As the World Health Assembly convenes this week virtually, there is a raging political battle over the question of inviting Taiwan to join the discussion as an observer. The Assembly brings together the ministers from all the member-states of the World Health Organisation. Proponents point to Taiwan’s success in dealing with the coronavirus and its role in contributing to international cooperation against the COVID challenge. China, however, has been adamant in its refusal to let Taiwan attend the meeting. Taiwan points to the fact that it had participated in WHO meetings from 2009 to 2016. Chinese position on Taiwan’s participation in the WHO deliberations has changed after a pro-independence party was elected to power in 2016. Taiwan argues that the WHO should be focused on promoting global health and it should not exclude an important territorial entity on political considerations.
For Delhi, this is not an abstract debate about Taiwan. India is all set to be elected as the chairman of the executive board of the WHO this week, for the next three years. The board’s responsibility is to advise and facilitate the Assembly’s work. Taiwan’s participation is likely to come up for discussion at the WHA this week. Many of India’s partners, including the US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, with whom Delhi has been actively coordinating its international response to the COVID crisis, are calling for Taiwan’s presence in the WHO deliberations. Both India’s Western partners as well as Beijing are said to be pressing India to support their respective positions.
Whatever might be Delhi’s eventual choice on the Taiwan question, it should not be made either out of peevishness or fear. For some in Delhi, this is a good moment to pay back China in the same coin. They point to repeated Chinese efforts in the last few months to get the United Nations Security Council to discuss the Kashmir question. If Beijing does not respect “One India policy”, they ask, why should Delhi blindly follow a “One China” policy? Others, however, point to the dangers of upsetting China, especially when the bilateral relations are going through a difficult phase and military tensions on the border are rising. These approaches err in one or the other direction. Delhi has never recognised Taiwan as a separate nation and there is no basis for conflating Taipei’s presence as observer at WHO proceedings with India’s consistent “One China” policy. At the same time, Delhi can’t afford to cede to Beijing a veto over its approach to multilateral issues. A sensible middle path for India would lie in the apolitical appreciation of the specific technical issues involved and an objective merit-based decision.
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