The largest ever virtual meeting of global leaders had China at the heart of discussions
China fought on two fronts at the just concluded virtual World Health Assembly (18-19 May 2020) in Geneva in its first open bid to dominate the post-Corona world.
On the one hand, it wanted to be considered a victor in the battle against the pandemic and as the country, which is capable and willing to assist the rest of the world without any investigation into Chinese culpability in hiding the advent of the Coronavirus, if not creating it.
On the other hand, China wanted to reinforce its “One China” position when it found that Taiwan’s claim to an observer status in the WHA was gaining traction in the wake of Taiwan’s extraordinary success in tackling the virus.
When it became clear that it cannot win on two fronts, China retreated from the first front and claimed victory on the second.
China sent a letter to the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) a couple of days before the Assembly stating that a discussion of Taiwan’s claim to observer status in the WHA was a controversial issue and should not be considered. The message claimed that the Taiwan Government, which it described as “the local authorities” barred themselves from participating in WHA by refusing to accept the “One China” principle and the delegations at the conference should not be distracted by political manipulation.
The Chinese delegation, working with the issue of investigation and transparency, must have hinted to the others that China would be flexible on investigation if the Taiwan issue was set aside for later consideration.
As a result, the 122 countries, including India, which had co-sponsored the draft resolution agreed to a “systematic review” instead of an investigation.
The final version of the draft proposes to “Initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with member states, a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to Covid-19.”
The resolution, adopted by consensus without any explanation of vote, does not mention China or Wuhan by name. But it urges the global health community to: “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions.”
The resolution says that the response to the pandemic must be global. It “calls for the universal, timely and equitable access to and fair distribution of all quality, safe, efficacious and affordable essential health technologies and products including their components and precursors required in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic as a global priority.”
Calls for an independent international investigation into the origins of COVID-19 were seen by Beijing as an attempt to blame it for the disease emerging and breaking out globally.
When Australia first proposed a global inquiry last month, China said it was “seriously concerned about and firmly opposed to this”. China had said that it was totally transparent about its handling of the virus as soon as it was detected. This had also led to some strain in Australia-China relations.
But when the proposal gained momentum with the endorsement of the European countries, China decided to accept a diluted version and celebrated success, a game that countries play at the UN when they are in the jaws of defeat.
President Xi Jin Ping “virtually” appeared at the WHA to defend the Chinese position on its handling of the Coronavirus. His address was a brave attempt to transform the perception of the COVID-19 pandemic from “China made” to a global health emergency a “catching the world by surprise,” where “races or nationalities are irrelevant.”
He assured the world that China did everything possible to turn the tide to win the battle against the virus. He firmly reasserted that China acted with openness and full transparency in a “most timely manner,” sharing the new virus’ genome at the “earliest possible time.”
On the idea of a “comprehensive review” into COVID-19, Xi spoke of a review focusing on “global responses” rather than the origins of the virus. It should be “based on science.” This comprehensive review should also be led by the WHO, which, under Dr Tedros, had stood like a rock to avoid any blame coming to China.
He addressed the problems of the developing world, particularly Africa, where China had lost ground. The African Ambassadors in Beijing had protested against the treatment of African residents in China. He offered a number of measures to assist Africa to fight the virus in the long term. Hinting at the loss of economic power and influence in the world, he pledged to “restore economic and social development and re-establish global supply chain.”
Taiwan is a core issue for China and the demand to restore its observer status in the WHA was its biggest challenge in Geneva. Apart from a handful of countries, which have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, many countries, which have a “One China” policy joined the call for Taiwan’s presence to recognise its success story in containing the virus and to learn from its experience.
Taiwan campaigned around the world to seize the opportunity to win political mileage by offering cooperation and supply of essential goods on a bilateral basis. Taiwan was the first in the world to deploy preventive measures to guard against the spread of the virus, and the island was held up as a global success story: it had only 440 cases and seven deaths, despite being just 180 km from the Chinese mainland with frequent flights operating between them.
Although uncompromising about its claim that Taiwan is a Chinese province, China had followed a pragmatic policy towards Taiwan because of economic and strategic reasons.
China had closed its eyes to the growing influence of Taiwan even in countries like India as long as nothing would affect the sovereignty issue. The annual veto against Taiwan’s admission to the UN reiterates this aspect.
But it had permitted Taiwan to be an observer in WHO from 2009 to 2016. It was following the massive victory of the pro-independence President, Tsai Ing-wen, in 2016, that China asked the WHO not to invite Taiwan anymore.
The determined bid made by Taiwan to use the occasion of COVID-19 had many supporters, but considering the significance of having an investigation, Taiwan was persuaded to drop the demand.
Taiwan expressed “deep regret and strong dissatisfaction” that the WHO secretariat had “yielded to pressure from the Chinese government”. But the fact remains that the inroads that Taiwan has made on this issue are a significant political gain for the country.
The US role in WHA was confined to launching a scathing attack on China and the WHO on the way they handled the pandemic. Instead of making a virtual appearance, President Trump wrote a letter to the WHO, listing a series of complaints about the handling of the “China virus” by China and the endorsement of Chinese actions by the WHO.
He gave WHO thirty days to make substantive improvements and become independent of China and threatened to permanently withdraw from the organisation. Trump’s strategy was to divert attention from his own failure to handle the virus by targeting China and the WHO.
No substantive proposal was made for international cooperation, making the results of the independent investigation the key to US participation.
China, on the other hand, pledged $2 billion to the WHO, as if to make up for the withdrawal of funds from the US. Escalation of tension between the US and China was the high point of the Assembly.
The US had no heart in its campaign for Taiwan to be invited to the Assembly as the balance of “One China” policy and support for Taiwan are too delicate to be upstaged. But the US extended support to the Europeans and others, who managed to project a larger than life image for Taiwan.
The issue of invitation for Taiwan was postponed, but Taiwan gained much popularity as not only a victor in the battle against COVID-19, but also a champion of international cooperation.
Considering India’s reasonable performance in controlling the virus and PM Modi’s commitment to international cooperation, his decision not to address the Assembly was surprising.
Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, who led the Indian delegation, said that India took all the necessary steps well in time to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, asserting that the country has done well in dealing with the disease and is confident of doing better in the months to come.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally monitored the situation and ensured a pre-emptive, proactive and graded response, leaving no stones unturned to contain the deadly virus from spreading, Vardhan said.
India undertook the COVID-19 challenge with the highest level of political commitment, he added. India co-sponsored the resolution, but took no position on Taiwan, though Taiwan reached out to India to extend support under the bilateral arrangements, despite our “One China” policy.
WHA was the largest virtual conference in history, with 194 members participating with little cost to their exchequers. But the usual interactions among leaders and intense negotiations which characterise such meetings were conspicuous by their absence. It looked as though multilateral diplomacy will be deprived of much of its charm if video conferencing becomes the new norm. There were also technology glitches, which detracted from the smooth and efficient conduct of the Assembly.
The WHO Director General withstood the attack on him and his organisation fairly well, exuding confidence in his concluding remarks. Dressed in a colourful Tongan shirt, symbolising his concern for the smallest and the farthest members of WHO, he reiterated commitment to transparency and accountability and promised to initiate at an early appropriate opportunity “a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to Covid-19.”