Cross Strait

The silent treatment

Taipei presses its case for a voice at the WHO, irking Beijing


The island is becoming a pawn in worsening Sino-US tensions

Two visits by US politicians to the Far East in 1971 were influential in reshaping the world order.

The often-told tale of Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) took place in July that year. That culminated in Richard Nixon shaking hands with Mao Zedong a year later – a move said to have begun to tilt the balance of the Cold War in Washington’s favour.

A less-heralded saga saw another American visit to the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan. Three months before Kissinger’s covert mission in Beijing, Nixon had dispatched his Undersecretary of State Robert Murphy to Taipei.

An idea of “dual representation” for the PRC and ROC at the United Nations was presented to Chiang Kai-shek. But the generalissimo rejected the proposal outright and the result was the ROC’s replacement by the PRC at the UN in the same year.

There have been two main explanations – from the perspective of Taiwanese politicians and historians, at least – for why the island lost its place at the UN. The first focuses on the stubbornness of Chiang, who insisted that the ROC was the only legitimate representative of China. The second is that Taiwan lost its position at the UN because of Washington’s betrayal.

Perhaps there is a bit of truth to both interpretations. With everyone agreeing that there could only be “one China”, the generalissimo might have concluded that the offer of ‘dual representation’ was only likely to be a temporary one.

This ‘triangular’ relationship between Washington, Beijing and Taipei has been tested again recently, although this time the membership status in question is of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Taiwan’s expulsion from the UN also saw it lose membership of the WHO, a UN affiliate. But under the banner of ‘Chinese Taipei’ it was allowed to attend the World Health Assembly (WHA), the plenary session of WHO members, from 2009 as an observer. At the time relations between Taiwan’s then ruling party – the Kuomintang (KMT) – and the Communist Party of China (CPC), were warming up. But after the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took power on the island, cross-Strait tensions worsened. One upshot was that Taipei lost its observer status in 2017 because of Beijing’s move to squeeze Taiwan’s international presence (see WiC370 for how the mainland has been poaching the island’s handful of diplomatic allies).

The Covid-19 pandemic, which was first got headlines in the mainland city of Wuhan, then provided a catalyst for Taipei to take a more assertive position on its status at the WHO.

When the outbreak was declared to be a global public health emergency in late January, DPP politicians turned up the volume about the island’s exclusion from the health body’s meetings. Taiwan is regarded as one of the few places in the world to contain the coronavirus without resorting to draconian measures. There have been only 440 confirmed cases as of this week, as compared with more than 1,000 in Hong Kong (although in all fairness, the number of mainland visitors to Taiwan had already dropped sharply in recent years – due to Beijing’s attempts to use tourism against the DPP government and blunt the Taiwanese economy, see WiC340).

Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO is undermining global efforts to fight Covid-19, DPP politicians have argued, and they started to get a more sympathetic hearing as the outbreak turned into a pandemic. For instance, during an interview with RTHK (Hong Kong’s public radio service) in late March, the WHO’s assistant director-general Bruce Aylward was asked if the WHO would reconsider Taiwan’s case. Following a long and awkward silence, Aylward said he could not hear the question and asked to move on to the next one. When pressed, he hung up. When the RTHK journalist called him back with the same question, he dodged it again. (The video is available on YouTube.)

Aylward’s difficulties in answering the question have reinforced Taipei’s view that the WHO is too concerned about finding favour with the Chinese government. That tendency may have contributed to the failure to stop Covid-19 earlier in its spread, the Taiwanese claim. This “pandering to China” is a key reason for criticism of the WHO’s performance during the pandemic, claims Taipei’s Liberty Times.

Taipei Times, another pro-independence newspaper, has also noted that the WHO’s Director-General, the Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, played a leading role in his country’s participation in projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, when he was Ethiopia’s minister of foreign affairs from 2012 to 2016.

During that period Beijing helped Ethiopia to build a railway connecting Addis Ababa to the port of Doraleh in Djibouti, where China had just established a military base.

“Simply put, as foreign minister, he did China a tremendous favour by helping it expand its power in Africa,” the Taiwanese newspaper claimed. “In return, China supported his bid to become WHO director-general.”

Analysis like this feeds into the worsening relationship between the WHO and the Trump administration, which has blasted the health body’s handling of the pandemic as “China-centric” and frozen its US funding.

The Senate also passed a bill this week demanding that Washington support Taiwan’s request to regain observer status at the WHA. That could trigger conflict as Beijing opposes Taiwan’s return to the WHA, which will meet again next week. The pressure to give in to Taiwanese demands is nothing new, the Global Times also adds. Since the DPP took power in 2017 Western politicians with funding from Taiwan’s ruling party “have played these games every year ahead of the annual WHAs,” it claims.

Elsewhere on the mainland there was more talk that the pandemic might present an opportunity to bring Taiwan back into the fold forcibly. For instance, Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University, used an article on to call for an invasion, arguing that an anti-secession law passed in 2005 gave China the legal right to act.

Other commentators have been urging action on the basis that the United States is not in a position to defend Taiwan at present because all four of its aircraft carriers in the Indo-Pacific have been hit by the coronavirus.

But Qiao Liang, a retired major general of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), then rejected that idea in an interview with the South China Morning Post. Despite being described by the newspaper as “a hawkish voice”, Qiao cautioned that Beijing would be wise not to launch an attack. “China’s ultimate goal is not the reunification of Taiwan, but to achieve the dream of national rejuvenation,” he said. “Could it be achieved by taking Taiwan back? Of course not. So we shouldn’t make this the top priority.”

Another article in the in-house magazine of the Central Party School, which trains senior civil servants, looked back at the Qing Dynasty’s conquest of the island in the 17th century for guidance. It reminded its audience that the Qing had spent years planning their invasion and that they had deployed political, diplomatic and economic measures to achieve victory, rather than purely relying on force.

While the idea of invasion might seem improbable, the Taipei Times has warned of past cases of military adventurism that defied the conventional wisdom of the time (we first discussed the possibility of an invasion of Taiwan two years ago; see WiC407). However, perhaps the more imminent threat to the island comes from cyberspace, the newspaper noted, and include a spate of cyber attacks from the mainland that were probably an attempt to paralyse Taiwan’s key IT networks and public infrastructure. The Taipei Times thought the main purpose of the latest round of attacks was to disrupt the swearing-in ceremony of the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwanese president next week.

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