Beijing has stepped up the pressure on European states to reject Taiwan’s call to be represented at next week’s assembly of the World Health Organization, arguing that its presence can only be justified if it accepts that it is part of China.
The World Health Assembly is being held virtually on Monday, and Taiwan’s attendance – as well as a possible international inquiry into the start of the pandemic – are likely to be the two big political flashpoints between China and the west.
Chinese diplomats have been contacting governments across Europe to limit the diplomatic support for Taiwan’s attendance, targeting northern and eastern European states. Maintaining collective EU unity on China is proving difficult.
But in a letter to the Guardian, the former Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former president of Poland Aleksander Kwaśniewski and the former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt argue that Taiwan should be permitted to attend because of its pioneering response to the pandemic, which has drawn on the lessons of the 2003 Sars outbreak.
“It is regretful that geopolitics has prevented Taiwan from fully accessing the forums and services of the World Health Organization – not least as the WHO could have benefited from its expertise,” the authors argue.
Taiwan had observer status at the WHO for seven years until 2016, when it was blocked by China, as it has been every year since. Beijing believes Taiwan is deploying the WHO issue as a route to recognition internationally.
Donald Trump – locked into a multifaceted dispute with China – is already withholding US funds from the WHO, which he describes as “China-centric.”
He has led the calls for Taiwan to be admitted to the UN body, and support is also coming from Australia, the UK, Japan, Canada, Germany and New Zealand. China is also concerned it may be losing the support of India on the issue.
Rasmussen argues next week’s assembly could prove a turning point in the fight against coronavirus, saying the pandemic has underlined the importance of robust multilateral coordination.
In the letter, Rasmussen claims Taiwan’s success in controlling the virus shows the country has lessons to teach the rest of the world, adding its attendance “will have no wider implications than to ensure that 23 million people with something to offer are not excluded from exchanging best practices”.
Taiwan’s health minister, Chen Shih-chung, said on Friday his country could not accept China’s conditions for its participation.
“We have no way to accept something that does not exist,” Chen replied, referring to China’s demand that Taipei agree to its “one China” policy to attend the assembly.
WHO officials say the director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, cannot invite Taiwan since there are divergent views on the issue within.
The EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, has called for an independent inquiry into the crisis, writing: “To strengthen our defences against future pandemics, we also need a thorough, independent scientific inquiry into the origins of the crisis.” China has been resistant, and the terms of any inquiry, as well as its timing, will be contested.
Last month, Tedros himself accused Taiwan of racist “attacks” over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, an allegation that Taiwan denied as “unprovoked and untrue”.
Tedros’s claim came after Taiwan said in March that the organization had ignored its December warnings that human-to-human transmission of coronavirus was possible.
A WHO tweet on 14 January said: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.”
But documents show that the international body warned the US and other countries about the risk of human-to-human transmission of Covid-19 as early as 10 January.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has dismissed claims of Chinese dominance at the WHO as rumour and smear-mongering.