India on Taiwan's Inclusion in the World Health Organization: Wider Implications and Current State

Updated: May 26

Ridhima Bhardwaj & Dhanya Visweswaran,

Research Interns,

Internationalism Research.

During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, a body that has been dominating the news cycle is the World Health Organization (henceforth, “WHO”). It is a ‘specialized global health agency’ established under the aegis of the United Nations (henceforth, “UN”) and consists of 194 member states, spread across six regions. [1]

The World Health Assembly (henceforth, “WHA”) is the primary decision-making body of the WHO, which hosts meetings among delegations from all the WHO member states once a year. [2] The delegations themselves decide on the goals that are to be set and the various courses of actions and recommendations that are to be proposed, with the responsibility of the WHO Secretariat being merely to oversee the working of these. [3]

This pandemic has impaired the working of almost all the WHO member states. This year’s 73rd WHA meeting was recognized as the need of the hour and convened virtually, with a shortened agenda. Its focus was on sharing of knowledge and progress reports and taking out a draft resolution on COVID-19. [4]

One of the key players in effectively and efficiently dealing with the pandemic is Taiwan. It recognized its harms much before the rest of the world and proactively worked to set into motion around 124 emergency measures. [5] Taiwan has had one of the best records in dealing with the pandemic, reported to have only 7 deaths and 440 cases as of 18th May 2020, with 398 having recovered. [6]

Hence, Taiwan’s inputs and expertise in dealing with the pandemic could be very useful to all the other nations who are struggling with keeping their COVID-19 cases respective lockdowns in check. One of the best platforms for Taiwan to impart its knowledge is undoubtedly the 73rd WHA meeting. However, this is a lot easier said than done due to Taiwan’s complicated history with China.

China-Taiwan Relations

China has consistently obstructed Taiwan from becoming an independent member of the WHO due to its claims of the island being a separated yet inalienable part of the province of China, also known as the One-China principle. [7]

Modern-day China-Taiwan political relations begin from after the end of World War II when China started ruling Taiwan after acquiring due consent from its allies, the United States of America and the United Kingdom. [8] In the next few years, Mr Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) government, the ruling party at that time, was defeated and forced to flee to Taiwan by the Communist government under the control of Mr. Mao Zedong. [9] The KMT inherited an effective dictatorship in Taiwan until Mr. Chiang’s son, Mr. Chiang Ching-kuo, facing resistance from locals, was compelled to begin the process of democratization of Taiwan, leading to the election of the first President who belonged to the opposition party the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). [10] This President was Mr. Chen Shui-bian.

Meanwhile globally, the relations between China and Taiwan began somewhat improving around the 1980s, much in part due to initiatives are taken by the KMT, which has always favoured the ultimate reunification of Taiwan with China. Despite the rejection of China’s proposition of a “One Country, Two Systems” model that proposed giving Taiwan autonomy if it reunified with mainland China, various unofficial talks and relaxation of rules took place between the two countries. [11] Relations were more or less stable until the election of Shui-bian, especially since the DPP has long been a major advocate for official Taiwanese independence from China.

In 2016, DPP acquired a majority for the very first time in Taiwan’s legislation and Ms. Tsai Ing-wen was elected as Taiwan’s newest President. [12] In this way, DPP’s push for official Taiwanese independence acquired a new momentum. Sensing a threat to its policies, China stepped up measures, threatening to block entities if they did not recognize Taiwan as a part of China and strongly imposes its One-China principle.

Politics behind the inclusion of Taiwan in the World Health Assembly

As a permanent member of the Security Council and a strong player in the general international forum, China has constantly influenced the attitudes of various nations and organizations towards Taiwan, never missing an opportunity to do so. In fact, to this date, there exists much disagreement and confusion regarding the status of Taiwan within the international community, with the country being thoroughly under-represented.

Initially, the KMT government in Taiwan did hold China’s seat on the UN Security Council, but this was later transferred to Beijing. [13] Currently, the UN does not recognize Taiwan as its member and a prominent requirement for nations to maintain diplomatic ties with China is to necessarily break all official ties with Taiwan. [14] Considering this, not more than twenty nations now maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, despite it fulfilling all the elements of statehood under international law and being eligible to accede to that status. [15]

When specifically considering Taiwan’s representation in the WHO, it is important to note that Taiwan has in fact participated in the proceedings of the organization as an observer under the name “Chinese Taipei”. [16] While this participation lacked any form of official recognition of Taiwan as an independent nation, it was hoped that gradually Taiwan would be included separately from Beijing. However, these hopes proved to be futile since such participation had to be renewed annually by China, which made it a point to exclude Taiwan from all major technical meetings. [17] Taiwan hasn’t been able to achieve a presence in the WHO under any name since 2016 when the DPP came to power and increased its push for official Taiwanese independence.

