Taipei – Taiwan on Monday said Chinese “obstruction” had prevented it from attending a key World Health Organization meeting focused on the coronavirus, accusing the global body of prioritizing politics over health.
The self-ruled island of 23 million has seen remarkable success in combatting the pandemic — with only seven deaths and fewer than 600 confirmed cases — as many parts of the world report surging numbers of infections and deaths.
But it is frozen out of the WHO by Beijing, which regards Taiwan as its own territory and has vowed to take it by force if necessary.
The WHO’s decision not to invite Taiwan to its annual assembly — due to resume virtually on Monday after being cut short by the pandemic in May — was a result of “political considerationsm,” Taipei’s Foreign Ministry said Monday.
“The ministry expresses deep regrets and strong dissatisfaction over China’s obstruction of Taiwan’s participation,” it said in a statement.
“As the world is still under serious threat of the COVID-19 pandemic … it is an irony to the ‘health for all’ goal under the WHO charter” to exclude Taiwan, it added.
Taiwan attended the annual assembly between 2009 and 2016 as an observer, under the name Chinese Taipei.
But Beijing has blocked its participation since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen, who has refused to acknowledge the island is part of “One China.”
A growing number of countries, including the United States, have called for Taiwan to regain its observer status at this year’s assembly, amid fears its exclusion could jeopardize efforts to curb the pandemic.
The World Medical Association, a confederation of national medical associations that jointly represent more than 10 million physicians, said last week “it is both cynical and counterproductive” to exclude Taiwan.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is proof that cooperation for and with all health care systems in the world is necessary,” chairman Frank Montgomery said in an open letter to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Tedros has said Taiwan’s participation can only be decided by member states with the consent of “the relevant government” — a reference to Beijing.
The alleged obstruction came as Taiwan’s top China policy maker sought the same day to reassure nervous lawmakers that Democrat Joe Biden will continue U.S. support for the island nation, which has benefited from strong backing by the outgoing administration of President Donald Trump.
Tensions over democratic Taiwan have escalated dramatically since Republican Trump took office four years ago. China was infuriated first by Trump’s unprecedented call with Tsai shortly after he won election, followed by increased U.S. arms sales and two visits to Taipei by top U.S. officials in recent months.
While that made Trump a popular figure with the public in Taiwan, China responded by increasing military drills near Taiwan, including flying fighter jets over the sensitive median line of the Taiwan Strait, escalating fears of conflict.
In Taiwan’s parliament on Monday, several legislators expressed concerns about a Taiwan policy shift under a Biden administration, with some describing Biden as “China-friendly,” and others pointing to Biden’s opposition to a bill to strengthen Taiwan’s security in 1999.
Huang Shih-chieh, from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said their main concern was whether U.S. support for Taiwan would change.
“Our biggest worry is that with a Biden presidency he may adjust his policy,” Huang said.
But Chen Ming-tong, who heads Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, repeatedly reassured lawmakers a fundamental change in U.S. support for Taiwan was unlikely.
“There’s no need to worry about a change of ownership in the White House,” he said. “Although there might be some changes in Biden’s tactics towards China, there will be no change in its China strategy.”
Chen noted it was former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president, who pushed the “pivot” back to Asia to challenge a rising China, and that Biden was unlikely to challenge the current geopolitical structure of the U.S.-China standoff.
The United States and Taiwan share the same values, Chen said.
“Looking at (Biden’s) comments and support for Taiwan in the past, we can trust him to continue to reinforce the Taiwan-U.S. relationship.”
Chen said while Biden was “generally viewed as China-friendly” he had also made a lot of criticism about China.
“Some people only see one side of the story and overlook another.”
Taiwan officials have long worried that Trump was just using the island as a pawn to put pressure on China.
So Biden being in the White House may not be a bad thing for Taiwan, said Lai Shyh-bao, a lawmaker for the main opposition party, the Kuomintang, which traditionally favours close ties with China.
“With a Biden administration I think tensions in the Taiwan Strait will be lowered, because he will not think of Taiwan as a big chess piece, like Trump always did,” he said.
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