Coronavirus COVID-19: Taiwan in the WHO? The United States are pressing, China is resisting "In the unlikely event that the director general offers, or even WHO members approve a status for Taipei, China could attempt to organize a vote against it to overturn this decision”

“I come too. No you no” sang, in the song and album of the same name, Enzo Jannacci in 1967. A refrain that immediately entered the ears of the Italians, but which seems to adapt perfectly to a current theme of the past few days, in full Coronavirus pandemic: in a few days, on May 17th, the 73rd Assembly (WHA) of the World Health Organization (WHO) is scheduled by videoconference, and the request to participate as an observer in Taiwan, returned to the fore after the rumors about the American diplomatic efforts reported in the Wall Street Journal, it constitutes another battleground between China and the United States. To the voices reported in the printed paper was added the appeal addressed to all Nations, including Europe, last week by the US Secretary of State in person, Mike Pompeo, very hard, especially at the time of COVID-19, in the his criticisms of Beijing for not preventing the global epidemic after Wuhan’s first outbreak, and of the WHO as a ‘hostage’ for the Chinese Communist Party. To apply for Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly, the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Organizations has even launched a Twitter campaign called #TweetForTaiwan because “it’s time for Taiwan to be heard” to “bring the his experience in the fight against COVID-19 “.

Nothing new given that already in 2017, several countries, including Japan, Australia, Germany, as well as the United States, had expressed themselves in favor of Taiwan and, the following year, in 2018, sixty Italian senators had expressed their solidarity with the government of Taipei: 57 of the League (including Matteo Salvini and Gianmarco Centinaio become Ministers), and 3 of Forza Italia (Lucio Malan, Maria Rizzotti, Giancarlo Serafini), presented a question to the Senate to find out what the Italian government (Count 1) intended to take action to end the exclusion of Taiwan.

“But why? Why not!” the refrain of Jannacci’s song continued, but in the case of Taiwan, the explanation of the impossibility to participate and to be recognized by multilateral organizations such as the WHO would be to be found in its history: Beijing considers Taiwan to be its ‘rebel’ province and according to Steven Solomon , WHO lawyer, “the People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate representative of China within the United Nations system. About 49 years ago, in 1971, the UN and WHO decided that there is only one legitimate representative of China within the system and it is the People’s Republic of China. ”

Words perceived as an affront from Taipei that was quick to respond: “Only the democratically elected government of Taiwan has the right to represent the island and its inhabitants on the international scene,” said the spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Island, Joeanne Ou, according to spokeswoman Ou, however, the 1971 policy resolved only the question of the representation of mainland China, and therefore did not give Beijing the right to represent Taiwan internationally.

The island government is convinced that China has prevented it from accessing crucial information. To counter the Chinese Ambassador to Geneva Li Song, who assured that Beijing transparently informs Taipei. In the same wave, the spokesman of the Beijing Foreign Minister, Geng Shuang, who clarified that “nobody cares for the health of the Taiwanese people more than the central Chinese government”. However, Taipei Foreign Minister Joseph Wu does not give in to the WHO request to recognize that “the health of China and Taiwan are administered by independent and separate authorities.”

But this is only the last part of the controversy in which Taiwan and WHO have been engaged since the beginning of the pandemic emergency: “For years we have been excluded from international organizations and we know better than anyone else how it feels to be discriminated against and isolated, “Tsai had relaunched in early April, in which the leader of Taiwan invited WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to” resist pressure from China and go to Taiwan to personally verify the efforts made field to fight COVID-19 “. A month ago, in fact, the Taiwanese government reacted to the WHO allegations that “racist insults” would come from the island to the detriment of the general manager Ghebreyesus who, on Wednesday 8 April, had reported the alleged racially motivated insults against him, coming, according to him, from the island. The President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing Wen, however, had categorically denied the accusation, supported by the spokesman of the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry Ou who had kept reiterating that “the concept of racism in Taiwan does not exist. We don’t have a problem of racism”.

For the Taipei government, the Coronavirus pandemic has not changed China’s policy of stifling the autonomy of the secessionist island by excluding it from the mechanisms of the WHO. It should be remembered, however, that from 2009 to 2016, Taiwan had been able to participate in WHO activities as an “observer” under the name of “Chinese Taipei” until, in 2017, President Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Party progressive (Dpp) and independence, he did not take the lead of the Island government, inaugurating a policy of refusal of the ‘1992 Consensus’, the agreement between the Island and the Continent on the existence of ‘one China’.