However, Taiwan’s standing in the international community will change if Taiwan receives an official invite to participate in the proceedings of the WHA. Such participation, very simply put, will necessitate Taiwan to become a member of the WHO, which in turn, requires it to be provided with UN membership. [18] Hence, one decision in favour of Taiwan can change its entire future trajectory.

But practically speaking, Taiwan getting such an invite is unlikely. The most the country can hope for is a renewal of its observer status in the WHA, albeit this time, not under the name of Chinese Taipei but as Taiwan or the Republic of China, as it chooses to officially call itself. This move is being backed by various nations such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America in this tumultuous period of the COVID-19 pandemic wherein Taiwan’s expertise will only seek to aid the efforts of various nations. A major player in making this decision, however, is India.

India is ready to take over as the newest chairperson of the WHA by the end of this month. [19] While generally having supported China’s One-China Policy, India finds itself in a truly precarious position. However, in recent times, India has strengthened its ties with Taiwan.

India's Involvement and its Diplomacy Over Taiwan

Taiwan’s ties with India have improved in range, covering trade, research and education, with trade relations rising to $7.5 billion in 2019, up from $1 billion in 2000. The government of Taiwan has a regional presence in charge of promoting cooperation on academic achievement, the tourist industry, culture, press, and economic growth, through the Taipei Economic and Cultural Center (TECC) in India. Greater investment by Taiwan has taken place in the wake of linguistic barriers, administrative obstacles and pressure from indigenous producers on India.

Relationships between Taiwan and India are aligned with the initiatives of the Taiwanese government to minimize economic dependency on China and with the New Southbound Policy (NSP) of President Tsai Ing-wen, which strengthens the attempts of some of her contemporaries. Taiwanese companies are strongly involved in moving market relations from China to India, and measures that could promote such partnership to gain mutual benefits.

Although India continues to be informed of China's priorities with respect to relations between Taiwan and India, it may give growing importance to soft politics through Bollywood movies and mutual ties to Buddhism in order to manipulate Taiwanese public perception on India. Links between Taiwan and India will benefit by being situated within the security and economic relationship of the two countries with the United States, Australia, and Japan, which might mitigate the fears of Taiwanese citizens regarding China's impacts.

Although both India and Taiwan might profit greatly from enhanced ties, specifically with the prospect of an FTA, their cooperation would probably never be extended to official diplomatic ties. Moreover, in other established diplomatic contexts, along with the UN, India is pretty doubtful to campaign for Taiwan at the cost of infuriating disputes with china.

But, with or without a formal alliance, both India and Taiwan gain from expanded partnerships and citizen-to-citizen interrelationships. As Taiwan risks losing formal diplomatic ties, its unofficial ties with nations of regional importance, such as South Korea and Japan, play a very significant role in preserving Taiwan's autonomy. It could also act as an important unofficial ally in accomplishing that goal, owing to India's political and economic significance within the Continent.

It is uncertain if India will be able to evade any adverse consequences from China, as Beijing doesn't often strike against nations that cooperate with Taiwan in economic terms. Such relations, while not improving Taiwan's official diplomatic support, could affect the financial dependence Taiwan places on China.[20]

India is expected to step into the position of the World Health Organisation's Executive Board following its annual meeting later in the month. This will be accepted in New Delhi, as in multilateral institutions that 'control' the world it has always wanted a larger role. Besides this, India believes in multilateralism, as do several other nations. These positions bring prestige and power with them.

But they are also bringing a far more unpleasant guest for New Delhi: the responsibility to pick sides in huge international disputes. In these confrontations, India's allies would urge India to diplomatically aid them. It is also in New Delhi best interests, however crucial it is to support India's ties, to guarantee that China does not obtain undue power over these bodies, as that will affect India’s interests too.[21]

Impact of Including Taiwan in the World Health Organization on the Sino-Indo Power Dynamics

India is now in a difficult situation over increasing global pressure and greater US-China tensions. India must take a decision on whether it will accept the US claim to allow Taiwan's status in the WHA as an observer, which China will protest that it violates the long-standing support of 'One-China' policy of New Delhi.

