage of the virus to seek independence,” she said.
Taiwan’s mask diplomacy
The WHO has been accused of being deferential to China, not least by U.S. President Donald Trump.
But targeting the organization will not help Taiwan’s cause, said Michael Mazza, a visiting fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank. And even though it is in need of reforms, the WHO is still doing an important job for the world, he added.
The right way to engage the WHO is to target WHA members through bilateral diplomacy so that members support Taiwan, Mazza said at a recent webinar organized by the Washington D.C.-based Global Taiwan Institute, where he is a senior non-resident fellow.
Taiwan on its part has been ramping up its own diplomatic efforts during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, donating face masks, personal protective equipment and medical advice to other countries.
“Should Taiwan be excluded from the WHA this year, despite the disappointment of the people of Taiwan, I expect Taiwan will continue to make positive contributions to global public health efforts to address the COVID pandemic, including sharing their technical expertise and the ‘secret sauce’ of their successful approach at home, as well as providing PPE to countries around the world that are in need of critical supplies,” said Thompson, who is also a visiting senior research Fellow at National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the World Health Assembly meeting is scheduled for May 18.