US Senate joins calls for Taiwan to regain WHO observer status

Senate Armed Services Chairman James Inhofe is sponsoring the Bill. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - The US Senate has unanimously approved a Bill seeking the restoration of Taiwan's observer status with the World Health Organisation, escalating an international campaign to push back against Chinese efforts to isolate the island.

The bipartisan measure calls on the State Department to report about Taiwan's participation as an observer at the World Health Assembly - a key WHO decision-making body set to meet next week.

The Bill, which hasn't yet been passed by the US House, would also direct Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to explain any department plans to help Taipei reclaim its observer status.

The Senate vote Monday is part of a push by China's critics in the US and elsewhere to use the coronavirus pandemic to strengthen Taiwan's official and unofficial diplomatic relationships. Beijing, which considers island part of its territory, has blocked its participation in the WHO since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016 and said she refused to accept that both belong to "one China."

The measure's approval comes days after Taiwan urged the WHO to allow it to rejoin the assembly, an effort Beijing has denounced as separatist. Senate Armed Services Chairman James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, is sponsoring the Bill.

"I applaud Secretary Pompeo for the steps he's already taken to ensure Taiwan can attend the WHO Summit on the coronavirus pandemic later this month, and look forward to his strategy that will restore Taiwan's observer status," Inhofe said in a statement.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters Tuesday that 24 medical and health specialists from Taiwan had participated in WHO technical events since last year under a 2005 memorandum of understanding that established exceptional arrangements for the island.

Zhao said that China didn't need an agreement "with any international organisation to clarify the fact that Taiwan is part of China."

"There is but one China in the world and the Taiwan region is an inseparable part of China's territory," he said.

Last week, China criticised Pompeo and similar calls by New Zealand over efforts to get Taiwan back in the assembly. Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Ma Xiaoguang said Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party were exploiting the issue "out of a political plot rather than concern of public health."

New Zealand's foreign minister on Tuesday (May 12) responded to China's warning that its backing of Taiwan's participation at the WHO could damage bilateral ties, saying the country had to stand up for itself.

Senior ministers in New Zealand last week said Taiwan should be allowed to join the WHO as an observer given its success in limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus, drawing China's ire which asked the Pacific country to "stop making wrong statements".

"We have got to stand up for ourselves," Mr Winston Peters, New Zealand's foreign minister, said at a news conference when asked about China's response to New Zealand's position on Taiwan. "And true friendship is based on equality. It's based on the ability in this friendship to nevertheless disagree."

Mr Peters said he did not think the issue would harm diplomatic ties with China, which is New Zealand's biggest trading partner.

While Taiwan has for decades been one of the most sensitive issues between Washington and Beijing, the issue has returned to the fore as both sides traded accusations over the Covid-19 outbreak.

Taiwan's successful handling of the virus so far, alongside global concern about China's initial response to it, has fuelled a groundswell of support for Taipei's participation in the assembly.

Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said last week that the island needed a seat at the WHA to give it firsthand information about the pandemic's spread.

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