China Launches Counterattack Against U.S. Effort to Restore Taiwan’s Status at WHO

Beijing insists the World Health Organization should act according to “the one-China principle.”


In recent weeks, in the latest iteration of U.S.-China tensions, Washington has led a diplomatic campaign aimed at restoring Taiwan’s status as an observer at the World Health Organization (WHO). Now China has launched its own diplomatic counterattack, asking governments to co-sign a letter urging the WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, not to raise the matter in next week’s meeting.

“The participation of Taiwan, China in WHA [the World Health Assembly] should be handled in accordance to the one-China principle,” according to the confidential letter, which we are posting as Foreign Policy’s Document of the Week. “However we are very concerned to learn that certain member states may intend to raise the so-called Taiwan’s participation issue during its opening, which runs counter to the general agreement among member states that no controversial issues shall be considered during the virtual Assembly.”

“In [the] face of unprecedented challenges, we should focus on saving lives and not be distracted by political manipulation,” according to the letter.

Last week, Washington, backed by Tokyo, notched an initial success, persuading half a dozen key Western allies, including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and New Zealand, to issue a joint request to Tedros to invite Taiwan to attend a May 18-19 virtual meeting of the WHA, WHO’s decision-making body. But there were signs that European governments, keen to avoid an ugly fight at the U.N. health agency in the midst of a pandemic, were exploring the possibility of postponing any consideration of Taiwan’s status until the Fall, according to a well-placed diplomatic source.

Beijing—which considers Taiwan a renegade province of China—responded angrily to the initiative. Asked about New Zealand’s decision to support the initiative, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said this week that “China deplores” the decision and “has lodged representations with the New Zealand side.”

“On the Taiwan region’s participation in WHO activities, China’s position is clear and consistent. The one-China principle must be observed,” he added. “The Taiwan authorities chose to play up its so-called participation in WHO events and return to the WHA at this moment. The timing reveals its true motive, which is to use the current outbreak to seek ‘Taiwan independence.’ It is out-and-out political manipulation.”

The Chinese remarks come weeks after Beijing threatened to boycott Australian imports after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed opening an independent investigation to examine China’s initial response to the virus.

Taiwan first attended the WHA as an observer in 2009, but Beijing blocked its participation in 2016 following the election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who pledged to preserve the island’s sovereignty despite Chinese efforts to exercise ever greater control. Tsai was reelected in January in what was seen as a rebuke to China’s increasingly heavy-handed policies toward Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The U.S. move to support Taiwan’s return to the WHA comes more than a month after President Donald Trump signed legislation urging the U.S. government to advocate greater Taiwanese participation in international organizations.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch