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A new approach to defending Taiwan at the UN

Bowing to Chinese pressure for the fifth year in a row, the World Health Organization (WHO) is set to arbitrarily deny Taiwan’s request to attend the global health body’s annual agenda-setting meeting this month in Geneva. But, if the Biden administration and Congress are serious about undercutting Beijing’s campaign to delegitimize its democratic rival, then Washington should condition future WHO funding on the reinstatement of Taiwan to its rightful place at the United Nations (UN) specialized agency. 

The Chinese Communist Party has long feared recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state and its potential membership at the UN. The outpouring of sympathy for Ukraine following Russia’s unprovoked invasion has aroused fears that Taiwan would muster similar support if Beijing sought to achieve reunification by force. In response, Beijing has doubled down in claiming that the two scenarios are “totally different” and that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China’s territory. Yet China’s confidence has clearly been shaken. The result: Beijing will intensify its efforts to diplomatically isolate Taiwan, having already succeeded in reducing the number of countries that recognize Taipei from 20 in 2011 to only 13 today.  

Luckily for China, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has enacted sweeping measures limiting Taiwan’s meaningful participation in UN activities. Under Guterres’ leadership, the UN has even denied Taiwanese diplomats credentials to access UN facilities. To justify Taiwan’s exclusion, Guterres has cited Beijing’s preferred interpretation of UN General Assembly resolution 2758, which, in 1971, awarded the Chinese seat at the UN to the People’s Republic of China based in Beijing. Still, this resolution did not prohibit Taiwan from participating at the UN and for decades following 2758’s adoption Taiwan regularly contributed to UN initiatives. Perhaps coincidentally, Beijing’s annual financial commitments to the UN have surged to more than $367 million — an increase of 75 percent — during Guterres’ term, making China now the second-largest UN contributor after the United States.

Much like Guterres, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ hostility towards Taiwan has been evident since the start of his tenure in 2017. Back then, and with Beijing’s support, Tedros unilaterally upended years of precedent by prohibiting Taiwan from serving as a non-voting observer during WHO meetings, like this month’s World Health Assembly. That ban remained in effect throughout the pandemic, even as WHO experts hailed Taiwan’s exemplary response to the public health crisis. Regrettably, Taiwan’s marginalization at the WHO appears unlikely to change anytime soon. That’s because Tedros is on track to be reelected this month to a second five-year term after the Biden administration declined to nominate a more qualified, objective candidate to lead the beleaguered global health organization.   

Perhaps sensing that Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO risks becoming the norm rather than the exception, bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill last month directing the State Department to provide Congress with regular updates regarding U.S. efforts to reestablish Taiwan’s WHO status. The bill, which President Biden should sign into law, is certainly a step in the right direction. But, if the Biden administration is to be successful, its negotiators need more than a strategy — they require leverage.  

One novel concept would be for Congress, the WHO’s third largest funder, to condition a portion of its contributions on Taiwan’s eventual re-instatement to the WHO. More specifically, Congress could mandate that Washington’s voluntary contributions, which totaled $415 million in 2021, be disbursed in two conditional tranches: the first following a stated commitment from Tedros that he plans to invite Taiwan to 2023’s World Health Assembly, and the second after Taiwan’s successful participation in next year’s event.  

This approach would not jeopardize the WHO’s most pressing operations, such as its highly successful measles and polio vaccination campaigns. The reason: such initiatives are partially funded by Washington’s mandatory WHO dues, which totaled an additional $285 million last year, and contributions from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  

Moreover, if executed correctly, this appropriations maneuver could potentially be applied to other UN entities and multilateral institutions that have erroneously excluded Taiwan. That includes the International Civil Aviation Organization, a Chinese-led UN body that adamantly refused to share information about aviation operations with the Taiwanese government even as COVID-19 spread globally.  

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked last year, “Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the UN system is not a political issue, but a pragmatic one.” Working together, members of Congress from both political parties can and should help the Biden administration make good on its promise to defend Taiwan’s international standing. If not at the WHO, then when? 

Craig Singleton, a former U.S. diplomat, is a senior China fellow at the non-partisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  

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