Taiwan and the World Health Assembly: Smoke but No Fire Yet
Taiwan is set to be excluded from the World Health Assembly for a seventh straight year.

Despite a forceful message from the US calling for its inclusion, Taiwan appears set to be shut out once more from the World Health Assembly (WHA) as Chinese diplomats continue to block chances of a personal invitation by WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that would allow Taipei to attend as an observer. 

In a quick rebuttal of the US appeal, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the rejection of the “one-China” principle by the Taipei – which both the US and United Nations follow – meant “the political foundation for the Taiwan region to participate in WHA no longer exists.”

“The US statement is misguided and misleading,” Wang Webin said at a press conference in Beijing on Wednesday. “We once again urge the United States to adhere to the one-China principle, observe international law, and act on the US leader’s assurances that the country will not support ‘Taiwan independence’.”

The debate over Taiwan’s participation in the upcoming WHA has been a perennial issue since 2017, when the election of Tsai Ing-Wen’s pro-independence party prompted WHO’s director-general to stop extending the traditional invitation to the island nation to attend the WHO’s top decision-making forum in response to pressure from China.  

The debate over Taiwan’s participation has taken on added significance following a year of growing tensions in the Western Pacific region as China flexes its military might in war games and the United States increases its military support for Taiwan. 

In April, the US approved a $120 million sale of arms to Taiwan, the largest military sale to the island in over a decade. The sale coincided with a joint military exercise with Japan in the East China Sea in a show of force just beyond Chinese waters, adding weight to Joe Biden’s statement that US forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. 

Last year’s assembly saw more WHO member states than ever – including Germany’s new coalition party – appealing to re-install Taiwan as a WHA observer. But in the absence of a special invitation from the director-general to circumvent the WHO member states, the mounting pressure amounted to nothing. 

US: Taiwan is a “reliable partner and vibrant democracy”  

In keeping with what has become an annual routine, the United States and other key allies of Taipei have ramped up diplomatic efforts to pressure WHO into granting Taiwan accession to the WHA, just ahead of the start of the assembly on Sunday 21 May

This year’s debate was kicked off by a particularly forceful statement issued by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who called Taiwan’s exclusion from WHA “unjustified” and harmful to “global public health” and “security”.

Taiwan’s distinct capabilities and approaches – including its significant public health expertise, democratic governance, and advanced technology – bring considerable value that would inform the WHA’s deliberations,” Blinken said. “Inviting Taiwan as an observer would exemplify the WHO’s commitment to an inclusive, “health for all” approach to international health cooperation.” 

Blinken also highlighted Taiwan’s significant contributions to global health, including its track record of scientific research on COVID-19, and the aid it has provided to low-income countries with which it has relations.

“Taiwan is a reliable partner, a vibrant democracy, and a force for good in the world,” he said.

China began blocking Taiwan’s participation in 2017

China, which considers Taiwan to be one of its provinces, began blocking Taipei’s participation in WHO after the election of Tsai Ing-Wen in 2016, whose Democratic Progressive Party views Taiwan as an independent state.

Taiwan participated in WHO as an observer state from 2009 to 2016 under the name “Chinese Taipei”, a designation viewed as unacceptable by the current government.

Taiwan is not recognized as an independent state by the United Nations, and the WHO is far from the only international organization from which it is excluded. Chinese efforts have successfully blocked Taipei’s accession to other major organisations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization and Interpol, which facilitates worldwide cooperation between police forces. 

Meetings dedicated to “expanding Taiwan’s participation in the United Nations system and other international forums” took place in between US and Taiwanese officials Washington DC in April, with discussions focusing on “near-term opportunities to support Taiwan’s expanded participation in the coming WHA” and “meaningful participation in non-UN international, regional and multilateral organizations”, the US State Department said.

Taiwan is a member of organizations like the World Trade Organization, Asian Development Bank and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation since they do not require members to be states. 

“The one-China principle has the overwhelming support of the international community and represents the global trend,” Webin said. “This is not to be denied.” 

Drama around WHO’s relationship with Taiwan is not new

The 76th WHA marks the seventh year of headaches for WHO leadership, who have long struggled to navigate the minefield around the Taiwanese question. 

In an explosive 2020 interview by Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK news, top WHO official Bruce Aylward hung-up live on air after being pressed on the issue of Taiwan’s inclusion in the organization. 

The viral interview prompted heavy criticism and accusations of bias from Taiwan. Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, reposted the interview with Aylward in a tweet, saying: “Wow, can’t even utter ‘Taiwan’ in the WHO?”

Wu, who has been Tsai Ing-Wen’s foreign minister since 2018, has repeatedly criticized the WHO for its “continued indifference” to the health of Taiwan’s 23.5 million people, and has called on the organization to “reject China’s political interference.”

Accusations of bias in favor of China have also swirled around the WHO’s investigation into the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus.  Many independent critics found WHO’s initial mission to Wuhan in early 2021 and its subsequent report on the possible causes of the virus emergence to be too “soft” on China. 

Critics noted that the initial report failed to both demand transparency from government officials regarding data on human infection from the early days of the virus’ spread in Wuhan, or adequately investigate shortcomings in food safety practices as well as biosecurity lapses in a local virus research lab. 

WHO eventually sharpened its tone vis-à-vis Beijing, bolstered by the support of new US President Joe Biden who re-engaged with WHO after a chaotic year in which Donald Trump had suspended membership to the global health body.  

But Beijing never agreed to a second mission and thus in-situ research on the origins of the virus gave way to remote analyses of available shards of data

Taiwanese delegation will be present on the sidelines 

Despite Taiwan’s likely exclusion from official WHA proceedings, Taiwanese experts and civil society groups may be allowed to participate in expert working groups as well as other side-events. 

The Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association (TDDA), announced that at least 10 civil society organizations will make the trip to Geneva to participate on the margins of the WHA. 

The civil society participants say that they are organizing a parallel event to the World Health Assembly in Geneva to promote the stronger role Taiwan can have in public health diplomacy and the lessons learned from the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. 

Taiwanese civil society leaders also say that they are planning a walking demonstration through Geneva to advance Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO as well as launching a global petition supporting Taiwan’s participation in the WHA.  

Image Credits: © Keystone: Ritchie B. Tongo .

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