Cross-strait chill freezes out Taiwan in its efforts to deal with coronavirus outbreak

A building in Taipei, which will reportedly serve as a quarantine centre for Taiwanese citizens evacuated from Wuhan, seen on Feb 3, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

A week after turning down its request, Beijing has allowed Taipei to evacuate Taiwanese stranded in Wuhan after a lockdown there to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has sickened more than 20,000 people worldwide and killed more than 400 in China.

On Monday night (Feb 3), 247 Taiwanese were flown on a chartered flight from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, back to Taipei, with a second flight planned for Wednesday.

Taiwan's semi-official cross-strait agency had contacted its counterpart on Monday last week (Jan 27) asking to evacuate Taiwanese in Wuhan, days after it was locked down on Jan 23.

But China's Taiwan Affairs Office, while acknowledging the request, said in a statement that the two sides were not negotiating any arrangement and that the needs of Taiwanese in Wuhan were taken care of.

China has stopped official communications with self-ruled Taiwan - which it sees as a breakaway province - since 2016, when President Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party came to power.

Ms Tsai's re-election last month has meant that chilly ties between the two sides are continuing and this situation appears to have affected Taiwan's dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.

It has 10 confirmed cases, of which two were locally transmitted. The evacuation of Taiwanese from Wuhan could push these numbers up.

Dr Lin Chong-Pin, former vice-chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, said the delay in allowing evacuation stemmed from Beijing's reluctance to communicate directly with Taipei - which would have accorded it equal status - and leaving any communication to be handled by the Wuhan authorities.

Things were sped up later only because it was discovered that a Taiwanese in the Chinese city had contracted the disease, he added.

Worried Taiwanese in Wuhan "waited for 12 days without knowing what's going to happen", Dr Lin said.

Besides delays in evacuation, Taiwan was also excluded from World Health Organisation (WHO) meetings last month that gathered experts from China and other countries with cases of pneumonia caused by the coronavirus. This was despite Taiwan having several cases, as it is not a member of the world body.

Professor Steve Tsang of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London is of the view that WHO was wrong to exclude Taiwan.

"WHO should focus on public health of all in the world, not just follow the political wishes of a powerful member state to the detriment of people in Taiwan, particularly since the deliberate exclusion of Taiwan means that it would be much more difficult to contain the virus," he said.

China has blocked Taiwan's participation at WHO's annual assembly as an observer since 2017 after Ms Tsai came to power. Between 2009 and 2016, when Ms Tsai's China-friendly predecessor, Mr Ma Ying-jeou, was in office, Beijing had allowed Taiwan to attend as an observer.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said Taiwan needs to be part of the global health body to contain the coronavirus, and six United States senators have written WHO urging it to grant Taiwan observer status at its meetings and gatherings.

Said cross-strait analyst Yan Jiann-fa of Taiwan: "If Beijing is smart, it will let Taiwan join WHO (as an observer). It won't hurt its image as a major power."

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