ISSN 2330-717X

Taiwan’s Bid For World Health Assembly: Losing The Battle, Winning The War – OpEd

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Yet, for the sixth time in a row since 2016, Taiwan lost a battle for being invited to the World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making apex body of the World Health Organisation (WHO) meeting which concluded its 75th meeting in Geneva on 28th of this month.

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It is an irony of contemporary times that in spite of its yeoman service to mitigate the scourge of the pandemic, Taiwan is deprived of a seat at the high table as an observer.  It is indeed unfortunate that although Taiwan fulfills all the attributes of the statehood such as a well-defined territory, a cosmopolitan and composite population, and a track record of good governance and its standing in the comity of nations, due to the obduracy of China, Taiwan is denied an observer status at the WHA meeting, and also multilateral bodies like the Interpol.

Taiwan’s resolve and tenacity to stand up against the Communist behemoth and its menacing military might in its backyard is awe-inspiring. Needless to say, Taiwan is the leader in the semiconductor industry so critical to the world’s growth engine. It has also emerged as a center of learning and education attracting students from the world over including from India. It offers affordable and quality education, even scholarships to students from all over the world.

True, Taiwan might have lost the battle, but it needs to be recognized that it is increasingly winning the war for deepening democracy, at a time when there is a threat to democracy as is evident in the developments in Ukraine and China’s belligerence.  This time thirteen of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies had submitted a proposal to invite Taiwan to participate in the WHA meeting as an observer. The proposal was discussed by the WHA general committee on the 23rd of this month. The committee, however, decided not to invite Taiwan. There is, however, a surge of goodwill for Taiwan’s participation in the WHA event. Brazil, an important member of the BRICS, also extended support to Taiwan, besides a large number of world Parliamentarians including the Formosa Forum.

Earlier in 2009, Taiwan which China regards as a renegade province participated in the World Health Assembly as an observer for the first time since its withdrawal from the United Nations in 1971 when the pro-Beijing KMT was in power. Taiwan continued to participate in the WHA deliberations as an observer till 2016 when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) assumed power in Taiwan defeating the KMT. China has been opposing the participation of Taiwan in the WHA, the reason being DPP’s stance on the independence of Taiwan which DPP espouses. It is unfortunate that in spite of its contributions to various countries of the world to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, it is systematically denied a seat at the high table of WHA at the behest of China. Beijing perceives the growing popularity of DPP and the deepening of democracy as anathema to the Communist regime.

After the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, China has been more stubborn in its resistance to Taiwan’s participation in the WHA. This year, however, there was a well-orchestrated campaign led by the US to ensure that Taiwan is invited to the event. President Joe Biden recently signed a bill to help Taiwan regain observer status at the WHA. The bill envisages that Taiwan remains a model contributor to world health, having provided financial and technical assistance to respond to the numerous health challenges as the country has invested more than US$ 6 billion in international medical and humanitarian aid.

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China’s strategy has been to isolate Taiwan in its international outreach to the world.  The US under President Joe Biden has resumed funding the WHO after its withdrawal during President Trump. There were reports suggesting that the US funding of WHO might be contingent upon the member countries attending the WHA meeting in favour of Taiwan. It will be a piquant situation if the US decides to stop funding the WHO as was done by President Trump earlier.

There were other developments indicating the growing estrangement between Tedros, the Director General of WHO and China which has been very supportive of him in the post-pandemic period. Earlier, Tedros had defended China’s handling of the pandemic when Beijing was subjected to severe criticism by the world community including the USA. Recently, however, WHO under the leadership of Tedros has been very critical of China’s Zero-COVID-19 strategy adopted in Shanghai which has witnessed an unprecedented spread of the virus recently. Tedros had urged China to change tack saying that its approach “will not be sustainable” in the face of the fast-spreading variant.

The observation prompted China to censor Tedros’s views suggesting that he no longer enjoys China’s support and other hand indicating that he might listen to the USA. It is against this backdrop that there was speculation that Tedros may consider extending an invitation to Taiwan. Of course, it could not be the decision by Tedros, but the Assembly as a whole. The failure of WHA to extend invitations to Taiwan in spite of US efforts speaks of the clout of China in the world body, whose credibility is now increasingly questioned.

In this changing situation, there were expectations that India should play its card deftly. India’s position with regard to Taiwan has been changing significantly even within the framework of its ‘one China Policy’. While there is a groundswell of goodwill for Taiwan in the civil society, the media, and even in the political spectrum cutting across political lines, the government has also ignored the Chinese missives advising members of Parliament not to indulge in activities contrary to ‘one-China policy. If China does not care about India’s sensitivity with regard to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), India need not be too sensitive to take a call on supporting Taiwan’s bid for a seat at the high table at WHA. India has courageously refused to endorse President Xi Jinping’s pet One Belt, One Road initiative, and may consider supporting Taiwan in its bid for WHA participation. China should agree to disagree if it wants to repair and normalize its relationship with India.

*Rup Narayan Das is currently a Taiwan Fellow at the National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan. Views are personal.)

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