Countries lobby for Taiwan’s return to the WHO ahead of the annual meeting

Over the last few months, Taiwan has been attracting a lot of international attention due to its success in containing the COVID19 pandemic. More countries are calling on the WHO to offer Taiwan an observer status. Ahead of the WHA in mid-May, the US, Japan and several democratic countries plan to draft a letter for WHO Director General Dr. Tedros, asking him to invite Taiwan to join the WHA.

With less than 20 days until the World Health Assembly, more countries are putting their weight behind Taiwan’s bid to return to the WHO. Over the last few months, Taiwan’s effective containment of the pandemic has become a global success story.

“The Taiwan Model” has not only been featured in dozens of media outlets around the world, the Taiwanese government has also been busy sharing Taiwan’s experiences with other countries. In many ways, Taiwan’s response to the pandemic has helped raise its global visibility tremendously.

Amidst the growing interests in Taiwan’s COVID19 preventative measures, governments from democratic countries have also amplified their calls for Taiwan’s inclusion into the WHO. On Thursday, American news magazine Foreign Policy reported that the US and Japan are asking like-minded countries including Australia, the UK, France and Germany to all sign a letter to the WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

In the letter, the six countries will ask Tedros to invite the delegation from Taiwan to join the WHA. With the possibility that such news would upset the Chinese government, some have interpreted this particular move as a clear sign that Washington is still placing higher priorities on criticizing China for its handling of the pandemic than seeking the possibility of bilateral collaborations.

On top of that, some even question whether the US wants to shift the world’s attention from its own mismanagement of the pandemic to China and the WHO’s mishandling of the outbreak.

However, Chieh-Ting Yeh from Global Taiwan Institute thinks Washington’s support for Taiwan reflects the ever-closer ties between the two countries over the last few years.

“The US as a whole is steadily warming to Taiwan, not only because of Taiwan’s liberal values and stable policies, but also due to China’s belligerence towards the democratic world,” said Yeh, the Vice Chairman of Global Taiwan Institute, a think tank based in Washington D.C.

However, Yeh also points out that since the Trump administration has been perceived as overly cavalier in its attitude towards everything, their own mishandling of the domestic outbreak only makes it harder for the international community to take Trump seriously.

“When a government is so reckless with its credibility, it is hard not to wonder if self-serving political considerations is at play,” Yeh said. “If the United States really wants to help Taiwan, it will have to restore its legitimacy as a global leader first.”

Australia back Taiwan’s return to WHO

Apart from the US, Australia has also told media that it will support Taiwan’s bid for the observer status at the WHO. According to the Brisbane Times, a spokesperson from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Canberra “support Taiwan’s involvement in the World Health Organization’s work.”

“The challenge of COVID-19 demands a determined, global response. The WHO must therefore maintain a close working relationship with all health authorities,” said the spokesperson. “We support Taiwan’s participation as an observer or guest, consistent with our one-China policy.”

However, Australia’s foreign ministry has been engaging in a week-long war of words with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Morrison administration has been pushing for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, which triggered fierce responses from Beijing, leading to accusations of bullying, coercion and intimidation.

Canberra’s decision to put its weight behind Taiwan’s bid for WHO membership has raised concerns among the business community in Australia. Two billionaire, Andrew Forrest and Kerry Stokes, asked the Morrison administration not to risk Australian businesses’ interests by provoking China.

Turning COVID19 success into its strength in public diplomacy

While many countries have expressed their willingness to help Taiwan obtain WHO membership, the Taiwanese government has also been working hard to strengthen international exchanges through its success in combating the pandemic. To experts, Taiwan is turning its success in coping with the pandemic into its strength in public diplomacy.

“Through its success in combating the pandemic, Taiwan allows the world to become familiar with Taiwan, become empathetic with Taiwan’s situations and support Taiwan to join the WHO,” said Chiaoning Su, assistant professor in journalism at Oakland University.

Su thinks that while Taiwan’s international exposure will likely fade as the pandemic gets under control around the world, the more valuable things that have come out of this outbreak for Taiwan are the vibrance in civil society and the formation of a coherent national identity.

However, while Taiwan tries to improve its international exposure and consolidate its image as a country, Taiwanese people should also pay attention to how international media and political leaders in other countries describe Taiwan’s experience combating the pandemic.

“Apart from paying attention to international discussion related to Taiwan, Taiwanese people should also realize that they can’t view global reporting about Taiwan from a domestic perspective,” Su explained. “They should try to incorporate international reporting about Taiwan’s success in containing COVID19 into a globally localized framework. This is the real way to examine the effectiveness of Taiwan’s ‘COVID19 diplomacy.’”

Chieh-Ting Yeh from Global Taiwan Institute pointed out that the rise of Taiwan’s international exposure is deeply rooted in “the quiet confidence of the Taiwanese people in the results of their hard work.”

“It is definitely possible for Taiwan to sustain the current momentum,” Yeh said. “If Taiwan charts a clear vision of how it can help lead the world, and take sure and steady steps towards that vision, it can sustain the momentum that it is enjoying now.”

This article was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.