Taiwan and the WHO membership: Weighing politics in a pandemic

The question of Taiwan’s membership in the World Health Organization (WHO) arises again as a video footage of Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) interview with Bruce Aylward became viral. Aylward is the head of WHO mission to Wuhan on COVID-19.

Bruce Aylward, the Head of WHO Mission to Wuhan on COVID-19.

It is not the first time that the question of Taiwan’s membership in the WHO is debated by the international community. Taiwan enjoyed the privilege to join the WHO as a member state since the creation of the United Nations (UN) back in 1945 up to 1971 as the Republic of China. Taiwan is finally replaced by the People’s Republic of China, or China, since then.

The relationship turned sour, year after year. It is not until 2009 that Taiwan was allowed to attend the World Health Assembly (WHA), WHO’s decision-making body, as an observer under the name of Chinese Taipei. This came after the relationship between Mainland China and Taiwan warmed, as Taiwan was led by a Beijing-friendly leader, Ma Ying-jeou from the Kuomintang Party (KMT).

In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Taiwanese Leader Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore.

However, after the change of government in Taiwan — where KMT was outvoted by the Independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — in 2016, Taiwan is once again excluded from the WHO and from attending the WHA.

An analysis by Sigrid Winkler (2012) states that “China […] used Taiwan’s WHO participation as an attempt to boost Ma Ying-jeou’s domestic popularity, who is by far the most attractive ROC president from a Chinese perspective. Beijing thought that granting WHA observership to Taiwan would increase support for Ma in the Taiwan electorate.”

Therefore, as the less friendly DPP replaced KMT in 2016,China would like to more or less say that if Taipei’s leadership is not friendly to Beijing, so won’t Beijing be.

Taiwan argues that through its membership in the WHO, Taiwan can contribute to global health on the one side, and can protect its own people’s health on the other. Many in Taiwan argued that Taiwan’s exclusion from WHO is putting its 23 million people at risk especially in times of crisis like this.

Taiwan is reported to be among the least impacted by COVID-19 due to its swift, holistic, and systematic response. Many pointed out that Taiwan has learnt its lessons from the SARS outbreak that took place almost two decades ago. Many have also pointed out Taiwan’s ability to fight the crisis despite its diplomatic exclusion, highlighting its competence in managing public health.

Through its participation in WHO, or at least participation in WHA, Taiwan can have the access to recent developments about the outbreak, best practices, and so on.

Taiwan, in return, can share its experience in fighting the virus, and how it managed to suppress the number of confirmed cases remain low.

Many also pointed out that the designation of Taiwan as an entity under China — as what the WHO has done during this COVID-19 pandemic — could impact the accuracy of data that is gathered throughout this pandemic. Chunhuei Chi, a Taiwanese-American professor in global health at Oregon State University stated that in WHO’s world map of epidemic, the map indicates that Taiwan’s level of seriousness is given the same level as China — whereas Taiwan’s case is definitely lower than those in Mainland China. Given this designation, some airlines restrict travel from Taiwan, which Chi continues, “has a direct impact on Taiwanese people and airlines”.

The United States and Japan are among the countries who support Taiwan’s status as an observer in WHA. While the European Union and Canada have called for flexible mechanism for Taiwan’s participation.

As recent as March 26, the United States President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019 — which serves as a foundation for United States’ advocacy of Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international stage, which include the WHO.

The U.S. law says “it should be the U.S. policy to advocate, as appropriate, for Taiwan’s membership in all international organizations in which statehood is not a requirement and in which the United States is also a participant, as well as for Taiwan to be granted observer status in other appropriate international organizations.”

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US State Department will “do our best to assist” Taiwan’s “appropriate role” in the world’s highest health-policy-setting body.

China claims Taiwan as its own since the Nationalist lost the civil war from the Communist and fled the mainland to Formosa Island. It is unthinkable to see China giving away the opportunity for Taiwan to become the full member of the WHO anytime soon.

Taiwan’s full membership in WHO, if materialized, will set the precedence for Taiwan’s memberships in other UN bodies — while at present, Taiwan is only admitted in at least three international organization (APEC, IOC, and WTO) not under the name of Taiwan but Chinese Taipei.

On the other hand, China will try to prevent Taiwan to attain full membership in WHO for the reason that it will set precedence for other territories that are trying to break away from China to also seek membership and follow Taiwan’s path.

While many have criticized China for not letting Taiwan to participate in WHO — even amidst this pandemic, China has been reportedly collaborated with Taiwanese authorities amid the outbreak, with two Taiwanese experts traveling to Wuhan in late January.

The WHO, in turn, rebuffed criticism directed towards it by issuing a statement that the New York Times acquired saying that “WHO is working closely with all health authorities who are facing the current coronavirus pandemic, including Taiwanese health experts”.

In an article published by Foreign Policy, Stanley Kao who is the head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, expressed that [they] “are pleased that WHO took a positive first step by inviting medical experts from Taiwan to take part online in the international forum on the novel coronavirus on Feb. 11–12 in Geneva” — while emphasizing that it was not necessarily enough, and much progress needs to be sought.

However, when asked about Taiwan’s membership in WHO, it replies that Taiwan’s membership is up to member states not its staff.

There is some truth to WHO’s statement that “Taiwan’s membership is up to member states not its staff”. While I believe the question on Taiwan’s membership in WHO has a long way to go, if ever, at least policy-makers, especially the WHO, needs to take a swift action to mend the situation. Here’s what the actors can do better.

  1. For Taiwan: Strive for what is achievable. After the discussion above, I think it is pretty clear that Taiwan’s full membership in WHO is not to be seen anytime soon. Taiwan’s observership in WHA, though, is still attainable. However, what matters now is the availability of data and information for Taiwan vis-a-vis COVID-19 — and a platform for Taiwan to exchange knowledge and best practices on how to fight COVID-19. Taiwan can ask WHO to grant this to Taiwan — even in informal capacity, without requiring WHO to give Taiwan a full membership in immediate effect — which would only complicate the matter for now. It is possible that it is not only China that uses WHO membership a political carrot-and-stick for Taiwan — Taiwan using this pandemic as a political tool to gain membership in WHO is also a possible scenario.
  2. For WHO: Be a reasonable and accommodating international platform. If WHO’s actions are blocked by its constitution, international politics, and its legitimate member states, the WHO should endeavor to innovate — to find a way out that works for everyone. WHO should explore possible channels and mechanisms to monitor the situation of and exchange information with Taiwan. At the end of the day, the success of an international organization is measured by how successful it is in delivering to all the people.
  3. For China: Take wise steps, maintain international trust. It is not rare that China is portrayed as this evil player in international stage by other players in international relations — not playing by the rules, cheater, and the list goes on. If China can use — and capitalize — this momentum as an example of China behaving wisely, for example by opening itself for negotiation with international organization and other member states in this regard, China can gain international trust from its counterparts. It can show China’s quality in leadership. After all, what China needs while rising as a superpower in the 21st century is the trust from other states that it actually is dependable and can be trusted to lead.

International Relations enthusiast