The main opposition force from Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese nationalist party, also urged China to participate in the WHO Assembly and urged China to abandon its strategy aimed at “exercising on every occasion” its own repression on the island and not to ignore the Taiwanese people’s right to health as the majority of the people of Taiwan expect to be able to participate fully in the WHO events.

If it is true that Beijing has continued, despite the emergency, to repress Taiwanese independence demands also in the WHO, it is also true, it is the Taipei thesis and the testimonies of doctors and experts from the Center for Disease Control (Cdc) Taiwanese, that this boycott of Taiwan, supported by the ‘compromising’ report, also by the World Health Organization, may have contributed to weeks of delaying the global response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Cdc epidemiologists have been on high alert since last December due to what appeared then as a mysterious viral pneumonia epidemic in Wuhan and as early as December 31, 2019, the Taiwanese government agency had warned the WHO that, however, he decided to ignore it. Early in the year, to ensure coordination, Taiwan had established a unified command center, the National Health Command Center, with civilian and military personnel led by the Ministry of Health and entrusted with the supply of health devices and communication. .

On January 12, the CoC even sent two epidemiologists to the city of central China, the epicenter of the infection, to independently collect information about the nature of the infection and almost simultaneously issued the first alarms directed to doctors and hospitals, inviting the macherine N-95 and other protective equipment, and to wear them in contact with patients with pneumonia of unknown origin or who need assisted breathing. On January 24 the Taipei government blocked the exports of the masks (increasing their production to 10 million for the local population) and their subsequent distribution to the citizens of the Island, and on February 6 all the entrances of Chinese citizens, subjecting to mandatory quarantine visitors from Hong Kong and Macau.

As if that were not enough, Taiwan’s indication as an integral part of China has pushed countries like Italy and Vietnam to suspend flights to and from the island when they stopped them with China. After the Taipei government protests, Hanoi removed the ban, while the Italian government kept it in effect.
On Monday, February 7, WHO was then forced to correct its report on the coronavirus situation after mistakenly claiming that there were thirteen cases in Taiwan. So much so that Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu criticized the World Health Organization for referring to the island as part of China. “@WHO, what’s wrong with you? First you called us ‘Taiwan, China’, then you went to ‘Taipei’. You incorrectly reported confirmed cases and now you call us ‘Taipei and surroundings’. Look! Taiwan is #Taiwan and is not part of the #PRC. ” In addition to some diplomatic partners from the Island such as Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nauru, Saint Kitts and Nevis and the Marshall Islands, Andrew Bremberg, United States Ambassador to the UN, also had to clarify that “it is a technical imperative that WHO presents public health data on Taiwan as an affected area and interacts directly with the public health authorities of Taiwan on the actions to be taken “while, according to the Japanese diplomatic representative in Geneva, Ken Okaniwa,” we should not create a geographical vacuum leading to a situation in which a specific region cannot join the WHO even as an observer “.

It should not be forgotten, however, that Taiwan, once the WHO came to declare the pandemic, immediately activated the ‘health diplomacy’ or ‘mask diplomacy’, sending medical material to the most needy countries, including Italy . A golden opportunity to be accredited globally, not only as an independent and authoritative entity, but also in contrast with bitter rival Beijing, suspected of being among the main causes of the global emergency. To this end, from the early days of the pandemic, the Taiwanese diplomatic offensive in the round has resulted in a social campaign #TaiwanCanHelp precisely to convince of the reliability and the need to recognize the island’s independence (from Beijing) and his involvement in the resolution of the crisis given the efficiency of the strategy implemented against the virus: after all, with only 376 cases and a dozen deaths, Taiwan’s response model to COVID-19 made Taipei one of the main examples all over the world. This is also thanks to masks produced in massive quantities and in a timely manner, carpet pads, big data for tracking.

There would be allies for Taiwan in addition to the United States. Canada, Japan, Australia could be in the game. Today, China criticized New Zealand for declaring itself in favor of Taiwan’s participation, asking to “stop making wrong statements” on the issue of Taiwan’s statehood, on pain of damaging relations between China and New Zealand. What about Europe? It should be remembered that, in the Old Continent, only the Vatican has official relations with Taiwan.

Will it be able to obtain WHO observer status in Taiwan? What procedure is planned? How will China weigh its veto? What position will European countries take? It’s Italy? We asked Ross Darrell Feingold, an Asia expert based in Taipei.


