by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Thorkild Tylleskar/WikiCommons/CC

TAIWAN WAS NOT invited to the annual World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting again this year, despite a number of nations calling for Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHA as an observer. The WHA is the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations (UN) agency responsible for global health.

Taiwan was previously allowed to participate in the WHA as an observer under the Ma administration, much as China refrained from other moves aimed at constraining Taiwan’s international space such as poaching Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies and coercing or enticing them to break off relations with Taiwan. However, Taiwan has been prevented from participating in the WHA since the Tsai administration came to power.

WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo credit: Thorkild Tylleskar/WikiCommons/CC

As part of its efforts to exclude Taiwan from participating in the WHA, China tries to push the claim that this is simply complying with international law, China claims that Taiwan should only be allowed to participate in international organizations under its “One China” Principle, attempting to assert that this is the same as UN Resolution 2758. Similarly, China often tries to push the narrative that the US “One China” Policy is the same as China’s “One China” Principle, sometimes succeeding in confusing even US government officials.

Last year’s push by Taiwan to participate in the WHA saw significant support from the Trump administration, which saw the issue as a convenient one with which to attack China. As such, the US State Department started a campaign on Twitter using diplomatic accounts to call for Taiwan’s inclusion. Taiwan also saw support from member states of the European Union and Japan.

Likewise, this took place at a time in which Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHA had been highlighted in a number of international incidents. Taiwan had managed to avoid the worst of COVID-19, with the pandemic stopped at the border, and received international accolades in doing so. Consequently, the WHO was called on to learn from Taiwan and its successes fighting COVID-19.

The concerted effort by the WHO to avoid the issue of Taiwan was made quite clear in a video interview by RTHK journalist Yvonne Tong with WHO assistant director-general Bruce Aylward in which Aylward awkwardly attempted to avoid any mention of Taiwan. After criticisms from Taiwanese netizens, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attempted to allege that the Taiwanese government had organized a racist campaign of online harassment against him, further enraging Taiwanese—who crowdfunded an ad in the New York Times seeking to call attention to Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO in spite of Taiwan’s potential contributions to global health.

However, it seems that momentum last year was insufficient, resulting in Taiwan eventually voluntarily dropping its bid for WHO participation. It is improbable that Taiwan will see backing on par with last year’s push in the near future. Indeed, Taiwan still saw expressions of support from allies this year for its bid for WHO membership, with the current Biden administration also calling for Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO, but doing so in a more subdued manner.

This year, Taiwan has finally been affected by COVID-19 and is currently under near-lockdown conditions. What caused Taiwan to finally succumb to COVID-19 was lack of access to vaccines. Although some have credited Taiwan’s successes fighting off COVID-19 to, in part, ignoring WHO recommendations that downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, at the same time, exclusion from international organizations can exclude Taiwan from crucial resources or information. Arguably, this is the opposite situation from last year, in which the WHO and international community writ large could have benefited from learning from Taiwan, but this was prevented from happening—now Taiwan could do with assistance from the international world, but this will also not take place. All this returns to Taiwan’s international isolation.

Photo credit: US Rusal Photo Gallery/Flickr/CC

Either way, Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO potentially creates a hole in international efforts to fight COVID-19, with international cooperation proving key if there is to be a global recovery from the pandemic. But the WHO is not the only international organization Taiwan is excluded from despite the international risks, with Taiwan also excluded from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN body that regulates international air travel. Taiwan has sought to point to how its exclusion from the ICAO poses dangers, given the large amount of air traffic that passes through Taiwan, but this has been to no avail.

Still, one does not expect Taiwan’s exclusion from international organizations such as the WHO to change anytime soon. This has long been a dilemma faced by Taiwan and this continues to take place during the pandemic.

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