As It Happens

Taiwan's bid for WHO observer status a 'non-political issue,' says diplomat

Canada's decision to back Taiwan's bid for observer status in the World Health Organization has nothing to do with politics, says Taiwan's representative in Canada. 

Canada has backed Taiwan’s campaign despite strong opposition from China

Winston Wen-yi Chen is the representative at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada. (Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada)

Canada's decision to back Taiwan's bid for observer status in the World Health Organization has nothing to do with politics, says Taiwan's representative in Canada. 

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne confirmed over the weekend that Canada has joined the U.S., Japan and others in supporting Taiwan's campaign to join the UN agency.

It's a move that's likely to upset China — which does not recognize Taiwan's sovereignty — at a time when Canadian-Chinese relations are already fraught. 

Canada has spoken out against what it calls the "arbitrary" imprisonment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China. The two men were detained last year after the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on U.S. allegations of fraud. 

Winston Wen-yi Chen is the representative at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Why is it so important for Taiwan to have Canada's support in your bid to be part of the World Health Organization?

We are facing [a] big challenge ... not [only] for the people of Canada or the people of Taiwan, but for all the people living on this planet. It certainly requires everyone ... to work together to fight against this pandemic.

You now seem to have the backing of Canada and a number of other countries, along with Japan and the United States, to be at this meeting. What do you want? What can Taiwan contribute?

We'd like to share our experience.

The most important part is that the virus can not recognize national borders … so in order to protect the citizens on this planet, it requires that everyone has to be included — certainly the people, 23.8-million population, of Taiwan.

It seems that Taiwan is given credit for having handled the coronavirus pandemic quite well. Much better, it seems, than China has. Why do you think that's the case? What do you think Taiwan did differently from China?

There's a big difference. We are a democracy like Canada.

When we fight against the pandemic, we have to make a balance between the efficiency, effectiveness and the civil liberties.

We try to maximize the transparency for the measures, [and] make sure that we can get that co-operation, confidence and the trust of the people.

Trudeau questioned on Taiwan vs China

2 years ago
Duration 1:24
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters on Friday.

You know that for Canada to support Taiwan is to go against Beijing. China does not want you to be recognized at this meeting, to have any standing. So can you appreciate that Canada is possibly going to pay a price for having given you this endorsement?

The people can understand that including Taiwan as an observer in the WHO meetings is a non-political issue. It's a professional health issue. The main purpose is to protect and then safeguard the global health community.

So I think if China would like to emphasize the political intention or motivation, that's a big mistake.

But you know that there's a very delicate extradition case going on right now with a Chinese businesswoman who is in Canada, Meng Wanzhou, and two Canadians arrested in China, it appears in retaliation for that case. So there is possibly people's futures, even their lives, at stake here in keeping a balance with Beijing. So I'm just wondering if you do appreciate how difficult this has been for Canada?

Yes. I feel encouraged that Canada makes a very courageous move to support Taiwan and, in a way, Taiwan's experience to handle the delicate situation across the Taiwan Strait for four decades. And that we, as a like-minded country to Canada, we try to share our experience with Canada, our friends here. And also that we tried to be balanced [in] our policy.

So we are not going to push for the agenda, but we ... both fully understand that [in] facing the challenge like a pandemic, that people have to put political issues aside.

We've put our resources on this and then we saved people's lives. That's the No. 1 issue.

We saw Dr. Bruce Aylward, who is the Canadian doctor who is part of the WHO study into COVID-19 in China. In February, he came back saying that China was doing a spectacular job. Later, when he was interviewed by a Hong Kong journalist, he appears to have disconnected the phone when he was asked if Taiwan should be part of the WHO or be recognized as an observer status. What does that tell you about how difficult this is to go against the common ideas the WHO has about its relationship with China?

We fully understand how difficult this issue and how delicate it is. So that's the reason why we ...[are] trying not to include the political intention in this.

It's purely an agenda [in] which we want to save people's lives and that we want to include everyone and then create an atmosphere [of] substantial co-operation. And then we see mutual benefit for everyone.

But, why do you think that Dr. Aylward did that? Why do you think he refused to answer the question about Taiwan? What does that tell you about the WHO's relationship with China?

I think the question should be put to Dr. Aylward.

Dr. Bruce Aylward is the epidemiologist who led a team of WHO experts to China to study the COVID-19 outbreak in February. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

But why do you think the WHO is so worried about doing anything that angers China?

Over the years ... China tried to exercise its influence on international organizations.

I think the important [thing] is that [Taiwan is] a democratic institution and we respect human rights and we think freedom is the ultimate goal.

Taiwan's participation in WHO meetings is something people shouldn't take ... for granted. If we are going to fight ... the pandemic, I think Taiwan's choice has to be emphasized and there should be respect. And then we try to do that without political motivation.

You say you have no political motivation. This is a health issue. But at the same time, Taiwan donated personal protective equipment to countries, including Canada. That's something China has done. It's been called "coronavirus diplomacy." Are you, like perhaps China is ... using this pandemic as a way to get more recognition? Are you playing politics?

I see it differently. I think, as I said, that in the early stage, we tried to make sure that [we had] enough PPE stockpiled ... then chat with our friends and ... those more worse hit countries to see what we can do.

Isn't it fair to say you're playing politics to some extent, that it isn't entirely about a health issue?

I think that's totally different. Everything we do when we safeguard people's lives and then to fight against COVID-19 ... is open and [transparent].

But what we can see in China is that you didn't know the real story of what's happening there, even up to this moment. I think that's the main difference.

And if you ask me, that's why we should support ... friendly countries like Canada and then other countries. I think that's human nature. We should help each other.

People like to put a name [on it], like mask diplomacy or whatever. I don't care [about] that.

If our small and humble contribution to some countries really can help [save] lots of  people's lives, then I think that's something my country will continue to do.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Canadian Press. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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