The United States government took the field alongside Taiwan, supporting the island’s request to participate, as an observer, in the next World Assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO), scheduled from 17 to 21 May. Why is it so important now for the United States that recently approved the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act? Is it another way to attack the WHO and, above all, China?

The TAIPEI Act imposes requirements on the US executive branch departments (such as the State Department) to advocate for and report to the US Congress about, US efforts to assist Taiwan to participate in international organizations. In reality, these requirements have been sent by Congress to the executive branch departments previously, in various laws over the years. The TAIPEI Act also suggests that the executive branch should retaliate against countries that take unfriendly actions towards Taiwan. In reality, the executive branch usually doesn’t like Congress to impose such directives on how foreign policy is made or conducted, and under the US Constitution, such directives are of dubious constitutionality. Thus, the TAIPEI Act is not by itself a trigger for the United States to criticize the World Health Organization or to criticize China. The United States would support Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, would criticize the WHO (keeping in mind US’ criticisms of the WHO, especially by Republicans, pre-date COVID-19), and would criticize China or change US policies towards China (keeping in mind the Trump Administration has pursued these initiatives ever since it came into office in January 2017), without the TAIPEI Act. However, the TAIPEI Act did make for a good bipartisan action in the US Congress, which is rare, and the government and most people in Taiwan were grateful for the US Congress passing, and President Trump signing, the TAIPEI Act.

Can disengagement and having cut funds to the WHO, leaving space for Beijing, backfire like a boomerang against the United States and their attempt to get Taiwan involved as an observer? Does Washington no longer have levers within the WHO?

Whether nor not the US pause on funding to the WHO will boomerang on US foreign policy goals, its relationship with allies and friendly countries, or efforts to control the virus and re-open economies remains to be seen. The answer is not necessarily to analyze what the US will do, or how long the funding pause will last. Rather, the answer is with the leaders of key countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Will they, separately from the United States, continue to engage the WHO? Or, will they participate in US efforts to substantively change the way the WHO operates? The United States certainly has levers separate from the WHO, so, whether or not it has levers within the WHO might no longer be important. The likelihood is high that the US will seek to engage with allies and like minded countries bilaterally or multilaterally, and in the case of the latter, possibly through creation of a global health platform similar to the anti-ISIS coalition organized by the US.

To request Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly, the US State Department has also launched a Twitter campaign called #TweetForTaiwan. The Twitter account of the State Department’s Office of International Organizations called on the international community to support Taiwan’s inclusion in the upcoming Wha assembly to allow Taipei to “bring its expertise in the fight against Covid-19. “. Why did it seem necessary to start a social campaign in the United States? And is it having success?

The US government under the Trump Administration has frequently used social media such as Facebook and Twitter, or statements by officials posted on US government websites, to promote US-Taiwan relations, and to encourage other countries to maintain their relationships with Taiwan whether diplomatic relations or other substantive relations. For example, when sending congratulatory messages to countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan on the occasion of those countries national days or other significant events, the US now has a habit of mentioning those country’s relations with Taiwan and other democracies. The fact that the US has initiated a Twitter campaign shows how difficult it is for Taiwan to even achieve the modest result of being invited as an observer to this year’s World Health Assembly. It also shows that Taiwan’s own efforts are insufficient and it needs the help of the US. Ideally, this would not be necessary, and Taiwan would have already persuaded important countries to demand that the WHO director general Tedros Adhanom invite Taiwan as an observer.

By statute, designating the status of a country’s observer to the WHO is a task entrusted to member countries and not to the leadership of the organization. Can you explain the procedure? And do opposing countries like China have a veto?

The World Health Assembly Rules of Procedure give the director general broad authority to invite observers to the assembly each year:

The Director-General may invite States having made application for membership, territories on whose behalf application for associate membership has been made, and States which have signed but not accepted the Constitution to send observers to sessions of the Health Assembly.

Whether or not Taiwan falls within the definition of the entities that are within the director general’s authority to invite as observers is open to debate. Regardless, from 2009 to 2016, in a process that involved negotiations among China, Taiwan and the WHO director general, Taiwan’s health ministry was invited to attend as an observerunder the name of Chinese Taipei. This was an annual invitation, and not permanent, nor was there any action by the WHO to treat Taiwan as a sovereign country. The WHO constitution does not provide for the invitation of observers or guests to the annual Assembly. It does of course provide for how states can become members, or associate members (a status that applies to territories that do not conduct their own international relations; there are currently two associate members, Puerto Rico, a territory of the US, and Tokelau, a territory of New Zealand). Members can of course vote at the assembly to take action that would facilitate Taiwan’s participation, including, if necessary, to revise the WHO constitution. It is unlikely that WHO members have interest in taking such votes during the World Health Assembly.

