Taiwan and the WHO membership: Weighing politics in a pandemic

Bruce Aylward, the Head of WHO Mission to Wuhan on COVID-19.
In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Taiwanese Leader Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore.

Taiwan’s Argument for Membership in WHO

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.

Beyond Pandemic: The International Relations Dimension

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.

Middle Ground, at least for now

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.

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Angelo Wijaya

Angelo Wijaya

International Relations enthusiast