Taiwan - the contested bone of global health diplomacy amid pandemic mayhem

A factory worker Taoyuan, Taiwan wears a mask of the Taiwanese flag during a visit of President Tsai Ing-wen. © Keystone: Ritchie B. Tongo

What is at stake? Over a dozen World Health Organization Member States have proposed inviting Taiwan as an observer to the upcoming World Health Assembly (WHA), taking place virtually on May 18 and 19. The US-inspired move is formally led by a number of small countries and island states in Africa, central America, the Caribbean, and the Western Pacific. But along with the US, it is supported from the wings by much bigger powers, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan - all keen to contain Chinese ambitions in the Pacific region. Taiwan, with a population of 23 million and a democratically-elected government, has stood out a model of coronavirus control with 460 cases and seven deaths only, to this date.

Why is it a problem? The proposal comes amid increased tensions between China and the United States over the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which US President Donald Trump blames on Beijing. The US administration, now at the pandemic epicentre, has also blamed the WHO for “China-centric” policies that failed to contain the virus in its early days.

China, on the other hand, regards Taiwan’s as an island province, led by a rogue government, and perceives any foreign expressions of support for Taipei as intervention in its own internal affairs.

Taiwan and the UN

  • The UN Membership: Resolution 2758, approved in 1971 paved the way for the official of exclusion of Taiwan, the Republic of China, from the club of UN member states. The resolution, approved by UN member states determined that therebe only one seat to represent China, and that seat is currently occupied by the People's Republic of China.

  • WHO’s position: Taiwan is not a separate state by UN definitions, and that is a policy the WHO Secretariat has to follow. But the doors are not totally closed to technical contacts and information flow via informal bilateral channels, notes Geneva Graduate Institute Professor Gian Luca Burci, former chief WHO legal advisor:

“WHO is probably the only organization in the UN system that has contacts with Taiwan. Most of them have absolutely closed doors.”

  • Observer Status: Former WHO Director General, Margaret Chan, invited Taiwan as an observer to the World Health Assembly between 2009 and 2016. Significantly, however, Chan did not issue an invitation to the last WHA in May 2017 over which she also presided. What changed? Firstly, in January 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, a Beijing skeptic, had been elected president of Taiwan. Then in 2017, the May World Health Assembly saw the election of WHO’s first director general from Africa, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian Health Minister. After assuming his post, DG Tedros Ghebreyesus did not renew the invitation to Taiwan to participate in annual meetings of the WHA, WHO’s member state decision-making body.

WHO’s new Director General and Taiwan

Is it because China supported his election - it’s a question many are asking?

“One needs to be careful with these associations,” warns Burci.

“When Taiwan was invited, the [Taiwanese] Kuomintang party, friendly to China, was in power. There was a more conciliatory tone. Almost like a reward to Taiwan, the invitation was [issued] on the basis of this understanding and all the key countries were very happy with these arrangements.”

Since Tsai Ing-wen’s election, the conciliatory tone between China and Taiwan has changed. The window of dialogue has closed.

“The DG is not in a position to invite Taipei anymore. It’s as if the canton of Schauffausen were invited to attend the [World Health] Assembly without the consent of the Swiss Federal government.”

Procedure: Under WHO’s constitution, there are two ways to invite a governnment [usually in dispute] to attend as a WHA observer - after a proposal is sent by member states to the WHO:

  • The Director General can issue an invitation personally;

  • Or the issue can be placed on the WHA agenda for a vote by the 194 Member States. But first, this has to be decided by the WHA General Committee, which determines the final order of business. In the past three years, an “elegant solution” was reached whereby just two Committee members would submit the request for Taiwan to particiapte as an observer, two would oppose it, and the rest abstained. And thus it wouldn’t go on the full WHA agenda at all.

“It’s a complicated choreography… Every year there has been a resolution with this request but there has always been an agreement with two countries in favor and two against,” explained Burci.

What’s the problem this year?

  • For the first time in its history, the Assembly will be virtual.

  • The WHA agenda is supposed to be restricted to two topics: Covid-19 and the election of 10 new members to the WHO Executive Board, the 34- member WHO governing body. .

  • There is no broad consensus to support Taiwan’s status as an observer and the Director General will therefore not extend a personal invitation. There is also no unspoken deal this year, either. among Member States side to avoid a vote on Taiwan in the plenary. And with the pandemic, it is not possible for diplomats to see each other as usual. So, without a political agreement beforehand, the China-Taiwan divide will likely be aired publicly, live over the internet, something member states try to avoid. Says Burci it could be “a mess”:

“Imagine the Assembly opening with 194 Member States connected by Zoom. Connection will be terrible, it will be chaotic. And on top of that, the [WHA] president introduces this proposal. If there is opposition, the Assembly will have to vote, and [if] it is impossible to vote, this could be an element of paralysis and confusion right at the beginning. It could be a mess, a catastrophic failure of the Assembly.”

An image the WHA does not want to create before the world in the middle of a pandemic. So a gret deal of diplomacy is underway right now in Geneva to mediate between the US and China.

Who blackmails who?

  • China’s viewpoint: Taiwan backed by the US is capitalizing on a moment of panic to score political points.

  • The US viewpoint: The US would never support Taiwan’s membership but always supported Taiwan’s participation as an observer. “There is a big pro Taiwan lobby in Washington up to a point. But with the Trump administration the bilateral situation with China is such that WHO is the collateral damage,” said Burci.

  • Taiwan’s position: Exclusion of Taipei from important UN agencies like the WHO poses real security and health threats. And this happened once before already, during the SARS epidemic in 2003, which also hindered response. Taiwan can also contribute to WHO and United Nations global health goals. What if the WHO had listened more carefully to the Chinese Republic’s early warnings in the very early days?

  • Game score: “You can argue either way,” said Burci. Despite early warnings about the seriousness of Covid-19 and its successful management of the epidemic, Taiwan has been largely sidelined during this crisis; its expertise and role not been recognized. But…. if you look in other direction, it’s also not the time to score political points.