What is the difference between a member country and an observer country?

Under Rule 45 of the Rules of Procedure:

Observers of invited non-Member States and territories on whose behalf application for associate membership has been made may attend any open meetings of the Health Assembly or any of its main committees. They may, upon the invitation of the President, and with the consent of the Health Assembly or committee, make a statement on the subject under discussion.

Such observers shall have access to non-confidential documents and to such other documents as the DirectorGeneral may see fit to make available. They may submit memoranda to the Director-General, who shalldetermine the nature and scope of their circulation.

However, there is an important point to keep in mind that is often misunderstood. The above is merely to serve an observer at the World Healthy Assembly annual meeting. It is not relevant to participation in the day-to-day activities of the World Health Organization. Thus, even if Taiwan become an observer (again) at the World Health Assembly, it’s interactions with the World Health Organization, at least as of now, will still be governed by the 2005 “Memorandum Between the World Health Organization Secretariat and China”.

Steven Solomon, WHO’s principal legal representative, said that WHO recognizes the People’s Republic of China as “China’s only legitimate representative”, in accordance with a policy that has been in force at the UN since 1971. We can better explain why China is against it and what are the legal reasons that justify it?

China’s position is that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan is not an independent country, and thus, only the PRC can represent Taiwan in international organizations for which statehood is required. Such organizations would include the United Nations and UN agencies and affiliates. For the WHO secretariat, the easy answer is to say this question is not within the secretariat’s authority to determine, and is up to the United Nations or the UN (or World Health Assembly) members.

How much money is China earmarked for WHO? As a lever of negotiation, could China threaten to cut WHO funds?

WHO funding comes from primarily two sources, a biennial assessment (which are issued half in USD and half in CHF) plus voluntary contributions. China’s WHO contributions have grown in recent years, though its biennial contribution is only USD28,719,905 and CHF29,323,023. Estimates are that China’s voluntary contributions in 2019 was only USD10.2 million. By comparison, estimates for the USD total contribution (assessment plus voluntary contribution) in 2018-2019 are USD893 million. China thus cannot threaten the WHO with a funding cut off. Rather, China could use its political leverage with many countries around the world, to ensure that the WHO supports initiatives that are consistent with China’s foreign policy goals.

However, Taipei has not always remained outside the WHO: in fact, from 2009 to 2016, a period in which relations between the island and Beijing were better, with the name ‘Chinese Taipei’, Taiwan had been allowed to participate in the work of the World Health Assembly as an auditor. Why did China allow it? And was the rise to power of the Democrats to break this custom?

In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, was elected president of the Republic of China on Taiwan, and he was re-elected in 2012. During his two terms he pursued policies that sought better relations with China, including the adherence to something known as the “92 Consensus”, a framework that negotiators from Taiwan and China allegedly agreed to in 1992. Under this framework, each side would recognize there is one China, but that China would call it the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan would call it the Republic of China. For China, the important thing in this framework is a recognition by Taiwan’s government that Taiwan is part of China, even if the two sides are separately governed at present; there is no attempt to declare a “Republic of Taiwan” or formally disassociate Taiwan from the institutions of the Republic of China (such as the Constitution). During this period, China did not object to Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly as an observer, or the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as a guest. President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2020, does not agree that the “92 Consensus” is the framework for China-Taiwan relations. Thus, China no longer accepts, and actively blocks, Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly and ICAO.

“Only the democratically elected government of Taiwan has the right to represent the island and its inhabitants on the global stage,” said the spokeswoman for the Taiwanese foreign ministry, Joeanne Ou, according to which the 1971 policy resolved only the Mainland Chinese representation issue, and did not give Beijing the right to represent Taiwan internationally. Are there legal reasons that give reason to Taipei?

Even if Resolution 2758 in 1971 only resolved the question of UN representation for areas under the authority of the government in Beijing, Taiwan’s challenges are numerous. In 1971, Taiwan withdrew from the UN before it could be expelled, and at the time, the government (the same nationalist government had retreated from the mainland at the end of the civil war) objected to attempts to have both the ROC and PRC represented at the UN. Even during the Ma Administration between 2008 and 2016, Taiwan did not seek to join the UN, though the immediate predecessors (under presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian) had. Now, the Tsai Administration does not seek membership in the UN, but seeks participation in UN activities. This can be confusing for the international community. In addition, although some countries only “acknowledge” China’s position that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China, some countries accept it. Thus, the hurdles for Taiwan’s UN participation are very high, and China has enough influence to ensure that the UN does not hold votes on Taiwan’s participation.

