As Coronavirus Spreads, Taiwan Impacted by UN Complying With Beijing’s ‘One China’ Stance

By Patrick Goodenough | February 3, 2020 | 4:32am EST
Taiwanese pray at a temple in Taipei last week. (Photo by Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)
Taiwanese pray at a temple in Taipei last week. (Photo by Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)

( – The outbreak of a contagious virus in China is drawing attention again to the costs to Taiwan of being lumped in with China. The United Nations has aligned with Beijing’s position that the self-governing island democracy is a part of China.

Last week, the U.N.’s World Health Organization (WHO) declared the “2019-nCoV” coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency, but despite Taiwan having ten confirmed cases, its health officials are not permitted to take part in emergency briefings on the outbreak.

At China’s insistence, Taiwan is barred from participating in the WHO event, including its annual assembly, and its health experts are prohibited from taking part in some 70 percent of WHO technical meetings each year.

Taiwan is impacted in other ways, too. Because the U.N. complies with China’s stance on Taiwan, the island nation is being lumped together with China when it comes to risk evaluation.

When Italian authorities on Thursday announced a halt to all flights to China, for example, it included Taiwan in the ban. Compared to Taiwan’s 10 cases, mainland China had 17,154 as of Monday.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry was seeking clarification of the Italian decision, saying it appeared to have been based on “inaccurate information.”  That information almost certainly came from the WHO, whose rolling updates of coronavirus cases includes “Taiwan, China,” or occasionally “Taipei,” in the overall China figures.

The ministry accused the WHO of having “repeatedly cooperated with China’s arrogant and unreasonable requirements” and of making “the fictional so-called ‘one-China principle’ a prerequisite for incorporating Taiwan into the global epidemic prevention system.”

Last week, Canada and Japan joined the U.S. in voicing support for Taiwan’s participation in the WHO, citing the current crisis.

A White House “We the People” petition calling for an end to Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO has garnered almost 200,000 signatures in less than four days – twice the number required in a 30-day period to earn a formal response from the administration.

Taiwan’s international isolation has cost it dearly in past health emergencies.

When the SARS coronavirus originated in China in 2003 and then spread to Taiwan – and dozens of other countries – Taiwan had to struggle alone for two months before Beijing agreed the WHO could send experts to help. More than 70 Taiwanese died.

According to the Taiwan Medical Association, 78 children died unnecessarily during an enterovirus epidemic in 1998, because the island had to fight the infection alone.

‘The political insecurities of member states’

It’s not just the WHO. With aviation playing a key role in the spread of the new coronavirus, the stance of another U.N. agency has drawn sharp criticism from supporters of Taiwan over recent weeks.

The mission of the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is to “promote the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation throughout the world.”

ICAO has 193 members; Taiwan, with 23 million people and an international airport handling more than 46 million passengers a year – the world’s 11th busiest in 2018 for international passenger traffic – is excluded from the international civil aviation system.

When ICAO held its three-yearly assembly last October, Taiwan as usual was not invited, despite calls earlier in the year by the G7 leading industrialized nations in support of Taiwan’s inclusion.

Amid global attempts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, some Twitter users have been drawing attention to the impact on Taiwan of the positions taken by ICAO and WHO.

“Want to drive the point home that two orgs, WHO & ICAO, refuse to share knowledge w/ Taiwan authorities,” Twitter user Jessica Drun tweeted last month.

“This means civil aviation authorities for one of busiest regional airports do not receive up-to-date info on any potential ICAO-WHO efforts,” continued Drun, a non-resident fellow at Project 2049 Institute, a think-tank focusing on Asia policy. “This is how a virus spreads.”

After that tweet and others critical of ICAO’s stance appeared, the agency – whose director-general is a Chinese official – began blocking the users.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) reacted to the development on Twitter, called it “Outrageous that ICAO is reportedly blocking accounts, including Congressional staff, that are tweeting about Taiwan. Another sign that the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to pressure and bully international organizations to bend to its demands are working.”

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus weighed in at the weekend, criticizing ICAO attempts “to suppress freedom of expression and curtail important discussion of Taiwan’s legitimate role in international issues.”

“Blocking Twitter users who make reference to Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, particularly given the global response to the coronavirus crisis, is outrageous, unacceptable, and not befitting of a U.N. organization,” she said.

Ortagus said the ICAO should reverse its practice, “and make clear publicly its understanding that freedom of expression must always supersede the political insecurities of member states.”

ICAO pushed back against the criticism: “Contrary to some claims, ICAO welcomes and encourages constructive criticism,” it tweeted. “We agree that our social media rules should provide more clarity about what we consider unacceptable, and we have updated them.”

Among other things, its updated social media rules reject “misinformed statements or questions regarding the safety and security of the civil aviation network” and “misinformation about its capabilities, policies, positions or activities.”



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