Why does India need to back Taiwan’s reentry to the World Health Assembly?

DelhiWritten By: Maj General SB Asthana, SM, VSMUpdated: May 19, 2020, 06:48 PM IST
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A global consensus seems to be emerging for Taiwan’s access to the WHO and other multilateral agencies, much against Chinese opposition. 

Coronavirus pandemic has forced the world to revisit its position on many global issues, and participation of Taiwan in the World Health Assembly (WHA) forum scheduled next week, is one of them. WHA is the world's highest health policy-setting body, through which the World Health Organisation (WHO) is governed by its 194 member states. The main task of the WHA is to decide on main international policy frameworks related to global health, approve WHO work programmes and its budget, and pass international health resolutions. Its tasks, especially at the time of the pandemic, indicate that it has to globally inclusive; hence cannot be seen to be isolating a particular segment of humanity from its programmes and participation. 

In the context of the above, Taiwan was invited on 28 April 2009 to participate in the WHA 2009 as an observer for the first time since losing its China seat in United Nations to People's Republic of China in 1971, despite ‘One China Policy’. In 2016, subsequent to democratic elections in Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen of DPP was sworn in as President. China was utterly uncomfortable with that applied political pressure on WHA. In May 2017, WHA succumbed to Chinese pressure to completely exclude Taiwan from its observer list. It was poor precedence in the history of WHA/UN.

What has changed Now? 

Taiwan's success in combatting COVID-19 pandemic has led to a change in global perception and US-led demand, supported by many nations for reinstating Taiwan’s observer status at the WHA, despite China's reminder of  ‘One-China’ policy. Taiwan just off the coast of China was predicted to have the second-highest 'importation risk' by any country with over 850,000 of its citizens residing and working in mainland China undergoing frequent travels. Considering the risk, having only 440 cases with seven deaths so far is creditable. Its success is attributed to early action by National Health Command Center (NHCC) established after the SARS outbreak, including border control (air and sea), efficient management of pandemic, resources, technological innovations and many other best practices, relevant for the world community. It has also dented Chinese narrative that an autocratic regime can handle the pandemic better than democracy. This has led to many countries expanding ties with Taiwan to bolster their own COVID-19 responses and recalibration of their Taiwan policy. 

Global politics over health Issue 

In March 2020, the US administration enacted Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act (TAIPEI Act), aimed at supporting Taiwan’s international presence. US is backing Taiwan’s “appropriate role” in the WHO, along with Japan, New Zealand, UK, Canada, Australia, France, many European and developing countries. Many countries are thankful to Taiwan for grant of much-needed resource assistance in combating pandemic, while many are collaborating in research and development, contact-tracing, and scientific engagements. This has further angered China, which is being increasingly seen as exploiting other countries during pandemic, by coercive adventurism in the strategic and military domain, besides profiteering out of pandemic. Many countries are also looking at WHA for consensus on asking for investigations regarding various aspects of the outbreak of COVID-19, delayed warnings, alleged slackness of WHO in a timely declaration of pandemic and ignoring Taiwan’s inputs, to prevent global reoccurrence. 

Taiwan has own reasons to demand international participation, as a democratic society, having elected government, own constitution, own defence forces, own currency, strong economy with a population exceeding more than three-quarters of the world’s nations; and territory larger than two-fifths of the world’s nations. A recent survey has indicated that most Taiwanese want to identify themselves as Taiwanese and not Chinese and support closer ties with the US. A global consensus seems to be emerging for Taiwan’s access to the WHO and other multilateral agencies, much against Chinese opposition. 

What should India do? 

India, ready to take over as the chairperson of the WHO’s executive decision making body at the end of May, needs to take a stand on whether to support the US-led multinational demand of reinstating Taiwan’s observer status at the WHA, or listen to Chinese argument of ‘One China Policy’. Taiwan is an important partner in the global fight against the pandemic, besides being an important potential commercial and technological investor. Its donation of about one million surgical masks to help India during pandemic should not be ignored. Strategically, most strategic partners/Quad members seem convinced about Taiwan’s re-entry into WHA, a fact which India cannot overlook. In my opinion, India must set aside global politics and take a moral position for Taiwan to be in WHA to share its best practices, in view of the unprecedented global pandemic requiring entire humanity to be together to combat COVID-19.

Likely outcome 

Despite all the efforts of the global community for Taiwan’s reentry as an observer in WHA, it may still not materialise due to technical reasons, as WHO could insist on approval from all its 194 members, before it can send out an invitation to Taiwan, which may not be possible. The demand for medical investigation might remain restricted to ‘Investigation by WHO’, which is unlikely to yield any result because of the high possibility of destruction of evidence. It will, therefore, build up a strong case in support of Taiwan by the global community, thereby putting pressure on China for the future. 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)