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Taiwan Likely To Remain Off WHO's Invite List Despite COVID-19 Successes


Tomorrow, the World Health Organization starts its annual meeting with officials from around the world discussing COVID-19. But representatives of a government that oversaw one of the world's best responses to the pandemic will probably not be there. NPR's John Ruwitch explains.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: October 1971 - Taiwan is forced out of the United Nations, and the communist government in China is declared the sole representative of the Chinese people.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When they come to occupy in the Security Council the seat which is theirs as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

RUWITCH: In the near half century since, Beijing has squeezed Taiwan's presence on the international stage and picked off most of its diplomatic allies. But now the self-ruled island faces a rare opportunity, says Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

BONNIE GLASER: I do think that Taiwan has benefited enormously from being able to showcase its performance in controlling the spread of COVID.

RUWITCH: Its performance, with less than 500 cases and seven deaths, has stood out, particularly in contrast to the way that China initially handled the pandemic. That, coupled with intensifying rivalry between Washington and Beijing, has translated into an unusually high-profile push by the U.S. and others to get Taiwan an invitation to attend Monday's World Health Assembly as an observer.

It wouldn't be a first. Taiwan sat in on the WHA from 2009 to 2016 when its relations with China were warmer. But China is wary of Taiwan's current president, Tsai Ing-wen. She refuses to affirm that Taiwan is a part of China, and her party has advocated independence, a red line for Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian laid the blame squarely on the attitude of Tsai's party, the DPP.


ZHAO LIJIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: "Taiwan being unable to attend is brought about by the DPP," said Zhao, "and they're well aware of this." But even if Taiwan doesn't get to sit in on this year's proceedings, its handling of the pandemic has already elevated its profile on the global stage. Again, CSIS's Glaser.

GLASER: COVID provides an avenue to perhaps work more closely with other countries, probably more quietly and in ways that are below the radar, not necessarily in very public or provocative ways. And that will be good for Taiwan going forward.

RUWITCH: Working quietly will be key. Taiwan's president Tsai won a landslide reelection in January and starts her second term this Wednesday. If she adopts what Beijing sees as a provocative stance, China will not sit by idly, says Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

WU XINBO: That will force the mainland to respond, you know, substantively, and a crisis may result in the Taiwan Strait.

RUWITCH: A crisis in the Taiwan Strait that a world grappling with a major pandemic can ill afford.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.