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Taiwan Dispute Spotlights Political Challenges Ahead of WHO Meeting

By Tina Chung May 14, 2020

Next week the World Health Organization holds its annual meeting, where the U.S. will press for Taiwan to be included, despite China's objections.

At a time when the WHO is battling to curb the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. officials have accused the group of bowing to political pressure from China, backing Beijing's preference for excluding Taiwan, despite Taipei's success in the coronavirus fight.

U.S. officials also have accused the WHO of putting China-friendly politics ahead of its global health mission, arguing that Beijing's lack of transparency continues to hinder the global fight against the novel coronavirus.

Taiwan to receive invite from WHO director general?

This week, the U.S. State Department urged WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to invite Taiwan as an observer to the World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO's highest decision-making body, as his predecessor did, emphasizing that Taiwan's inclusion is consistent with all U.N. and WHO resolutions.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on "all nations" to support Taiwan's participation as an observer at the WHA, and in other relevant United Nations venues.

On Monday, Steven Solomon, the WHO's principal legal officer, said Taiwan's attendance to WHA was up to the WHO's 194 member states.

"To put it crisply, director-generals only extend invitations when it's clear that member states support doing so, that director-generals have a mandate, a basis to do so," Solomon said in a briefing with reporters.

He also said the WHO recognizes the People's Republic of China as the "only legitimate representative of China," in keeping with U.N. policy since 1971.

China has been opposed to Taiwan's participation in the WHO's annual meeting since 2016, after the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party's candidate Tsai Ying-wen was elected president. Beijing also stepped up efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally, including successfully persuading most of Taiwan's last few diplomatic allies to sever ties.

In recent days, Beijing made it clear that it previously acquiesced to Taiwan's participation in WHA because of the prior Taiwan government's position on the eventual unification with China.

On Thursday, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman criticized a proposal submitted by several WHO members to include Taiwan in the WHA as an observer, calling it an effort to "severely disrupt this WHA and undermine global anti-pandemic cooperation."

Taiwan's past as WHO observer

From 2009 to 2016, Taiwan was invited by the former director-general to be an official observer. A U.S. State Department spokesperson said in an email to journalists this week that the current WHO chief should do the same.

"DG Tedros has the authority to invite Taiwan to participate as an observer, as his successor did before him. We are calling for him to do so."

The statement noted, "When the political party that the PRC did not favor won Taiwan's presidential and parliamentary elections in 2016, the invitation extended regularly by the DG abruptly and arbitrarily ended, beginning with the 2017 WHA."

The statement called Taiwan a part of the international community. It said Taiwan has admirably handled the COVID-19 pandemic and should rightly be invited to serve as an observer at the WHA. It also said, "Taiwan's participation is fully consistent with all UNGA and WHA resolutions."

Earlier this month, several countries, including Japan, Canada, and Britain, issued verbal demarches to WHO executives in Geneva, urging them to allow Taiwan to participate in WHA next week. The U.S. Senate passed a bill Monday calling on Secretary of State Pompeo to devise a plan to help Taiwan rejoin the WHO.

At the end of last year, as news of atypical pneumonia began to emerge in Wuhan, China, Taiwan asked the WHO to share relevant information regarding the possible outbreak. Taiwan says its request was met with silence. Taiwan has complained its exclusion from the world health body harms the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Chinese government considers Taiwan part of its territory and says Taiwan is using the epidemic to seek independence. In an interview on Fox News on May 12, Taiwan's Minister of Foreign Affairs Jaushieh Joseph Wu called the Chinese narrative "a lie" and emphasized Taiwan is not part of China.

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