In the demand for participation within the WHO, the main Taiwanese parties, DPP and the (increasingly less) pro-Chinese KMT party, have been cohesive. Why?

Politicians in Taiwan are in favor of greater participation in international organizations, and this reflects the will of Taiwan’s population. It is not a partisan issue whether or not to participate. Where the DPP and KMT differ is that, at least between 2008 and 2016 under President Ma, whether or not to accept the 92 Consensus and otherwise to allow China to have some say in Taiwan’s participation. The DPP does not want invitations to the WHA or other international organizations to be based on accepting the 92 Consensus, or, to be based on China’s (formal or informal) approval. In the past, the KMT was more willing to negotiate with China about these issues.

According to the revelations of the Taiwanese press, the Cdc – agency of the Ministry of Health of Taiwan in charge of the fight against communicable diseases – had been on high alert since last December due to what appeared then as a mysterious epidemic of viral pneumonia to Wuhan. And already on December 31, the CoC sent a warning to the WHO, but the latter, “hostage of China”, decided to ignore Taipei, which had been out of the agency for years. Is this accusation by Taipei credible? And, in these criticisms of the WHO, does Taipei seem to agree with Trump?

There is much inaccurate reporting about the content of Taiwan’s message to the WHO on 31 December 2019. On 11 April 2020, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a tweet that includes a screenshot of the 31 December 2019 email to the WHO, with a brief explanation why it refers to human-to-human transmission. Taiwan’s claim is that the inquiry emailed to WHO on 31 December 2019 about cases “treated in isolation” refers to human-to-human transmission, notwithstanding that the words human-to-human transmission are not in the 31 December 2019 email:

News resources today indicate that at least seven atypical pneumoniacases were reported in Wuhan, CHINA. Their health authorities replied to the media that the cases were believed not SARS; however the samples are still under examination, and cases have been isolated for treatment.

I would greatly appreciate it if you have relevant information to share with us.

Thank you very much in advance for your attention to this matter.

Best Regards,

Taiwan has not released any other evidence that the words ‘human to human transmission” were used in a communication to the WHO in the period prior to China and/or WHO admitting the truth. The email shared in the 11 April 2020 tweet is consistent with what Taiwan officials said at a press conference on 24 March 2020 when Taiwan first publicly discussed the 31 December 2019 communication to WHO, i.e., that Taiwan wrote to the WHO and China to ask about human to human transmission. The WHO did not respond to Taiwan’s email, which, of course, is inappropriate behavior and is inconsistent with the spirt if not requirements of the International Health Regulations (IHR). However, Taiwan’s attempts to explain that it “meant” human to human transmission is of course disputed by China and the WHO.

“If the WHO’s mission is really to ensure the highest level of health achievable for every human being, then WHO needs Taiwan just as Taiwan needs WHO,” says Health Minister Chen Shih. -chung of Taipei which accuses the Organization of having created a dangerous flaw in the global mobilization against the pandemic. Taiwanese vice president Chen Chien-jen said the island wanted “an opportunity to share our knowledge and experience and our technologies with other countries”. Since the ‘Taiwanese model’ seems to have been a winner, what has the international community lost and lost from keeping Taiwan out of the WHO, including in the management of the coronavirus pandemic?

The international community has lost the participation of Taiwan in World Health Organization activities in part, though not entirely. Taiwan does participate in some WHO technical meetings. In addition, Taiwan’s key partner countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan and the United States maintain substantive cooperation with Taiwan on many issues, whether aviation safety, environmental protection, food safety, public health, transnational crime, or security issues. Taiwan provides healthcare assistance programs through its government or non-government organizations to many developing countries around the world. It’s a falsehood to say that willing countries cannot cooperate with Taiwan absent Taiwan’s participation in the WHO, but of course, and it is a falsehood to say that the WHO platform is the best way to cooperate with Taiwan. However, it is understandable that Taiwan wants to participate in the WHO, and certainly, there will be a broader exchange of information with other countries if Taiwan is a WHO observer or member.

Staying out of the WHO, what has Taiwan lost in managing the epidemic? Was it more difficult to access scientific information? And, for this, could not develop drugs or vaccines?