Even though China maintains its stance to reject Taipei's request to be a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Taiwan has called on India to support its proposal that the nation be permitted to take part in the World Health Assembly (WHA) to communicate its insights in the battle against COVID-19.[22]

Taiwan and China seem to have, in recent times, approached New Delhi in their own ways. In the difficult conditions of the pandemic, Taiwan has contributed over one million surgical masks to support India, and the Chinese Embassy in India has stressed that India must uphold its 'One-China' policy in view when contemplating on the issue.[23] India has indeed always considered Taiwan as part of China as per the 'One China' policy. India did not alter its stance even after the India-China war of 1962, despite breaking relations with Taiwan in 1949.[24]

According to the Chinese Embassy in India,

There is but one China in the world and the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing the whole of China. The One-China principle is a widely accepted consensus of the international community including the Government of the Republic of India.”

The statement managed to give slight weight to the argument of an independent media, suggesting that the Indian news media must recognize the "widely accepted international community consensus including the government of the Republic of India" on the One China policy. (India formally acknowledges Beijing and, like most nations, retains informal relations with Taiwan).[25]

However, a vital portion of the forthcoming global politics will focus not much on direct military conflict with China – although this can't be ruled out – but also on contesting multilateral agency authority.

Multilateral institutions are products of diplomacy of foreign influence, something well understood but still ignored. As a result of China's rise, international power dynamics was already gaining momentum, and the closest China in relative importance gets to the US, the more powerful the rivalry. The pandemic coronavirus has only intensified the rivalry.

The US-China conflict has made it nearly impossible even to achieve a consensus on a United Nations Security Council resolution aiming for a nationwide cease-fire of all conflicts so that everyone can concentrate on resolving the pandemic. China is adamant on adding content that favours the WHO in the proposal that the US rejects, thus, leading to a potential deadlock.

It is not shocking, in this stressful situation, that India faces tension from global community allies to take a clear stance in favour of an open inquiry into the source of the coronavirus outbreak and the involvement of the WHO in it. The US and Australia both have urged India to advocate for changes inside the WHO, and also to facilitate an investigation into the pandemic's roots. They have specific reasons to be upset with China.

As a result of the outbreak, the US is slowly moving towards one lakh deaths and the rate of unemployment could probably surpass what was witnessed in the Great Depression, 80 years back. It's a presidential race year already on top of that, and no politician wants to be shown as weak on China. But at the other arm, Australia has also been subjected to harassment by China due to its request for an active inquiry into the pandemic's source.[26]

Taiwan's positive management of the pandemic has resulted in support from massive international actors and some are now realigning their Taiwan Policy. countries are developing diplomatic relations with Taiwan to improve their individual plans of action against COVID-19. There is also agreement in the world community that Taiwan should be granted entry to the WHO and other multilateral organizations, even though resistance from China is becoming stronger.

The US has tried to improve Taiwan's role in foreign affairs and has endorsed Taiwan's "important presence" in numerous bodies, including the WHA, with hardly any progress thus far.

Beijing is widely taken to account worldwide for its involvement in concealing the severity of the preliminary epidemic in Hubei province while Taiwan is really being hailed as a public health model. It really is too early to say for sure the global implications of COVID-19 in Asia, but it is evident that Taiwan is already going to make the most of the possibility.[27]


Taiwan is a significant stakeholder and a beneficial ally in tackling the world's massive health emergency. The government of Taiwan is distributing masks to vulnerable countries and discussing their observations using equipment to detect outbreaks. It also partners with specialists from the US to create quicker check kits and vaccines for the diagnosis.

There are several opportunities which India can pursue without being unnecessarily defensive in its relations with Taiwan. India could further strengthen its trade relations with Taiwan and provide the Taiwanese business community with greater ease of doing business. Therefore, it is too early to presume what global implications this could hold for the future of relations of India with China, Taiwan and even the USA and possible disputes over this diplomatic issue.

Keeping in mind the well-being of the global community, one can only hope that India decides to set aside global politics and take up a moral position regarding Taiwan, especially so the entire humanity can coordinate and fight against the COVID-19 pandemic together.

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