India faces tough test on Taiwan as it takes on new role at WHO

India takes over as chair of the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation next week. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - India is at the centre of a widening dispute between the US and China over Taiwan as it takes over next week as chair of the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The US, along with countries including the UK, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, wants Taipei to be invited to the meeting on May 18-19 given its success in fighting Covid-19. China, which considers the democratically-run island a wayward province, has opposed the move. Taiwan has been seeking the restoration of its observer status at the World Health Assembly.

For decades a contentious issue between Washington and Beijing, Taiwan may become a bigger flash-point amid US. President Donald Trump's sharp criticism of China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Taiwan's government was a founding member of the UN, but the People's Republic of China took its seat in the body - and all related organisations, such as the WHO - in 1971.

The country will take a view on all issues at the assembly as the formal agenda evolves, a government official who asked not to be identified citing rules, said in a text message. India has been listening to both sides of the argument on allowing Taiwan to be reinstated as an observer.

Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla has participated in weekly calls initiated by US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam to "share ideas and best practices" with countries in the Indo-Pacific region on challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. India also participated in the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting this week.

While the official said decision on Taiwan will be taken by vote, India has so far accepted the "One China" premise. That's despite growing economic and cultural ties with Taiwan as part of a 'Look East' policy.

China issued a statement on Thursday saying its position on Taiwan's participation in the WHO "is clear & consistent" and that the "#OneChina principle must be upheld."

BORDER CLASH

India is facing the fraught issue at a time when its own tensions with Beijing have been on the simmer.

Last weekend New Delhi reported a face off with Chinese troops at its northern border that has been a contentious issue for decades.

While India has downplayed the skirmish, another point of contention between the two countries are New Delhi's new investment rules that block neighbouring countries from taking over local businesses without government approval. The flare up at the border could well be Beijing's message to New Delhi on both the new rules and the WHO meeting, said Harsh Pant, who teaches international relations at King's College London.

India is unlikely to deviate from the 'One China' policy, but since Taiwan had previously been granted observer status at the health body, it "merely needs to be reinstated," said Pant. "There is room for India to support Taiwan without jeopardising their own 'One China' policy. Whether they support such a decision openly needs to be seen."

Beijing granted Taiwan access to World Health Assembly meetings as an observer between 2009 and 2016, but that arrangement ended when current President Tsai Ing-wen came into power and refused to accept the "one-China" premise.

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