Taiwan’s success in fighting the epidemic proves that being in the WHO is no shield to the epidemic, and that a government excluded from the WHO can be successful fighting the epidemic. Taiwan is cooperating with several countries on vaccine initiatives, and its own domestic research institutions are also working on vaccines. There is no proof that exclusion from the WHO makes it difficult for Taiwan to develop drugs or vaccines.

According to Tony Chen Hsiu-hsi, an epidemiologist from the National Taiwan University’s College of Public Health, “to effectively contain an epidemic, you need to get active early and act quickly, so as to save time. Waiting for the epidemic to accelerate and starting to impose territorial blockages or extensive interventions risks being too late and completely ineffective, because at that point the virus may have already spread everywhere “. Can you explain the secret of Taiwan’s success in managing the COVID-19 epidemic?

Taiwan’s success is based on the early imposition of travel restrictions on travelers from or with a recent travel history to Wuhan, and subsequently, all of China, the lack of an expatriate population of PRC citizens and shrinking number of Chinese visitors prior to the outbreak who might have imported the virus into Taiwan, and effective contact tracing and quarantine measures. Given the relatively small number of confirmed cases, it is hard to assess whether the health care system have better treatment solutions compared to other countries, but to their credit, as of 10 May 2020 out of 440 cases there are only six deaths, thus, the health care system is also doing an excellent job.

What would allow Taiwan’s entry into the Assembly as an observer?

For Taiwan to become an observer requires political courage by the United States and other countries to impose a vote or force the director-general to agree to invite Taiwan. While this might still involve China’s consent, the western democracies and Japan need to be more willing to take substantive action beyond simply making public statements or sending tweets.

In what other multilateral organizations does China discriminate against Taiwan?

In multilateral organizations that require statehood to participate, Taiwan is precluded from participation. In the organizations that do not require statehood such as the World Trade Organization, or Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Taiwan is known by various names such as The Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu (WTO) or Chinese Taipei (APEC), and in organizations where Taiwan is not a member names used include “Taiwan, China” (World Bank). These names are considered demeaning by Taiwan’s government and people. China also restricts hiring of Taiwan citizens and entry by journalists from Taiwan.

Trump has often attacked the WHO to be China’s “hostage”. Will it also use the Taiwanese dossier to reiterate this concept in an attempt to cover the failings of its management and save its reelection?

Clearly Taiwan is one among many of the Trump Administration’s concerns with the WHO. These concerns are generally valid (mismanagement, deference to China, slow response to COVID-19) even if other countries, especially in Europe, prefer that change at the WHO can come about in a less combative atmosphere. Unlike the other issues such as mismanagement, deference to China, or a slow response to COVID-19, Taiwan’s participation has no room for a debate over what the facts are, or who is right or wrong. Taiwan is excluded because China insists that Taiwan cannot participate as a member, and that Taiwan can only participate as an observer if China consents. In the dispute over Taiwan’s participation, even if China accuses the US of using Taiwan for the US’ own political purposes or as part of US complaints about the WHO generally, the fact remains that advocating for Taiwan’s participation is the morally correct thing to do.

Between Washington and Taipei, who has more interest in raising the Taiwan issue in the WHO?

The government in Taiwan has more interest in raising the WHA/WHO issue, simply because it wants to prove to the citizens of Taiwan that its policies can achieve better international participation outcomes and specifically, can achieve these outcomes without agreeing to the “92 Consensus” or other demands from China. If Taiwan is invited to the WHA, or increases its participation in the WHO, without any concessions to China, it will further increase the political capital that it won in the recent election. It might also set precedent that can be used to achieve Taiwan’s meaningful participation in other international organizations.

It is highly unlikely, but if Taiwan regains observer status, what does China risk? Would its unity and representation be questioned?

China will initially be embarrassed, both with domestic stakeholders (including political opponents in Hong Kong) as well as with foreign governments. However, very quickly China would attempt to “spin” such a result in its favor, such as by accusing the US and Taiwan of being anti-China (rather than only anti Chinese Communist Party), citing examples where other countries did not want regions seeking autonomy to have such status internationally, and taking actions such as more military exercises around Taiwan. There will definitely be a response from China, though obviously the US and Taiwan have considered the potential Chinese responses and are not in fear of them.

Could the recognition of Taiwan by other multilateral organizations follow the status of observer to WHO?

If Taiwan gains observer status at this year’s WHA, it may seek to emulate this at other UN-affiliated organizations, as well as international organizations not affiliated with the UN. China will fight this separately at each organization, including by seeking more countries to take its side in this dispute. So, the medium term and long term outcomes for Taiwan are very much unknown.

