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China Faces Pressure as World Health Assembly Meets

Over 120 countries have now co-sponsored calls for an inquiry into the international response to the coronavirus pandemic.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is surrounded by journalists at the end of a daily press briefing on COVID-19, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on March 11, 2020.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is surrounded by journalists at the end of a daily press briefing on COVID-19, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on March 11, 2020. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The World Health Assembly convenes today amid controversy over Taiwan's participation, Afghan leaders agree to power-sharing deal, Brazil's coronavirus outbreak gets worse,  and the world this week.

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World Health Assembly Gathers As Politics Mixes With Public Health

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The World Health Assembly convenes today amid controversy over Taiwan’s participation, Afghan leaders agree to power-sharing deal, Brazil’s coronavirus outbreak gets worse,  and the world this week.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

World Health Assembly Gathers As Politics Mixes With Public Health

The World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision making body of the World Health Organization, gathers virtually today for its annual conference. Health ministers from 194 countries have been invited to attend the two-day meeting with the global coronavirus pandemic at the top of the agenda.

Although advancing public health is the organizing principle, politics will still play a major role. More than 120 countries have signed on to a draft resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the international response to the pandemic. Australia, the initial sponsor of the resolution, has angered China by its call for an inquiry—although the text of the document does not mention China.

Other signatories include the United Kingdom, Russia, Brazil, and the member states of the European Union. The resolution will need two-thirds of the assembly’s support to pass, and a vote is expected late Tuesday.

The  Taiwan tussle. The assembly is expected to vote on allowing Taiwan to participate as an observer, a position it has not enjoyed since 2016, due to Chinese pressure to exclude it. Taiwan’s coronavirus response—which was set in motion on Dec. 31—has been exceptionally effective, and its government is keen to share lessons with the rest of the world. The vote is not expected to pass but will be a key indicator of how effective the U.S. campaign to drum up support for Taiwan has been and how unafraid countries are of a reputationally-wounded China.

Beijing appears to be worried. In a letter obtained by Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch, China registered its disapproval of the U.S. campaign and called on WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus not to bring up Taiwan at the WHA. “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,” the letter reads. “In [the] face of unprecedented challenges, we should focus on saving lives and not be distracted by political manipulation.”

What else is on the table? The WHA is set to debate how to cooperate on the burgeoning test data and intellectual property issues that will arise as countries begin to experiment with coronavirus treatments. The European Union is sponsoring a resolution calling for the creation of a voluntary pool for countries to share patents and data, increasing access for poorer countries that lack advanced research capabilities.

As STAT’s Ed Silverman explains, the EU’s resolution also underlines a country’s right to issue compulsory licenses, effectively allowing countries to “copy a patented medicine without the consent of the patent holder.” The practice is gaining popularity with poorer countries but is often decried by the United States, despite it falling within World Trade Organization rules.

What We’re Following Today

Ghani and Abdullah reach agreement. Afghan political rivals Abdullah Abdullah and President Ashraf Ghani signed a power sharing agreement on Sunday, ending months of acrimony that saw Abdullah dispute the results of September’s election and hold his own presidential inauguration ceremony. Burying the hatchet should make it easier for the Afghan government to present a united front in any future Taliban peace talks.

It’s not immediately clear what role Abdullah will now play in the Afghan government, but a chance to lead a high-level ministry such as finance, foreign affairs, or the interior is a possibility. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the agreement, but lamented how long the impasse had dragged on.

Brazil’s coronavirus cases jump. Brazil is now among the world’s top five countries when it comes to coronavirus infections, as a divided response from the state and federal level begins to show. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly rejected social distancing measures and continues to mix with crowds at his rallies—a habit he continued as he snapped photographs with supporters on Sunday. His administration is now without a health minister after Nelson Teich resigned his post on Friday after just 29 days on the job.

Accused Rwandan war criminal arrested. A businessman accused of importing machetes and setting up a propaganda operation during the Rwandan genocide has been arrested near Paris, 23 years after being initially indicted by a United Nations tribunal. Felicien Kabuga, 84, had been living in France under an assumed identity. A U.N. spokesperson said the arrest “sends a powerful message that those who are alleged to have committed such crimes cannot evade justice and will eventually be held accountable, even more than a quarter of a century later.” Kabuga is expected to be transferred to The Hague to stand trial.

Keep an Eye On

Iran tests U.S. with tanker delivery. Five Iranian tankers carrying up to $45.5 million worth of gasoline have set out from the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas and seem bound for Venezuela—and a possible confrontation with the United States. Iran has already summoned the Swiss ambassador (the U.S. intermediary in Tehran) warning the United States not to interfere with the shipment. An unnamed Trump administration official told Reuters the White House is considering measures it could take in response.

“We have to sell our oil and we have access to its paths,” Iranian cabinet spokesperson Ali Rabiei said. “Iran and Venezuela are two independent nations that have had trade with each other and they will” in the future. At the time of writing, one of the tankers had already passed the Canary Islands.

Vaccine by September? The drug firm AstraZeneca is planning to produce up to 30 million doses of its potential coronavirus vaccine by September of this year, with the United Kingdom first in line to receive it. The vaccine is already in early human trials and is one of approximately 100 vaccine candidates globally. If successful, 100 million doses should be available by the end of 2020.

Al-Shabab attacks in Somalia. Ahmed Muse Nur, the governor of Mudug—a province in the Puntland autonomous region of Somalia—was killed in a suicide bombing on Sunday. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, which also killed three of the governor’s bodyguards. Nur is the second high-level Puntland official to be a victim of a suicide bombing this year after Abdisalan Hassan, the governor of Nugal, was killed in March.

The World This Week

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Jerome Powell will testify before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday, May 19, on the U.S. economic response to the coronavirus pandemic. The hearing, which will take place remotely, is a quarterly requirement of the CARES act.

On Wednesday, May 20, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will be sworn in for her second term. Large-scale events to mark the occasion have been cancelled amid coronavirus fears.

Also on May 20, Burundi will hold its presidential election, where ruling-party candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye is hoping to succeed President Pierre Nkurunziza, after members of his own party forced him to step aside. Burundi has not enacted social distancing guidelines to manage the spread of the coronavirus, and expelled its World Health Organization representative last week.

On Friday, May 22, the third annual session of China’s highest legislature, the National People’s Congress, opens in Beijing. The third session of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference—the country’s top advisory body—will begin the day before, on May 21.

Odds and Ends

The United States successfully launched its solar-powered space plane into orbit on Sunday at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The “mystery plane,” known as the X-37B, is on its sixth flight and is carrying an extra compartment for experiments from NASA and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. The plane is remote controlled, and resembles the now mothballed Space Shuttle. Officials are tight-lipped on how long the plane will remain in orbit or what the nature of its mission is. The last X-37B mission lasted two years—with this mission likely to be even longer.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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