Interviews | Diplomacy | East Asia

Taiwan and the WHO: Ambassador Stanley Kao

As the WHA opens, Taiwan’s top representative in the United States talks about his country’s representation in the global health body.

Shannon Tiezzi
Taiwan and the WHO: Ambassador Stanley Kao
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Taiwan has been a rare success story in the global fight against COVID-19. Despite its close proximity to China, where the novel coronavirus first emerged in late 2019, Taiwan has managed to limit its own outbreak to 440 cases and 7 deaths — thanks to a robust and proactive government response.

Taiwan’s success has come in spite of being shut out of the World Health Organization, the United Nations’ health body. Amid the pandemic, the question of Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO and especially the annual World Health Assembly (running from May 17 to 21 this year) has gained global prominence. While Taiwan and key partners such as the United States are pushing for inclusion, Beijing continues to object to Taipei’s participation in the global body.

As the WHA opened in Geneva, The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi spoke with Ambassador Stanley Kao of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), Taiwan’s top representative in the United States, about Taiwan and the WHO.

From 2009-2016, Taiwan attended the World Health Assembly as an observer. But from 2017 on, Taiwan has not received an invitation to participate. How has being excluded from the WHA impacted Taiwan?

Taiwan’s lack of effective representation at the World Health Assembly means that the 23 million people of Taiwan are left out of global health decisions. It means that the people of Taiwan lack a voice at the table on issues that can potentially impact their everyday life.

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But more broadly, it also creates difficulties for Taiwan to receive timely medical briefings and for our experts to participate in important health discussions. It also prevents Taiwanese specialists from being able to share their wealth of experience, such as our successful responses to COVID-19.

The mission of the WHO is to “leave no one behind.” Yet by politicizing the right for the people to participate, they not only place the health and safety of Taiwan’s 23 million residents at risk, but also potentially create a gap in global health.

My understanding is that each year Taiwan is left to wait for an invitation to come (or not come, as has been the case for the past 4 years). Has there been any formal communication from the PRC government in Beijing to Taiwan regarding the latter’s continued exclusion from the WHA?

Taiwan is a responsible member of the global community with a democratically elected government and we do not believe that Beijing should be able to dictate the terms of our participation. We will continue to seek support from like-minded partners in making the legitimate case.

The WHO said in a statement in March that “the WHO Secretariat works with Taiwanese health experts and authorities, following established procedures, to facilitate a fast and effective response and ensure connection and information flow.” Can you explain the extent of WHO communication with Taiwan — and how that differs from WHO communication and cooperation with a full member state?

The WHO’s communications and interactions with Taiwan continue to be limited. Over 70 percent of our applications to attend WHO expert meetings have been rejected. Meanwhile, our representatives have been shut out of the WHA since 2017 and, according to the terms of an unpublicized MOU the WHO signed with the PRC in 2005, even critical health support for Taiwan must first receive Beijing’s approval. We consider these behind-closed-door terms utterly unruly and unacceptable.

These examples show how despite Taiwan being granted limited access to the WHO, it remains a long way away from achieving parity with other member states or even health entities represented at the WHO.

We want to reemphasize that all communities with a stake in global health should be able to contribute and to benefit from this critical governing body of international health, especially when Taiwan has proven itself to be an exceptional model and a reliable partner in mitigating the COVID-19 crisis.

What steps is Taiwan taking to make its voice heard on the sidelines of the WHA?

Regardless of the outcome of this year’s WHA on Taiwan’s bid for observer status, it would not deter Taiwan from continually working to make contributions on combating COVID-19 and other public health issues. Last week, for instance, we hosted a virtual forum to share best practices on the pandemic, with the Acting Assistant Secretary Pam Pryor attending on behalf of the U.S. In recent weeks, we have also held a large number of forums to share the “Taiwan Model,” and look at how further expand health cooperation around the world.

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo openly urged the head of WHO to welcome Taiwan’s observership, followed by a joint letter signed by more than 200 members of US House of Representatives. The support could not be more encouraging and evident as we appreciate all our diplomatic allies and many like-minded countries have continued to make our case, both publicly and privately. An uphill campaign against all odds, we believe these unequivocally joint efforts underscore Taiwan’s importance to the global health network.

Leaders from countries like the United States, Australia, Canada, and Japan have called for Taiwan to be included in the WHO, while China remains strongly opposed. What are the prospects for Taiwan’s cooperation with the WHO going forward?

The rapid spread of COVID-19 exposes once again the risk of excluding any one country from the WHO. We urge the WHO to take into account the loud and clear wishes of the United States and key members of the global community. It will find Taiwan to be a responsible actor and stakeholder that is ready and capable of making contributions around the world.