Taiwan’s successful handling of the pandemic has led it to draw support from some major global players and some are even recalibrating their Taiwan policy.
At a time when the world is attempting to deal with a global health pandemic, the growing tussle between the United States and China has politicised a global health issue. The two countries have been bickering over China’s reticence in information sharing on the virus to the US tagging the World Health Organisation (WHO) as China’s “PR agency.” The latest flashpoint has emerged over the admission of Taiwan in the next week’s meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s decision making executive body. This is also a challenge for India, which is set to take over as the chairperson of the WHO’s executive decision making body in May-end. India is in a tough spot over rising global pressure and sharpening faultlines between the US and China. India has to take a stand on whether it is going to support the US’s demand of reinstating Taiwan’s observer status at the WHA which China will argue goes against New Delhi’s longstanding ‘One-China’ policy.
Both Taiwan and China have engaged New Delhi in their own ways in recent weeks. Taiwan has donated about one million surgical masks to help India in the tough times of the pandemic, and the Chinese Embassy in India has underlined that India should keep in mind its ‘One-China’ policy while deciding on the issue. The WHA virtual meeting scheduled for 18 and 19 May has garnered more limelight for the US-China tussle on inviting Taiwan than on its focus on tackling the ongoing pandemic.
Taiwan’s response to the COVID-19 has been recognised as commendable by the health authorities globally since the country has reportedly had 380 confirmed cases and 5 deaths, a stunningly low number for a population of 23.6 million. It has emerged as a global exemplar. Yet it remains effectively locked out of membership in the WHO due to its complex relationship with China. It also continues to deceptively list Taiwan’s case numbers under China’s. After the video of a top WHO official trying to avoid questions about Taiwan in a TV interview went viral, WHO is facing more criticism and accusations of bias.
For an organisation like the WHO it makes no sense to exclude Taiwan, which has successfully tackled the spread of the virus, at a time when sharing of global best practices should be the norm. Taiwanese Health Minister, Chen Shih-Chung at a recent press conference commented, “We hope through the test of this epidemic, the WHO can recognise clearly that epidemics do not have national borders, no one place should be left out because any place that is left out could become a loophole… any place’s strength shouldn’t be neglected so that it can make contributions to the world.” Beijing views this as an opportunity for Taiwan to be exploited to press its case for greater recognition. Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry made it clear that “Beijing has made “proper arrangement” for Taiwan to deal with local or global public health emergencies in a timely fashion, but Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was pushing for independence.”
Taiwan’s successful handling of the pandemic has led it to draw support from some major global players and some are even recalibrating their Taiwan policy. Nations are expanding bilateral ties with Taiwan to bolster their own COVID-19 responses. A consensus is also emerging in the international community that Taiwan should be given access to the WHO and other multilateral agencies, even as China’s opposition grows louder. The US has attempted to maximise Taiwan’s involvement in international relations and has, without much success so far, supported Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in various institutions, including the WHA. In March 2020, the Trump administration enacted the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act (TAIPEI Act), aimed at supporting Taiwan’s international presence. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested that the State Department would “do its best to assist” Taiwan’s “appropriate role” in the WHO. The US State Department has also launched a “Tweet for Taiwan” campaign. Last month, Washington’s representative to Taipei issued a joint statement with Wu announcing increased cooperation including research and development, contact-tracing, and scientific conferences. Other countries expressing their support for Taiwan include Japan, New Zealand, UK, Canada, Australia, along with multiple European and developing countries. The European Union said it’s working with the Taiwan government’s Academia Sinica to develop a rapid test. In a rare move, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, publicly thanked Taiwan last week for donating masks to the European Union.
India is among the 179 of the 193 member states of the UN that do not maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Ahead of the next week’s WHA meet, India has found itself in the middle. The government is yet to make a final decision on whether to support the US move to reinstate Taiwan or to accept China’s objections to it. India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar recently attended a seven nation virtual meeting of foreign ministers, convened by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, which is seen as an American effort to garner support to bring about changes in the WHO. Besides India the seven-nation meeting was attended by the foreign ministers of Australia, Brazil, Israel, Japan and the Republic of Korea. All the attendees other than India are major non-NATO allies of the US, who would be expected to support Washington’s call. India shares good bilateral relations with all these countries and most of these countries are India’s trusted partners in the Indo-Pacific as well as are part of Quadrilateral alliance (Quad). Four of these seven countries — US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand — are signatories to a demarche, urging the WHO to allow Taiwan to be admitted as an observer because its input will be “meaningful and important.” Other signatories to this demarche are Canada, France, Germany, and the UK. Given that most of these countries along with India are also champions of the Indo-Pacific which stresses on international cooperation, transparency and openness — pressure will be on India from this end too.
Taiwan is an important stakeholder and a valuable partner in fighting the unprecedented health crisis the world is facing. Taiwan’s government is donating masks to countries in need and sharing its experience using technology to investigate outbreaks. It is also working with US experts to develop more rapid diagnostic test kits and vaccines. India’s relations with Taiwan have been on an upward trajectory and this does present an opportunity for India to leverage its ties with Taiwan vis-à-vis Beijing. There are many avenues that India can explore in its ties with Taiwan without being needlessly defensive. India can further enhance its trade ties with Taiwan and ensure greater ease of doing business for the Taiwanese corporate sector. New Delhi can have ministers visiting Taiwan pertaining to culture and commerce. There are a number of sectors which are critical for India’s next phase of technological evolution like electronics, semi conductor and 5G where Taiwan is at the cutting edge. Most importantly, Taiwan’s health sector is one of the most advanced globally so in the wake of the pandemic, India like many other countries can also work alongside Taiwan’s health sector, research and development wing as well as draw lessons from their response.
If the idea of the MEA is to share ideas and best practices among countries in the Indo-Pacific region to respond effectively to the complex challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic then supporting Taiwan’s admission in the upcoming WHA virtual meeting would be a welcome move. India’s foreign policy vision has evolved stance where issue-based alignments are becoming the norm. Its ties with Taiwan should also evolve accordingly.
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Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President Studies andRead More +
Premesha Saha is a Fellow with ORFs Strategic StudiesRead More +