Why Taiwan is not invited at the virus talks

Why Taiwan won't have a seat at the virus talks
President Tsai Ing-wen's government in Taiwan is seen as pro-independence. Source: Reuters
6 Min Read

Daily US Times: Since the coronavirus pandemic began in early January of this year, health officials across the world will virtually come together next week at the World Health Assembly to decide how the world should tackle the crisis. But Taiwan will not be invited to this meeting of the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), despite the country has been most successful at protecting its people from the disease.

Taiwan has been applauded internationally for its effective and quick response to contain the virus. It said it should have a platform to share its experiences with the world.

But China has blocked Taiwan’s attendance since 2016. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory.

In recent weeks, the EU, US, Japan, and several other nations have backed Taiwan’s bid to attend the meeting on 18 May as an observer.

Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected earlier this year. Source: Getty Images

China- facing international criticism for both missteps in the early days of the spread and being the source of the pandemic – has hit back with zeal.

The Taiwan dispute is long running, but professor of political science at Davidson College and long-time Taiwan researcher Shelley Riggers says there may now be “diminished patience” from some countries with an objection from China which “feels very abstract and ideological in a moment of, you know, global catastrophe”.

Why is Taiwan’s attendance controversial?

Taiwan has been self-ruled since the mainland government was toppled by the Communist Party in 1949 and fled to the island.

Beijing insists that it is the legitimate ruler of Taiwan under One China Policy and it will one day be brought back under the leadership of the mainland, if necessary by force.

Since Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party took power, relations with Beijing have soured while the current government is seen as pro-independence.

Taiwan has its own currency and army and is treated by some governments as though it’s a de-facto state.

Drew Thompson, former US Defence department official responsible for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia says: “China’s pretty steadfast on this, and it has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with China’s relationship with Taipei, and with President Tsai-Ing-wen who refuses to recognise China’s sovereignty over Taiwan.”

Taiwan was previously invited the annual meeting. Source: Getty Images

All but 15 countries have cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan under Chinese pressure. But Taiwan has lobbied hard to be recognised by international bodies like the WHO and others, as a way to seek legitimacy in the international arena and it has not always been left out. Under the previous government, it had observer status at the WHO under the name “Chinese Taipei”. But since 2017, after Tsai Ing-wen’s election, it has not been invited back. The previous government wanted better relations with China.

But since 2017, after Tsai Ing-wen’s election, it has not been invited back.

Every year since then, Taiwan has lobbied member countries to be included. But ahead of this year’s meeting, the voices of support for Taiwan have come loud and clear.

While in the past other countries may not have thought it worth it to risk offending China, but experts say that calculation has changed with Covid-19.

She says: “Now, it’s not just about the health of people in Taiwan. It’s about the health of the people in our own countries. So you’re asking us to trade that away.”

How does Covid-19 change things?

Taiwan has had overwhelming success battling the coronavirus. In a population of 23 million, it has recorded only 440 cases and seven deaths. The success attributed largely ban on foreign visitors, early border controls, and mandatory quarantine for all Taiwanese people returning home.

This has given it a renewed impetus and justification to be included and invited in decision-making about global health.

The 180km-wide Taiwan Strait separates China and Taiwan. Gallo Images

US Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee leaders sent a letter on 8 May to nearly 60 countries saying it “had never been more important to ensure all countries prioritise global health and safety over politics”.

The letter said China’s “bullying tactics” had “undermined Taiwan’s ability to contribute to international response efforts” and put everyone at greater risk, so it must be allowed to attend the WHA meeting.

Several major powers have responded, including Canada, Australia, Japan New Zealand and the EU, though none is suggesting abandoning the One China policy, which gives Taiwan its ambiguous status.

Taiwan has also won global appreciation for being transparent in sharing information about coronavirus cases. It was also applauded for helping other nations with supplies like masks, even those that don’t recognise it.

The United States has had a long-standing policy of support for Taiwan, as a key ally.

How has China reacted?

China has always bristled at what it calls foreign interference in its internal affairs but this time it has really upped the threats and anger, positioning Taiwan’s aim to be invited at the WHO as a bid for its independence.

Xinhua, the state media of China, has published article after article lambasting the US in particular.

It said: “There is only one China in the world. The government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.”

The state media calls on the US to stop politicising the international response to the pandemic.

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