#5 Soft Power Showdown: Taiwan and the WHO

In this episode, the foreign policy nerds take a look at the conflict between the US and China over Taiwan’s membership in the WHO. We’ll dig into why Taiwan is such a big issue, and how China’s growing influence over the WHO might have consequences for US influence in the world.



Before we get started today, we wanted to thank our listeners for all of their interest and support in the show. We just passed 500 downloads and we’re so excited that all of you are tuning in. More listeners allows us to include more limited series and extra content for you guys to listen to. To celebrate this milestone we will be launching a new series tomorrow called “Security Sundays” where we will break down some of the major developments in international security politics. 

So with that let’s dive into today’s topic– the struggle for soft power between the US and China, how its spilled over into the WHO, and the role Taiwan plays in it.


Since the outbreak of coronavirus, you’ve probably heard a number of headlines about President Trump’s disdain for the World Health Organization. He’s insinuated multiple times that the WHO is in cahoots with China, and is therefore unreliable, especially during the pandemic

If you’ve listened to our first episode, you know that there is an ongoing battle for influence, or soft power, between the United States and China. The newest battleground is the WHO, and Taiwan has become a key factor in this competition.


What you may not have heard is that the United States, despite historically toeing the line on Taiwan’s sovereignty, is now openly backing Taiwan’s bid to be an observer of the upcoming World Health Assembly meeting. 

In addition to being an attempt at regaining soft power, this is a fundamental change in US foreign policy towards China. 

So a lot of you might be wondering what the deal with Taiwan is, and why it’s such a contentious issue. 

To answer that, we have to look at its historical relationship with China, and how the US factors in.



We’ll start back in 1949, when the Chinese Civil War was being fought between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Republic of China (ROC). It ended with the CCP taking over mainland China and establishing the People’s Republic of China (PRC), While the ROC fled to Taiwan, a large island off the Chinese coast. There, it established itself as a separate entity while still claiming to be the legitimate Chinese government. 

After decades of tension, both the PRC and ROC agreed to the 1992 Consensus, which basically states that there’s only one China and that Taiwan is part of that one China. However, they never agreed on the crucial detail of the one government for this unified China. Both governments share this idea, but neither are willing to cede control. 


The current problem for Taiwan is that most governments do not want to formally recognize the Taiwanese government, for fear of angering the PRC. The general rule is that if you want to do business with China, you can’t take any stance on Taiwan. Your foreign policy must only recognize the PRC, a one-state policy, and consider Taiwan a part of China. This is why Taiwan is not a member of the UN or the WHO. In cases like this, economics can often trump politics. 


So let’s talk about how the US factors into this.

Historically, the United States has been a defender of Taiwan, ever since backing the ROC in their civil war. 

In fact, the USA is legally obligated to support Taiwan through the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, but the support is somewhat informal

The act doesn’t refer to the ROC’s existence, and instead calls it “the governing authorities of Taiwan”. 

As a part of the act, the US installed the American Institute of Taiwan, which serves as a de facto embassy

In legal terms, when an entity is de facto, it means that while it exists and functions, it is not defined legally. Basically, according to international law, the US has no embassy in Taiwan, but in practice, it does. This is really how relations between the US and Taiwan go.


But if China is such an important trading partner for the US, why take any stand on the Taiwan issue?


In the wake of coronavirus, the global economy has been crashing. It has become painfully obvious that all countries, including the United States, need to seriously consider restructuring their supply chains. 

Coupled with the Trump administration’s anti-China stance, these circumstances lead to the US taking a firmer position. 

Now, there is an understanding in the international political economy to move away from China. It won’t happen immediately, but if the world follows this trajectory, it will almost certainly happen in the future. 


That’s right. And to that end, the US views China more as a strategic rival than an economic partner. So Taiwan has become an even more valuable ally to stand against China’s expansion in East Asia. Supporting Taiwan is another way that the US can put pressure on China in their ongoing soft-power conflict.



So, now that we know how Taiwan factors into the US-China rivalry, let’s get into how those relations have spilled over into the WHO. Since taking office, Trump has disapproved of the WHO. In fact, his administration has not replaced the Obama-era representative to the WHO’s executive board since Trump took office. 

At the same time, China has been leveraging its economic might to gain a powerful seat at the international table, and the WHO is one of the areas where China, in the absence of the US, is gaining a lot of power. In essence, Trump’s refusal to appoint a WHO representative has ceded a lot of influence to China, who have taken on a stronger role in global health policy. 



So against this backdrop, Taiwan has been frozen out of WHO deliberations about coronavirus, despite sending early warnings that could have helped stop the spread. On December 31st, Taiwan’s government expressed concerns to the WHO regarding the possibility of human-to-human transmission based on their research. 

