Commentary |
22 January 2020

As Wuhan virus spreads, Taiwan has no say at WHO

Chinese pressure keeps Taipei out of international organizations—putting everyone at more risk.

Originally published in Foreign Policy.

Natasha Kassam
Natasha Kassam

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) is convening an emergency committee of experts to assess whether the coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China, constitutes an international crisis. But one of the countries affected, Taiwan, will not be represented.

Taiwan confirmed its first case of the pneumonia on Jan. 21, a potentially fatal illness similar to the deadly SARS outbreak of 2002-2003. The United States confirmed its first case the same day.

Although official statements before last weekend claimed the infection was still confined to Wuhan and only a few dozen cases, the number of reported human infections has grown dramatically, to more than 500 in China, and cases have also now been confirmed in Australia, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea. The seventeen people who have been confirmed to have died from the illness were in Wuhan, and many of the others infected had lived in or traveled there.

All of this comes just days ahead of Lunar New Year, celebrated across Asia, when China’s government estimates that people will take 3 billion trips to celebrate the festival with their families, in the largest annual human migration in the world. Many of the 1 million Taiwanese living in China will return to Taiwan during this period.

But Taiwan is no longer able to attend the World Health Assembly, WHO’s annual policy meeting. China has prevented Taiwan from attending since 2016, after President Tsai Ing-wen was elected for the first time. Since her election, Beijing has stepped up its existing military and economic pressure on Taiwan, viewing Tsai’s pro-sovereignty status as a veil for Taiwanese independence.

Under what other circumstances would 24 million people be excluded from representation in such an important organization? Beijing—and the WHO authorities that bend to its will—is allowing political and diplomatic sensitivities to interfere with the administration of global health and safety.

Beijing relies on a United Nations resolution passed on Oct. 25, 1971, recognizing the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate representative of China to the U.N. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has openly thanked WHO for excluding Taiwan, blaming an inaccurate representation of Tsai’s views on Taiwan’s independence.

These efforts border on petty, with Beijing at times refusing Taiwan’s right to host sporting events. While Taiwan is able to participate in the Olympic Games under the name “Chinese Taipei,” there are questions as to whether Beijing will even tolerate this when China hosts the Winter Olympics in 2022. The East Asian Olympic Committee bowed to Beijing’s pressure and canceled Taiwan’s planned hosting of the East Asian Youth Games in 2018.

Taiwan has similarly been excluded from the International Civil Aviation Organization  (ICAO), despite Taiwan’s largest airport receiving 46.5 million passengers in 2018. While Taiwan was able to attend the 38th ICAO Assembly in 2013 as a special guest, it was refused entry for the triennial assemblies in 2016 and 2019.

Beijing’s successful attempts to exclude Taiwan from international organizations have serious consequences. While Taiwanese officials receive information on unfolding health crises such as coronavirus from counterparts in China or elsewhere, no formal mechanism exists to ensure that it is received in a timely manner.

Taiwan has a history of managing previous outbreaks in the region, from SARS to swine flu, well. It shouldn’t simply be a passive recipient of thirdhand information; it should have a seat at the table in the planning and preparatory meetings of WHO. Tsai herself said at a press conference on Jan. 22 that WHO should not exclude Taiwan for political reasons and find space to allow Taiwan’s attendance. By her side was Vice President Chen Chien-jen, who managed Taiwan’s response to SARS in 2003 as health minister. China was widely criticized for its opaque handling of the SARS outbreak, which claimed nearly 800 lives. It was only after two SARS-related fatalities that WHO agreed to send specialists to Taiwan.

But Taiwan’s experiences of late are limited to managing disease. As Tsai took to the stage on Jan. 11, reelected with a record number of 8.17 million votes, she had a message for the world: “All countries should consider Taiwan a partner, not an issue.” She’s right. Not only does Taiwan deserve to be a normal country, but there is much to learn from Taiwan.

Delegations of observers from all over the world, from Australia to Japan, the Czech Republic to the Philippines, traveled to Taiwan to witness the Jan. 11 elections. Tsai in her acceptance speech noted the election had received “unprecedented international attention” and she hoped in turn that “Taiwan will be given a fair opportunity to participate in international affairs.”

Taiwan has a long history of being bullied by China, a situation that many other countries are slowly waking up to. The solutions it has been forced to find to questions such as how to balance the demands of an increasingly authoritarian Beijing against the attractions of its lucrative market, how to manage relations with Washington when the United States seems to be retreating from the region, and how to defend its democratic system in the face of actors apparently intent on undermining it are ones that others badly need. As a result, Taiwan has weathered the U.S.-China trade war better than any other Asian tiger, despite the economic interdependence between Taiwan and China’s economies—without conceding ground to Beijing. While many other third-wave democracies have backslid, Taiwan is one of the freest societies on Earth, according to Freedom House. Taiwan has been on the front lines of these debates for decades.

China’s efforts to airbrush Taiwan’s existence and control the international narrative about the inevitability of unification are in part to convince the international community that Taiwan isn’t worth a war. International observers may hope that China may adopt a more flexible policy toward Taiwan over the next four years. But the internal logic in Xi Jinping’s China makes this unlikely. Instead, the next four years will likely see more pressure on Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners and less space for its international participation.

But Taiwan can flip that strategy. By encouraging more international support in areas like health that are clearly in the national interest of the United States or Australia, it can hope that China will continue to see that the costs of a messy, high-risk, protracted war outweigh the costs of patience.

In some areas, it will be difficult for other countries to navigate Beijing’s sensitivities about Taiwan. Negotiating trade agreements or conducting joint military exercises may be a step too far—but issues such as health and aviation have direct national interest consequences for many other players.

Only international support can resist China’s efforts to erase Taiwan. The coronavirus outbreak is deeply worrying but also a timely reminder that Taiwan needs to be readmitted to WHO and other international bodies. Rather than treat Taiwan as a problem to be resolved, it should be a partner in the challenges that liberal democracies will face over the decades to come.