If Taiwan manages to gain WHO observer status, could military tensions between China and Taiwan rekindle?

Over the past four years ever since Tsai was inaugurated in May 2016, China has increased military exercises around Taiwan on the air and water, as well as land (or amphibious landings) exercises conducted in China. Even during the first few months of 2020, simultaneous to the Taiwan election, lunar new year and the virus outbreak (for which the People’s Liberation Army provided significant medical and other resources), China continued to conduct exercises around Taiwan. This will continue in the coming four years regardless of the WHO observer status, though China could cite observer status for Taiwan as a step towards “Taiwan independence” to justify military exercises that include a more troops or equipment, and / or the introduction of new aspects such as the air or sea routes China’s military travels through.

Could China threaten economic relations with Taiwan?

China still needs Taiwan-based investors to resume operations in China (after the virus), invest new monies in China, and to not relocate out of China. So, China has important incentives to make Taiwan companies feel that doing business in China is safe. So even if China terminates the bilateral “Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement” with Taiwan, it will probably replace it with incentives offered to Taiwan investors on a unilateral basis outside the framework of a bilateral agreement. However, it is certainly possible that China will limit its purchases from Taiwan, even while still trying to welcome Taiwan investors to invest in China.

Less than a month ago, the United States military reconnaissance RC-135U was intercepted near Taiwan’s airspace on the same day that the Ministry of National Defense confirmed that several Chinese fighter jets from J-11 fighters, KJ-500 early warning planes and H-6 bombers were monitored in the southwest of the island. If Taiwan achieves WHO observer status, could tensions rise again in the Pacific between the United States and China?

Tensions will continue to increase in the East China Sea and South China Sea even without tension between China and Taiwan. The issues on the agenda are already numerous, such as sovereignty disputes with Japan, sovereignty disputes with several Southeast Asian countries, and China’s efforts to be the East Asia superpower to the exclusion of the US, United Kingdom, Australia and other countries. It’s inaccurate to cite Taiwan’s WHA or WHO participation as a trigger for more tension in the region; rather, it is simply one on a growing agenda of issues.

And for Taiwan, but especially for Democrats, what would that mens?

The results of the recent election show that the Taiwan public has enormous confidence in Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party to manage relations with China, or, to manage tensions with China. The strong relationship between the Taiwan government and the Trump Administration, and strong bi-partisan support in the US Congress for Taiwan from both Democrats and Republicans, is also a confidence booster for Taiwan. Thus, as of today, other than in the military or national security agencies, people in Taiwan generally do not worry about China’s reaction to Taiwan’s efforts to participate in the WHA or WHO.

If Taiwan does not obtain observer status at the WHO, will there still be repercussions between the United States, Taiwan and China?

Regardless of what happens in the coming days at the WHA or in the short term at the WHO, China will of course be angry at the United States and Taiwan over actions that demonstrate to the world Taiwan is autonomous, not governed by the People’s Republic of China, and increasingly does not refer to China and Taiwan as both being Chinese but only under separate administrations (such as what the “92 Consensus” contemplates). There will be repercussions, whether economic, military and/or political. Although the repercussions do not deter Taiwan’s government from doing what it thinks best for the people of Taiwan, neither the Taiwan government, nor the people, or Taiwan’s international friends, should underestimate the potential for China to take action that put Taiwan’s economic, military or political security at risk.

Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, Taipei has activated a diplomatic strategy exemplified by the hashtag #TaiwanCanHelp for international accreditation. Could COVID-19 provide a golden opportunity for independence activists?

Taiwan will need global support to become an independent country recognized by other countries with diplomatic relations, especially if China uses military force to prevent this from occurring. If those who favor changing the country’s name and constitution, and other actions to de jure make Taiwan an independent country, COVID-19 is not sufficient. Many countries still want to cooperate with China on virus issues, and some don’t even accuse China of covering up the severity of the situation. Thus, it’s unclear how people in Taiwan can make COVID-19 part of a successful strategy, versus the better arguments such as the People’s Republic of China from its establishment in 1949 has never ruled Taiwan, and that (absent a military response from China) most people in Taiwan would prefer to create a new country called Taiwan and disassociate from the Republic of China or People’s Republic of China.

How was Taipei’s participation in the WHO by Taiwanese and Chinese public opinion during this pandemic period?

