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US slams WHO and China for excluding Taiwan from key meeting

Pompeo accuses the global agency of playing 'politics while lives are at stake'

A banner with pictures of world leaders is seen before Taiwan's Health Minister Chen Shih-chung's May 15 news conference in Taipei about Taiwan's efforts to get into the World Health Organization.   © Reuters

TOKYO/NEW YORK -- The U.S. condemned the World Health Organization on Monday for bowing to Chinese pressure to not invite Taiwan as an observer to a key meeting this week of the institution's decision-making body.

"The United States condemns Taiwan's exclusion from the World Health Assembly," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, accusing the multilateral organization of "play[ing] politics while lives are at stake."

"WHO's Director-General Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus] had every legal power and precedent to include Taiwan in WHO's proceedings" but chose to bow to Beijing's pressure, Pompeo said in a statement. "The director-general's lack of independence deprives the Assembly of Taiwan's renowned scientific expertise on pandemic disease, and further damages the WHO's credibility and effectiveness at a time when the world needs it the most."

Taiwan dropped its bid to attend the meeting as an observer earlier in the day. 

Pompeo lauded Taiwan for mounting one of the world's most successful efforts to contain the pandemic despite its close proximity to the original outbreak in mainland China.

Beijing's "spiteful action to silence Taiwan exposes the emptiness of its claims to want transparency and international cooperation to fight the pandemic, and makes the difference between China and Taiwan ever more stark," he added.

Earlier Monday, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told reporters that countries want to use the shortened two-day online meeting to concentrate on containing the pandemic, and suggested that the proposal for Taiwan to join be taken up later this year.

"After careful deliberation, we have accepted the suggestion from our allies and like-minded nations to wait until the resumed session before further promoting our bid," Wu said.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs expresses deep regret and strong dissatisfaction that the World Health Organization Secretariat has yielded to pressure from the Chinese government and continues to disregard the right to health of the 23 million people of Taiwan," he added. "The people of Taiwan abhor the two-faced behavior of the Chinese government, which claims to care for their health and welfare while actually seeking to deprive them of their right to health at every turn."

Twenty-two nations -- 14 of the 15 countries that recognize the Taipei government and a group of eight led by the U.S. and Japan -- had been forecast to back Taiwan's participation in a vote ahead of the meeting.

While many countries with official relations with Beijing are upset at China's initial handling of the coronavirus, the pulling of the vote shows that they are not willing to risk political and economic ties to support Taipei's drive for WHA representation.

Both Beijing and Taipei furiously worked the phones in the runup to the two-day online assembly, with the latter emboldened by support from eight powerful countries. In a joint letter to the WHO, the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand called for Taiwan's inclusion, citing the island's expertise in handling the coronavirus within its borders.

Taiwan has failed to win observer status since President Tsai Ing-wen, a China-skeptic, first came to power in 2016. But the island's campaign this year has extra heft because of its adroit response to the coronavirus, recording only 440 infections and seven deaths so far.

"The continued exclusion of Taiwan from WHO has seriously compromised the Organization's overall disease prevention efforts," Belize's health minister Pablo Marin wrote in a May 6 letter that accompanied the draft resolution. He called Taiwan "an ideal model for many WHO member states."

A formal proposal was submitted to the WHO by Belize and Central American, Caribbean, and Pacific states that have maintained ties with Taipei, despite the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switching sides to Beijing last year.

New Zealand in particular has angered Beijing for both backing Taiwan's participation in the meeting, and joining over 60 countries in calls for an international investigation on the origins of COVID-19. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson last week called for New Zealand to "stop making wrong statements on Taiwan to avoid damaging our bilateral relationship."

The scrapping of the vote will come as a relief for WHO administrators, who would prefer to focus the annual meeting on the global coronavirus response and other items on agenda, including universal health coverage, vaccinations, food safety, and health conditions in Palestine.

WHO officials have come under fire for alleged acquiescence to China. Most notably, U.S. President Donald Trump has claimed the organization ignored Taiwan's warnings of atypical pneumonia cases in mainland China.

"WHO had determined that the information provided by Taiwan held no value, and it neglected to respond," Taiwanese health minister Chen Shih-chung said last week.

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