But Taiwan received no reply. Instead, the WHO endorsed China’s denial of human-to-human transmission until January 21, almost a full month after. 

In fact, recent statements by German intelligence paint the picture that Chinese President Xi Jinping requested the head of the WHO,  to suppress any information about human-to-human transmission and to delay calling coronavirus a pandemic. 


Why would the head of the WHO even listen to China about something as important as coronavirus information?


It comes back to a concept we discussed in our first episode called “debt-trap diplomacy”. China has its boot on the neck of many developing countries across Africa, Latin America, and Asia by offering them predatory loans for their infrastructure projects. 

The countries can’t pay back the loans, and China ends up building the infrastructure as a “favor.” This leads to China owning most of the country’s infrastructure. One such country is Ethiopia, where the head of the WHO is from. You can see where we’re going with this. 


So, if the intelligence report is to be believed, China has been leveraging its economic power over Ethiopia to force the head of the WHO to serve China’s needs. 


That’s pretty worrying if it’s true. But, getting back to Taiwan, has this situation in the WHO affected its coronavirus response? 


Not really. Taiwan has handled the outbreak of coronavirus admirably. They have had less than 500 cases and 6 deaths. And Taiwan has been donating whatever resources it can. 

Here’s an interesting fact. Recently, Wisconsin needed PPE desperately, like many other states. The White House connected them with Taiwan, and within a few days, Taiwan sent over  100,000 masks, with absolutely no strings attached. This has shown what the world is missing out on by not having more robust foreign relations with Taiwan. It also shows what Taiwan has to offer as a member of the WHO.  


In effect, China’s imposition of its own policies on the WHO has left Taiwan in the lurch to the detriment of the world. An organization like the WHO cannot function optimally if it is partial to one country’s interests. 

So guys, let’s talk about how the US has responded to this.


Since cases of Covid-19 started piling up all over the US, Trump has taken a personal role in slamming both China for causing the outbreak, and the WHO for being subservient to China’s interests. To accentuate this stance, Trump cut all funding for the WHO on April 14th, which covers almost 10% of the WHO’s $4.8 billion budget. Effectively, Trump is using the full weight of the US’s immense WHO contributions to try to win back the influence that the US once had. 


Now that we’re into May, Trump is trying to gain influence through supporting Taiwan’s bid for WHO member state status

To that end, the US has sought the support of 55 other countries to push China and the WHO to allow Taiwan to be an observer for the upcoming WHA meeting on May 18. 

All with the hope that Taiwan will become a full member state later on. 

Countries like France support the measure, and many other countries have expressed their desire to move away from China-centric supply chains. We touched on this topic in our first episode. 


However, The decision to make Taiwan a member state depends on a majority vote between the 194 members of the WHO. In this matter, China holds considerable sway over many countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, so it’s not likely that this push will lead to anything. It is a chance, though, for the US to throw its weight around in the overarching conflict with China and put some points on the board. 


And the US needs to get those points, because as of right now, the country doesn’t have the power to truly affect change for Taiwan and get it recognized internationally. Until then, all the US can hope for is to keep pushing the issue in hopes that enough states will eventually listen. 


So now lets go to Final Takes. Guys, what’s one thing listeners should take away from this episode, if they remember nothing else?



This is yet another example of the real benefits of soft power. In our first episode we talked about how soft power gives countries the ability to influence others without resorting to force. The problem is that these capabilities are fragile and expensive. Influence requires economic weight and participation in global institutions. When the US refuses to participate in groups like the WHO, countries like China can exploit that gap to grow their own soft power capabilities. When the US cedes ground like this, it can’t stop China from silencing Taiwan.


The US’s support of Taiwan’s bid to be a member state of the WHO, while in the short run will be ineffective, represents the growing US push for international recognition of Taiwan as part of a two-state China policy, which is completely against China’s interest and puts the US and China on an even faster collision course. Supporting Taiwan in this matter, when China has clearly made it known that it views Taiwan as an internal issue, demonstrates the US’s readiness to take another step towards antagonizing China on the international stage.


The coronavirus pandemic has led the world to realize that China’s economic power can drastically affect everyone’s supply chains, and in effect, their economies. 

Taiwan’s exceptional handling of the outbreak and distribution of aid, China’s bullying in the WHO and the US’s anti-China stance, have provided the world more impetus to take a stand against China via supporting Taiwan. 

As the US and the Western world attempt to move away from China’s economic influence, expect the US to push the Taiwan subject more and in other areas, potentially even the UN.


That’s all for our episode today. If you liked this episode please rate and subscribe on Itunes, Spotify, or however you’re listening. Don’t forget to tune in tomorrow for the launch of our new segment “Security Sundays” where we ask the question: How did Russia steal an entire region of Ukraine and get away with it? 

Thank you for listening, this has been, Geopolitics Rundown.

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