Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 general election.
The global public health crisis sparked by coronavirus is unprecedented in its scale and voracity. If there are any lessons that must be learned, even in this early stage of fighting the pandemic, it is the critical importance of countries, large and small, working together to share data, trends and best practice in R&D and clinical excellence.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has long been the subject of many criticisms as to its day-to-day management and efficacy and yet, when it comes to playing global role in fighting coronavirus, it remains the only game in town.
For this reason, the repeated exclusion of Taiwan from the WHO’s deliberations as a result of pressure from the People’s Republic of China has ceased to be just another chapter in a fratricidal war between two groups with a differing view of Chinese statehood and has now become a risk to international public health.
Since its first detection in the country in January, quick actions on the part of Taiwanese authorities have resulted in only three recorded deaths – a fact that healthcare experts put down to its robust cross-referencing of overseas travel and health records and robust quarantining of carriers.
Whilst China played down the scale of the outbreak in order to preserve its reputation – with disastrous consequences for every nation on the planet – Taiwan adopted a far more effective approach that prioritised the life of its citizens. It is incumbent on international organisations such as the WHO to listen to nations that have tackled the outbreak well.
Since 2016, direct intervention from Beijing has prevented Taiwan from attending the WHO’s World Health Assembly, blocking political representatives and technical and scientific experts from Taiwan from directly participating in – or even submitting evidence and opinions to – the body.
This diplomatic blockade has resulted in Taiwan being absent from discussions on pandemic influenza and rheumatic fever preparedness, antimicrobial resistance and the adoption of a global vaccine action plan for chronic diseases such as liver and cervical cancer.
Prior experience ought to have taught China – and the international community – that excluding Taiwan and its 24 million citizens from the body was foolish in the extreme. Indeed, the 2003 SARS outbreak left Taipei shut out of global public health discussions until the rising death toll saw Beijing temporarily drop its objections to Taiwanese “observer” status.
Sadly, this has not happened in respect of coronavirus – a far more insidious public health threat. On a bilateral level, the authorities in Taipei have already donated 10 million high-quality protective face masks to Europe and the United States, with further such assistance promised in the coming days.
The WHO’s own response to this impasse has been, in want of a better description, utterly ludicrous. In response to questions from a Hong Kong-based journalist about Taiwan’s potential admittance to the body, Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s Assistant Director General, first pretended not to hear the journalist’s question before abruptly logging off the Skype call as not to further prolong the discussion. Faced with a global public health crisis, this isn’t leadership from the WHO; it’s a downright abrogation of responsibility, sponsored by threats from Beijing.
In recent days, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan has been forced to again complain about being denied access to critical information about the coronavirus pandemic, just as cases again spike in China.
There is a degree of realpolitik to the United Kingdom’s relations with the People’s Republic of China that must be respected. The UK has rightfully joined the chorus of international protests against the country’s internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang “re-education” camps and has voiced criticism of the heavy-handed response to pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong.
But it is clearly not desirable for Britain to have an antagonistic relationship with the government in Beijing with whom we enjoy a constructive relationship on issues as diverse as higher education ties, the completion of the Belt and Road global development strategy and numerous world-leading research and development programmes. In the spirit of mutual respect, this must continue.
On the issue of Taiwan, however, the time has now come for both the United Kingdom and broader international community to adopt a more assertive approach in favour of Taipei’s constructive involvement in international bodies – whether that be the World Health Organisation, the International Civil Aviation Organisation or World Trade Organisation.
Taiwan has long demonstrated a commitment to the values that we as British citizens hold dear. Quite apart from its economic prowess and cutting-edge industry, Taiwan is a liberal democracy in which judicial independence, freedom of speech and good governance standards are deeply respected. On those metrics alone, Taiwan deserves significant recognition.
It is regrettable that an issue such as coronavirus should provide the impetus for a change in diplomatic policy, yet it is high time the international community called an end to Taiwan’s harmful and unnecessary isolation.