Virus Outbreak May Boost Taiwan's Bid to Join WHO

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The outbreak of the pneumonia-like SARS virus and its spread to Taiwan has fueled the campaign to admit the island nation to the World Health Organization, a move the communist mainland repeatedly has blocked.

Taiwan government officials and health sector representatives hope that, following six consecutive failed membership bids at the WHO's annual World Health Assembly, it may succeed this year against the backdrop of the SARS outbreak.

Some experts are even pushing Taipei to go a step further than its standard appeal for observer status, and press instead for full membership in the WHO, the U.N. agency overseeing the international response to SARS.

A seminar was held Sunday to discuss how the SARS crisis may help Taiwan push its case at this year's WHO gathering in Geneva, slated for May 19-28.

Participants, including scholars and medical specialists, used the opportunity to criticize China for its initial secretive handling of SARS, which erupted in southern China last November and has since spread to 29 countries.

The situation in Taiwan took a turn for the worse last week. It has now reported at least 116 probable SARS cases and eight deaths.

Taiwan International Medical Alliance chairman Deng Jou-fang told the seminar that Taiwan needed full WHO membership to enable it to exchange views and experiences of fighting disease with other countries.

"If Taiwan gains observer status as a result of a negotiated compromise, then I'll accept it," Deng said. "But we shouldn't actively apply for observer status from the get-go."

To have WHO membership or observer status approved, Taiwan will need the support of at least half of the 192-member body, but fewer than 30 small countries have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and most other nations are reluctant to upset China.

A Foreign Ministry representative, Tung Kuo-yu, told the seminar it wasn't realistic to apply for full membership.

"Our campaign has to take into consideration the reality of international politics which is that China still has more say than we do."

Tung said the SARS outbreak had highlighted the absurdity of Taiwan's exclusion from the WHO, and many countries were now more sympathetic to Taiwan's WHO bid.

In the U.S., both the Senate and House of Representatives have passed bills urging the administration to find ways to support Taiwan's observer status at the Geneva session.

Supporters of Taiwan in Congress have long argued that it is ludicrous that a country of 23 million people - a larger population than 75 per cent of the countries belonging to WHO - is denied membership or observer status simply because Beijing objects.

China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, points out that the U.N. agency is open only to sovereign states, and that "as part of China, Taiwan is not entitled to join."

But non-sovereign entities, including the Order of Malta and the Palestine Liberation Organization, have in the past been granted WHO observer status.

'End impasse'

There is another possible route to WHO membership.

On its website, the WHO says territories that are not responsible for the conduct of their foreign relations may be admitted as associate members, if the member that holds that responsibility applies on their behalf.

Although Taiwan clearly does conduct its own foreign relations, China could use this provision to apply on Taiwan's behalf.

Tom Plate, an academic at UCLA and director of the Asia Pacific Media Network, wrote this week that this option could provide both China and Taiwan with a way out of the standoff.

He noted that Taiwan had obtained admission to the World Trade Organization on the strength of U.S. support and a clause in the WTO charter providing for the admission of "separate customs territories."

"The WTO precedent is a useful road map to end the WHO impasse," Plate said.

"Beijing needs to sever global health issues from its domestic cross-strait quarrel with Taiwan. At the same time, Taiwan needs to ask Beijing -- politely, nicely -- to support its membership, and should promise to behave itself once in the WHO and not make grandstanding nationalist speeches."

Whether the cross-Strait goodwill required for such an arrangement exists is unclear, however.

Chen Ming-tung, vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council - the Taiwanese body dealing with relations with China - was quoted at the weekend as predicting Beijing would not soften its opposition to Taiwan's WHO bid.

Illustrating the continuing sensitivity over the issue, China and Taiwan could not even agree at the weekend whether two WHO experts who arrived in Taiwan to help with the SARS outbreak had come with Beijing's permission, or at Taipei's initiative.

The experts arrived on Saturday, on the first WHO mission to the island since Taiwan lost its U.N. seat to communist China in 1971.

China's state-run media reported that Beijing had given permission for the WHO experts to visit Taiwan, and that the Chinese government was deeply concerned about Taiwanese people's welfare.

But Taiwanese cabinet spokesman Lin Chia-lung said the WHO decision had nothing to do with China.

"Since the very beginning of the outbreak here, we've been in close and direct contact with the WHO," Lin said. "China played no part in the WHO's deciding to send medical experts to help us combat the disease."

Lee said China was simply playing politics, trying to stress its influence over the WHO.

'Looking after Taiwan's needs'

When faced with appeals for Taiwan to join the WHO, China has consistently claimed that it takes care of Taiwan's health needs, so the island does not need membership.

"The SARS outbreak in Taiwan has pulverized China's myth" about taking care of Taiwan, the Taipei Times quoted presidential advisor Wu Shuh-min as saying.

In a statement released through the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles, Dr. Yung Tung Wu, an advisor to Taiwan's president and president of Taiwan Medical Association, also discounted this claim by Beijing.

When Taiwan suffered an enterovirus outbreak in 1998, he said, 78 children had died unnecessarily because Taiwan, lacking regular channels of communication with the WHO, had to fight the infection alone.

And when Taiwan suffered a devastating earthquake in 1999, Wu recalled, China had demanded that Red Cross aid be channeled through the mainland.

"This is how China 'looks after' Taiwan," he said.

Wu pointed to the contrast between the way Taiwan and China handled SARS, saying the mainland had responded secretively and incompetently.

"The international community should realize by now, from the ways China and Taiwan handle the SARS outbreaks, which one of them is fulfilling its responsibilities as a member of the global community, and which one is endangering the health of the peoples of the world."

See also:
China And Allies Thwart Taiwan's Bid For WHO Status (May 14, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow