Despite having no coronavirus cases for seven straight days and no locally transmitted cases for 32 days, Taiwan will be forced to look on anxiously when the World Health Organisation (WHO) holds its annual World Health Assembly (WHA) on Monday.

As a non-member, Taiwan is hoping it will be allowed to participate as an observer through a member state vote.

world health organization
WHO Headquarters main conference room. File photo: WHO.

The reason behind Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO is due to Beijing’s refusal to allow it to participate. This is a pathetic reflection of the state of the world today when an authoritarian regime is allowed to dictate affairs, in something as vital as global health, for political reasons.

Taiwan has been one of the best-performing countries in handling the coronavirus pandemic. It has been able to limit cases to under 450 and deaths to single digits while keeping its schools, stores and sports leagues running.

The island state has also donated 24 million facemasks to countries including the US, Canada, EU and Southeast Asian states, and its diplomatic allies. Taiwanese researchers are also working on vaccines and drugs for the coronavirus.

However, the country is barred from the WHO and several other organisations due to Beijing’s claim that Taiwan belongs to it. Beijing forces other countries to acknowledge its “One China” policy, which prevents them from also maintaining official relationships with Taiwan. As a result, much of the world has to carry on a pretence that the island belongs to Beijing and is not a country.

Hung Hom Tsim Sha Tsui protest China extradition pro-democracy "December 1" Salisbury Garden Road Taiwan Republic of China mask face
File photo: May James/HKFP.

The WHO’s dismissive attitude towards Taiwan has been galling during the coronavirus pandemic. Even at the beginning of the pandemic in late December, Taiwan sent an email to the WHO raising concerns about the possibility of human-to-human transmission but was summarily ignored.

Nevertheless, the island-nation immediately took action with this in mind, while the WHO parroted Chinese claims that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmissions until January 20, when it was obvious there was.

As noted by many observers, the WHO has conspicuously been deferential to Beijing and new reports allege this was due to direct requests made by China.

Senior WHO officials have pretended not to hear questions about Taiwan during a live interview and referred to it as “Taiwan, China.” Director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has even accused both Taiwan’s foreign ministry and people of making racist attacks against him.

Even up to the very end, it seems Tedros is intent on denying Taiwan the right to participate in the WHO. Its legal officer claimed recently that Tedros cannot invite Taiwan due to “divergent views” among member states, which is code for opposition from Beijing.

Taiwan has never been a member of the WHO and has been excluded from the WHA except from 2009-2016 when it was led by a Beijing-friendly president.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. File photo: UN.

Besides the WHO, Taiwan is excluded from organisations like the UN and Interpol. However, there is a serious question of whether these organisations are useful anymore, especially as they become increasingly dominated by Beijing.

The WHO has been particularly uninspiring with its inept and indecisive communication during the pandemic – not the first major disease outbreak in which its performance has been criticised.

The support of the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Taiwan’s 15 diplomatic allies, as well as several EU countries, might still not be enough to enable Taiwan to participate. When the vote is held on Monday among the 194 WHO member states, Taiwan would need over half of the votes, or at least 98, which is highly unlikely.

But whether Taiwan is allowed to take part in the WHA or not, does not change the fact that it is a country that deserves more global participation.

With its own government, laws, and military, it is obvious the island is not governed by any external state. But its exemplary performance during Covid-19 and its global generosity, as well as cooperation, has raised its profile significantly.

taiwan flag
File photo: Taiwan Gov’t.

Taiwan’s approach combined early vigilance and travel restrictions, proactive measures and a high level of transparency. By checking flight passengers from Wuhan from December 31 last year, the country took the earliest public measures, even before China.

The travel restrictions and bans on visitors from China, as well as Hong Kong, soon followed in January, before being extended to the rest of the world.

Authorities also took measures to increase surgical facemask production, halt exports of the product, and implement a rationing system that guaranteed masks to every resident.

As a result, Taiwan has been able to continue functioning without any lockdowns. Not only are its schools, offices and most of its stores running like normal, but its baseball league actually allows up to 1,000 people to attend each game. 

All of this is the result of a competent government and bureaucracy, led by President Tsai Ing-wen, that is able to act and think for itself, while refusing to be fooled by misleading messages from Beijing or the WHO.

Tsai Ing-wen
Tsai Ing-wen. File photo: Office of the President of Taiwan, via Flickr.

As such, other options should be considered to include Taiwan, such as multilateral groupings with more specific purposes and like-minded members, especially those that don’t include Beijing.

The “Quad,” a security-focused informal group that comprises the US, Australia, Japan and India, is a suitable option, especially as it looks to involve more countries in a bid to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness.

Another is the trade grouping, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an Asia-Pacific regional trade pact led by Japan after the US pulled out in 2017, when it was called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP was conceived as a way to counter Beijing’s economic domination so including Taiwan would be a suitable step.

An Asia-Pacific travel and trade “bubble” of nations that have beaten the coronavirus, as has been proposed by people in Australia and New Zealand, should certainly include Taiwan as well.

The most direct way to expand Taiwan’s international participation would be to recognise the island as a country. While this is seen as an almost impossible goal due to China’s strident territorial claim, there have been growing calls to do so for various reasons based on the island’s merits and contribution to global coronavirus efforts.

Flag raising ceremony Taiwan Presidential Office
Flag raising ceremony outside Taiwan Presidential Office on January 1, 2019. Photo: Flickr/presidentialoffice.

The US would need to take the initiative and recognise it in concert with the EU, Japan, and other friendly nations due to China’s anticipated hostile reaction.

Beijing has already been threatening Taiwan for several years and building up its military, especially large naval combat vessels and amphibious assault ships. And there are signs the PRC government is looking to attack the island in the near future, with belligerent talk from top officials and ominous signs of rising nationalism on Chinese social media.

When it does, the US will be forced to intervene or else risk losing Taiwan to Chinese occupation, which would threaten the world’s technology supply chain as well as the physical security of Japan, the Philippines and even US territories, like Guam and the state of Hawaii.

Beijing is clearly intent on dominating the region, as can be seen in its rapid militarisation in the South China Sea in recent years.

Taiwan has more than earned its right to be recognised and treated as a country. The US, the EU, and the rest of the world need to realise it is time to step up their support for it.

Hilton Yip is a writer who has worked in Taipei, Beijing, and Hong Kong over the past decade. He has a strong interest in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan issues.