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International relations

China seeks to deny Taiwan seat at key WHO meeting

Taipei's inclusion is backed by US, Japan and six Western nations

To gain observer status at the World Health Assembly meeting, Taiwan needs a simple majority of the World Health Organization's 194 member states. But getting the necessary 98 votes will be a formidable challenge. (Nikkei Montage/Source photo by Xinhua/Kyodo and AFP/Jiji)

TAIPEI -- When the World Health Assembly convenes next week, it will focus on the coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 4 million people and killed nearly 300,000. Yet one of the governments that has had the most success in battling the outbreak may not have a seat at the table.

On Monday, the World Health Organization will hold a vote to determine whether to grant observer status to Taiwan at the WHA, its decision-making body. While the ballot appears unlikely to go Taiwan's way, the number of countries showing support for Taipei will serve as an indicator of how much sway China has lost with many of the world's most powerful countries in the wake of the global crisis that originated within its borders.

On May 7, Geneva-based ambassadors from eight countries -- the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- issued a joint demarche to the WHO pushing for Taiwan's inclusion in the WHA. Led by Washington and Tokyo, the group includes six of the world's 10 largest economies and four of China's top trading partners.

Most countries have sat on the sidelines as the U.S. and China have gone head-to-head in their trade and technology wars, but Beijing and Taipei's contrasting responses to the pandemic have made governments around the world more critical of China, while eliciting praise for Taiwan.

"To some extent there is safety in numbers," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "China is unlikely to punish a large number of major countries in the world for speaking out in support of the reinstatement of Taiwan's WHA observership."

"China is the target of a lot of international criticism for its early cover-up of information about the pandemic, selling substandard and defective medical supplies, demanding public demonstrations of gratitude for its aid and other negative behaviors," Glaser said. "Beijing is unlikely to take punitive actions against a large group of major countries that could cause greater harm to its reputation."

The Chinese Communist Party claims Taiwan as its territory despite never having ruled it. Taiwan's government, officially known as the Republic of China, retreated to the former Japanese colony it seized in 1945 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949. The authoritarian ROC government held the China seat at the United Nations until it was replaced by the People's Republic of China in 1971.

The ROC government in Taiwan democratized in the 1990s and has been a global health leader for decades. It has won worldwide praise for its response to the coronavirus, with only 440 infections and seven deaths recorded so far. Taiwan's donations of millions of surgical masks to countries around the world have earned it additional international goodwill.

Masked baseball fans wear observe social distancing on May 8 in Taipei at the first professional Taiwan league game to allow spectators to attend since the outbreak of the coronavirus.   © Reuters

Monday's vote will require a simple majority of the WHO's 194 member states to approve Taiwan's observer status in the WHA, which convenes the following two days. But getting the necessary 98 votes will be a formidable challenge.

In addition to the U.S.-led group of eight, 14 of the 15 countries that recognize the ROC government have asked the WHO to invite Taiwan to the WHA as an observer. Beijing refuses to have official diplomatic ties with countries that recognize Taiwan's government, leaving those with embassies in Beijing to interact with Taipei on unofficial terms. As well as the 15 embassies in Taipei, however, there are unofficial diplomatic missions representing 47 countries in the Taiwanese capital, including a massive $250 million U.S. compound.

But it is unclear how many countries with official ties with Beijing will risk their political and economic ties with China to support Taipei's drive for WHA representation.

Jessica Drun, a nonresident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute who specializes in Taiwan's international status, told Nikkei she thinks Taiwan's chances of being voted into this year's WHA are "extremely slim."

"Beijing is already exerting diplomatic pressure against countries that have come out in support of Taiwan's observership -- New Zealand is the example that comes to mind -- and is likely doing so in a multitude of bilateral channels to ensure that a majority will not be met," Drun said.

Even if Taiwan fails to secure observer status, a vote total that is substantially higher than the expected minimum of 22 member states would be a moral victory for Taipei, and a sharp rebuke of Beijing.

A strong show of support for Taiwan in Monday's vote, Drun said, "will be another marker of the success of Taiwan's recent public health diplomacy push, which has largely elevated Taiwan's standing in the eyes of the international community and deepened existing unofficial and official relationships at the bilateral level."

She added it would also suggest that Taiwan's argument that its exclusion from the WHA prevents it from sharing its useful public health expertise with the global health community is gaining traction.

China previously allowed Taiwan's participation in the WHA as an observer from 2009 to 2016 to reward then-president Ma Ying-jeou for embracing Beijing's view that Taiwan and China are part of the same country. Taiwan's current president, Tsai Ing-wen, has stood firm in the face of China's demands that she take the same stance. Beijing has retaliated by blocking Taipei's participation for the past three years.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, speaks during a news conference on COVID-19, at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, in March.   © AP

Beijing has blasted this year's push for Taiwan to participate in the WHA. When asked on May 11 at a news conference about New Zealand's stated support for Taiwan, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry, did not mince words.

"On the Taiwan region's participation in WHO activities, China's position is clear and consistent: the One China principle must be observed," Zhao said. "The Taiwan authorities chose to play up its so-called participation in WHO events and return to the WHA at this moment. The timing reveals its true motive, which is to use the current outbreak to seek Taiwan independence. It is out-and-out political manipulation."

Zhao then pivoted to threaten New Zealand. "China urges New Zealand to strictly abide by the One China principle and immediately stop its wrong actions on Taiwan-related issues to avoid damaging bilateral relations."

New Zealand is one of many countries that count China as their largest trading partner. If it indeed goes ahead and casts a vote for Taiwan, how many other smaller countries might? China's recent turn toward a more aggressive and angry diplomatic tone could cause many countries to climb on the Taiwan bandwagon.

Territorial spats between China and both India and Vietnam have flared up recently. China's ties with Sweden and the Czech Republic have steadily deteriorated in recent months as well. Should a large number of countries show support for Taiwan, it will likely be less of a victory for U.S. diplomacy and more of an indication that China is alienating governments it once could count on to ignore Taiwan.

That could be the deciding factor in how Monday's vote shapes up, although Taiwan has done much to bolster its own case.

"China overplayed its hand and pushed too aggressively in punishing countries that criticized it for mishandling the COVID-19 outbreak and in trying to control and shape the narrative to save face," Drun said.

"The veil is being lifted," she said, "and like-minded countries are beginning to see past China's guise of being a responsible stakeholder, instead prioritizing politics and its own national interests above the well-being of the international community."

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