A rally in Taipei in support of Taiwan's membership in the WHO. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

Taiwan is making a fresh bid to be seen and heard when the world’s top health officials and medical professionals congregate for an annual meeting of the World Health Organization.

Health and foreign affairs officials of the self-ruled island said on Tuesday that Taiwan’s status and participation would be on the agenda at the WHO’s World Health Assembly, to be convened on May 18 via video.

A WHO readout issued earlier this week also noted that Taiwan’s role in the WHA would need to be decided by its 194 member states. Previously, the WHO maintained its long-standing position that shutting the island out of the international public health body was underscored by a United Nations resolution almost half a century ago when Beijing’s seat in the UN was reinstated in 1971, the year Chiang Kai-shek’s government in Taipei was stripped of its legitimacy to represent China.

Beijing, having returned to the UN as one of the five permanent members of the high-powered Security Council, swiftly moved to remove Taiwan from the entire UN system under the pretext that the island is a wayward province pending reunification and has no sovereignty of its own, a moot point that Taipei has always taken issue with.

On Tuesday, Taiwan’s Central News Agency quoted Steven Solomon, principal legal officer for international, constitutional and global health law at the WHO, as saying that the organization’s secretariat had no authority over Taiwan’s representation and that two member states had already moved motions for the issue to be deliberated on at the upcoming WHA.

Solomon said some WHO members had had telephone conferences with officials from Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control in the past and that they would do so again, acknowledging the island’s feat in curbing the viral spread.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry has confirmed that the motions were filed by two of the island’s diplomatic allies and it expects more WHO member states that still maintain diplomatic ties with the island to follow suit.

Yet Solomon, the chief consul of the WHO, also said the onus would be on Director-General Tedros Adhanom to work out a policy regarding Taiwan. The embattled WHO chief, who hails from Ethiopia, has been receiving jabs from the West for being at Beijing’s beck and call and remiss in his duties when the disease first emerged in China at the end of last year.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom flew into Beijing in late-January to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, when the novel coronavirus had already been rampaging across the country. Photo: Reuters
Taiwan was invited as an observer to the WHA under the name of Chinese Taipei between 2008 and 2016. Photo: Handout

With Beijing’s sanction and a tacit agreement that the island’s delegates must not come across as being representatives of a sovereign county, Taiwan used to be invited as an observer to the WHA under the name of Chinese Taipei between 2008 and 2016, when the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party was at the helm of the island.

That rapport is long gone now that the cross-strait ties have soured, after Tsai Ing-wen from the secessionist Democratic Progressive Party swept into power in 2016. Taiwan’s representatives have since been banished from the WHA as well as other international conventions as Beijing moves to curtail the island’s international presence to browbeat the DPP government into submission.

Taiwan has argued that the fact that the government in Beijing is the only legitimate representative of China at the UN does not justify the exclusion of the island, as Beijing cannot represent the island and its 23.6 million people. It also cites its “not-so-smooth communication” with the WHO, during the onset of the outbreak in Wuhan when the island tried to warn the UN body of the possibility of person-to-person transmission, as a compelling reason for it being allowed to join this year’s conference to share its insights.

United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar has also voiced support for Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHA as an observer.

Taiwan has also been on a charm offensive globally, taking out ads in international media to trumpet its “instructive” practices and policies that have squashed the respiratory disease on the island.

An ad about Taiwan’s contribution to the world’s fight against Covid-19 in The New York Times. Photo: CNA
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is featured in a Time magazine interview about Covid-19 and the island’s bid to boost its international presence. Photo: Handout

Taiwan pitches Covid-19 intel sharing

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s spy chief reportedly said preliminary information indicated no suspicion about the origin of Covid-19 and that the island would share whatever it knew with the US.

Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB) Director-General Chiu Kuo-cheng told the island’s lawmakers on Tuesday that the novel coronavirus had originated in China, and that he did not buy the “folklore” gaining traction among Chinese netizens and once purveyed by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian that it was the US that had spread it.

“All of our initial information pointed to the virus coming out from Huanan Seafood Market [in Wuhan], there is no doubt about that,” Chiu said.

When asked about the probability that the virus was manmade inside a top-grade biology lab in the Chinese city and deployed as a form of biological warfare or was leaked inadvertently, Chiu said he had no convincing proof supporting any other theories, adding that sources privy to the situation in Wuhan had indicated a top-down investigation by the Chinese authorities was being conducted there.

Chiu also said the NSB would set up a unit to gather intelligence on biological warfare and that Taiwan would share all of its intelligence regarding Covid-19 with the US.

The Trump administration has couched Covid-19 as a “Chinese virus” and that China is the chief culprit of the pandemic embroiling his country and the rest of the world. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who once headed the Central Intelligence Agency, said last week that he had “enormous evidence” suggesting the virus had come from a lab in Wuhan. Beijing has, unsurprisingly, refuted the claim as outrageous and that Trump and Pompeo lied through their teeth.

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