Tensions Rise As China Keeps Taiwan Locked Out Of WHO

On May 24th, senior health officials from around the world will convene virtually for the annual 74th World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO). As COVID-19 continues to plague the world, the agenda this year will focus on strengthening international cooperation to end the pandemic and prevent the next global health crisis. Yet, one country has been excluded from the forum despite its exemplary COVID-19 response­. For the fifth consecutive year, Taiwan has not been invited to attend the WHA due to objections from China.

After the WHO failed to extend an invitation to the Taiwanese government by the registration deadline, Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Joanne Ou criticized Beijing for blocking Taiwan’s bid to attend the meeting. She stated that the Foreign Ministry will work together with the Ministry of Health and Welfare and “fight to the last minute” for a seat at the table.

China regards Taiwan as its own territory and opposes any official Taiwanese representation on an international level. In response to criticisms from Taiwan and G7 countries alike, Beijing claimed there was “no room for compromise” on the matter, according to a statement by Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chun Ying. She claimed that “appropriate arrangements” are in place for Taiwan to participate in global health forums and maintained that “no one cares more about the health and well-being of our Taiwan compatriots” than the Chinese government.

Hua went on to claim that the blame lay with Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for refusing to accept the island is part of China, and reiterated that they can access global bodies only if they concede. In the same statement, she also condemned the U.S. for its “political manipulation” of the issue, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken had released a statement urging the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to “restore Taiwan’s appropriate place” at the WHA by inviting them as an observer to the meeting.

Along with the U.S., other Group of Seven (G7) leaders expressed their support for Taiwan in the days leading to the deadline. According to Reuters, they released a communique that “scolded” China for using its economic clout to bully others. While they did vow to bolster collective efforts to stop China’s “coercive economic policies,” the statement did not mention any concrete actions they would take to ensure this.

Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China (ROC) was ousted from the WHO by China in 1972, mere months after its seat in the United Nations was given to China, or the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since then, Taiwan has not been able to participate in the WHA even as an observer, except from 2009 to 2016. During this period, cross-straits relations between PRC and ROC were relatively warm, and Taiwan was invited to the WHA as an observer under the name “Chinese Taipei.” This invitation, however, was renewed annually with China’s approval, and Taiwan remained “locked out of most WHO technical meetings where important health information and decisions were discussed,” according to experts from the Council of Foreign Relations. When current President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, ties frayed as she rejected the “One China” principle and promoted distancing relations with Beijing. Since then, China has maintained that Taiwan’s participation in international forums requires their consent, and cuts ties with any nation that recognizes Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Their great-power status has enabled Beijing to impose its “One China” policy upon the world. Most countries have informal relations with Taiwan, but very few have full diplomatic relations. While the WHO works closely with Taiwan’s technical experts on COVID-19, their formal participation at meetings is up to member states, said the WHO’s principal legal officer Steve Solomon at a news briefing. If WHO member states voted in Taiwan’s favor, they could be allowed as an observer to the meeting. However, with their immense global influence, China could easily corral its allies into blocking Taiwan from the meeting.

Evidently, Taiwan’s exclusion from the preeminent global public health institution persists entirely because of China’s overwhelming geopolitical power. Even within the organization, China’s growing influence cannot be overstated. In fact, the institution has received sharp criticism for its deference to Beijing in the early days of the pandemic. China faced a widespread backlash over its handling of early stages of the pandemic last year, with many condemning the disinformation tactics they employed to downplay the severity of the virus and manipulate information about the specter of its spread. Many were baffled, therefore, when Director-General Tedros lavished praise on President Xi Jinping for his handling of the outbreak and “openness in sharing information.”

According to Deustche Welle, some experts argued that the WHO wished to avoid putting China on the defensive, as this could have worsened the crisis if Beijing shared less information or barred specialists from entering China. Nevertheless, as evidenced by the lack of action points in the recent G7 communique, this seems to be the general reaction to China’s domination: some are quick to criticize, some ingratiate themselves with Beijing, but few will take decisive action out of fear of provoking the world’s rising superpower.

While China’s reputation has been dealt a blow as a result of the pandemic, Taiwan’s international profile has been considerably boosted, much to the chagrin of Beijing. According to CNN, Chinese officials have been infuriated with the bolstered global standing that Taiwan has experienced as a result of its success in fighting COVID-19. Taiwan’s government has received international praise for its successful containment of COVID-19, particularly for their early action and stringent quarantine regulations. With 1475 confirmed cases and 12 deaths as of May 16th, the island nation has one of the lowest coronavirus death rates in the world. Taiwan’s handling of the outbreak has been regarded as among the best in the world, and their exclusion from the WHO at a crucial point in the fight against COVID-19 will be detrimental to member states, especially those experiencing unexpected surges, vicious variants, and lagging vaccine rollouts.

Barring Taiwan from the meeting is one matter, but if Beijing purports to care for the Taiwanese people and have “made appropriate arrangements” for their health needs, they are claiming that Taiwanese public health issues are under their purview. This is wholly misleading and arrogant, since Beijing has had no hand in the praiseworthy pandemic response that Taiwan has executed. Credit for the island’s impressive handling of the outbreak should go to the government that took swift and early action to contain the spread. As reported by TIME, the admirable numbers that Taiwan continues to post are all the more impressive considering that they never “undertook the kinds of draconian nationwide lockdowns other countries… [implemented] to post such sterling results.” Objectively, Taiwan has had a much more effective pandemic response than China, with minimal fatalities and disruptions to everyday life. While they are not out of the woods completely – as hardly any nation is with COVID-19 – they certainly have valuable insight into the successful management of public health crises and the WHO should be actively seeking their participation in the upcoming forum.

A year into the pandemic, countries across the world are at different stages of their battle against COVID-19. While some are steadily improving with strict regulations and efficient vaccination programs, others have tightened restrictions and even returned to lockdown conditions. As countries proceed with either desperation or cautious optimism, leaders will be looking to consolidate global efforts in tackling the pandemic at the WHA, while also exchanging views on their own pandemic control policies. Furthermore, the WHA sets the agenda for advancing global health security so as to prevent the next public health crisis. It is therefore extremely remiss to exclude a country that sits on a wealth of knowledge and experience in implementing effective outbreak control. Taiwan can certainly provide wisdom on how to detect outbreaks early, act swiftly, and stay vigilant in the face of a great public health crisis.

Taiwan has proven itself to be an “integral link in the global health network,” in the words of President Tsai. “With more access to the WHO, Taiwan would be able to offer more help in the global fight against #COVID19.” Locking them out of an important forum at a crucial point in the world’s fight against the virus is blatantly disadvantageous for the WHO and all its member states, especially those in which the pandemic runs rampant.