The people of Taiwan are very much in favor of Taiwan’s participation in the WHA, WHO and other international organizations, and prefer to do so under the name “Taiwan” and not “Chinese Taipei” or other names that Taiwan sometimes uses in international organizations. As for the public in China, naturally the state media in China will always allege that the public supports the positions of the Chinese government on such issues. The Chinese government and individuals acting on behalf of, or independently of, the government also have a large Internet presence especially in the Chinese-speaking world (Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and overseas-based Chinese language media). Thus, nationalism is also strong in China. However, we also observe that an increasing number of dissidents in China, or who left China, support Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, or even Taiwan independence. Their numbers might be small, but it is a trend to watch over time.

According to news reports, Washington is putting pressure on the ‘European allies’. But in Europe, except the Vatican, no country has official diplomatic ties with Taiwan. So on which countries could this pressure be more successful? And on which less? 

The United Kingdom has traditionally been willing to take actions favorable to Taiwan. It is often more willing to send senior government officials to Taiwan (rather than only members of parliament), and in 2015 it changed the name of its representative office (in the absence of diplomatic relations) to British Office in Taipei, from the previous name “British Trade and Cultural Office”. The name change was seen as making the office look more like an official representative of the UK government (which in reality it is), rather than an independent or non-governmental organization acting on behalf of the UK government. France similarly changed the name of its office in Taiwan in 2011, but because of the legacy of military sales to Taiwan in the early 1990s that damaged relations with China, it is probably less willing to be a leader on political support for Taiwan, and, anyway, will work within the European Union external relations framework which currently might support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations but will not support countermeasures against China over the Taiwan/WHA issue. Frankly, the same can be said for other EU members as well, especially the influential countries such as Germany.

The representative of Taiwan in Italy, Ambassador Andrea Sing-Ying Lee has hoped that the Italian government “will take a stand against the discrimination we suffer from China”, for example in multilateral organizations such as the WHO. What position will Italy take, under pressure from the American ally, but also from the partnership with China (Silk Roads, ‘health diplomacy’), without forgetting, however, that Taiwan also sent medical supplies during the pandemic?

While members of parliament might speak in support of Taiwan’s WHA and WHO participation, Taiwan should not have hopes that the Italian government will take any significant action separate from the European Union’s statements. The current coalition government does not appear likely to want a bilateral dispute with China over Taiwan issues. The League appears to be unfriendly to China more recently, but even Matteo Salvini when he was deputy prime minister attended events promoting China-Italy trade relations, and before he entered government, Italian media reported that a willingness to learn about China’s economic relations.

And the Vatican?

The Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with the Republic of China but it is well documented that the Vatican is seeking to improve relations with the People’s Republic of China in the hope that better relations will allow the Vatican to better serve China’s Catholics (a hope disputed by many Catholics around the world). Generally, the Holy See does not sign letters of support or issue statements with regard to Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. Prior to the United Nations General Assembly in 2019, most (but not all) the countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan delivered a joint letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to express support for Taiwan’s participation in the U.N. The Holy See’s representative to the U.N. did not sign the letter in support of Taiwan, and only the deputy permanent representative participated in the letter’s delivery. We should expect the Holy See to take a similar approach with regard to the WHA, i.e., support Taiwan’s participation, but with limited actions.

Pressure from the Trump administration is also targeting non-European allies. Canada, Australia and Japan, according to some journalistic reconstructions, are already ready to give their support. It’s true? And what other non-European countries could support the American commitment to Taiwan?

In past years these countries usually issue statements in support of Taiwan’s observer or other meaningful participation status at the WHA, though not necessarily WHO activities after a WHA meeting. It is still unclear if these countries will substantively do anything different this year versus past years.

Which countries could support China’s veto? The rival countries of the United States?

Many countries in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Southeast Asia will support China on this issue. These countries often refer to Taiwan as being part of China. Just days ago, the Philippines presidential spokesman described Taiwan this way. The fact that Taiwan’s next door neighbor described Taiwan as part of China shows how great Taiwan’s challenges are.

In conclusion, do you think Taiwan will be able to achieve WHO observer status?

Taiwan is likely to achieve some kind of status at the WHA or WHO that is an improvement over its current status. The things to watch out for is whether it is limited to the WHA, or is long term i.e., an improvement in its interactions on a regular basis with the WHO, and, whether or not it is “open ended” or still requires an annual invitation. No observer status is permanent even though the term “permanent observer” is often used inaccurately in the context of UN agencies. In the unlikely event the director-general offers, or even members at the WHA approve, a status for Taiwan (for example, similar to the Palestinian Authority), China can try to organize a members vote to overturn it.