How will India play its cards at the WHO?

WHO
India will come under enormous pressure from the US, to line up against China. Photo: PTI

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is coming more and more into focus, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take lives and crowd hospitals. Its omissions and commissions are under public scrutiny as never before.

The director-general of the WHO has been personally attacked by none other than US President Donald Trump for colluding with China. India as a member of the 33-member executive board of the WHO will be forced to take sides. In fact, towards by May 22, India will be on the rotating chair of the world health body. It will come under enormous pressure from the US, to line up against China. While many in India will be delighted as they believe it would be a good way to get back at China for always batting for Pakistan at the United Nations Security Council. The Modi government will not be guided by public sentiment but will carefully consider all its options and make a decision which will take care of its national interest.

Indian diplomats are adept at walking the tight-rope and developed it into an art as India skirted several tricky international issues. Now, however, it will be under pressure to take a position.

As President Donald Trump continues to relentlessly gun for China, and force the WHO to investigate the source of the Coronavirus which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, India will have to play its hand. However, on a video conference meeting of the WHO on Monday, another China-related issue will be up. This has to do with Taiwan being permitted to attend the World Health Assembly as an observer. China is opposing this tooth and nail.
It is well known that Taiwan had been ousted from the UN General Assembly way back in 1971, under pressure from China. Having Taiwan as a member of the UNGA goes against its one-China policy.

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For the uninitiated, after the Communist takeover of China in 1949, the ousted leadership of the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan. Ever since it has carved out a distinct identity for itself, and though most world powers do not recognise Taiwan for fear of offending China, it is a developed democratic country. China and Taiwan have close economic and cultural ties. People to people contacts have also remained intact. Before the 2016 elections in Taiwan, the government had been pro-China, eager not to step outside the bonds laid down by Beijing. But in 2016, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a liberal anti-China party of President Tsai Ing-wen came to power. Since then Taipei’s ties with Beijing had deteriorated considerably.

Taiwan had earlier attended the World Health Assembly convened by the WHO as an observer. But this was when a pro-China party was in power in Taipei. Since President Tsai’s party came to power, China has ensured that Taiwan is not granted even an “observer status.’’

There is a growing move now led by the US, to get Taiwan to attend. The logic is that while the rest of the world, including China, struggled to control the virus, Taiwan has dealt with the COVID 19 outbreak with exemplary efficiency. There were just 440 cases in a population of 24 million. Taiwan has so far had just seven deaths. The island did not close schools, colleges or restaurants. It helped the rest of the world, including India with medical supplies in the early days of the pandemic. So Taiwan, pushing its case for inclusion at the World Health Assembly says it wants to share its success with members of the world body to help other nations fight the pandemic. Taiwan is knocking at the doors of the WHO. Taipei knows that the timing is perfect. Anger against China’s lack of transparency at the outset of the pandemic has led to several countries in Europe and America to support Taiwan.

President Trump, wishing to appeal to his conservative electoral base, wants to act the tough leader who will ask China the hard questions and ensure that it is held accountable. So, supporting Taiwan will be part of the Trump strategy as well for the November presidential polls.

It is not just the US, but Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are battling for Taiwan. Earlier ambassadors of these countries together issued a demarche to WHO for the inclusion of Taiwan. The US is hoping India will back Taiwan.

China is also flexing its diplomatic muscle as it tries to influence the 34-member Executive Board of WHO. Beijing has reminded India that it is already committed to the one-China policy, and it expects Delhi to stick to its position. India is playing its cards close to its chest on the Taiwan issue. In recent years the people-to-people ties between India and Taiwan have flourished. Taiwan has an advanced high-tech industry and India could collaborate in digital technology, as President Tsai focusses on South Asia. However, Delhi’s ties with Beijing is much more comprehensive and bilateral trade was over 100 billion in recent times. India is unlikely to choose Taiwan over China. Successive governments in India have also been careful not to cross swords with China beyond a point.

Even during the recent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in both the eastern and western borders, Delhi played it down, saying as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has not been demarcated, such transgressions take place from time to time. The situation was quickly diffused.

But there are indications that when it comes to investigations on the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic, India may take a different stand. It was surprising that a senior minister of the Modi government, Nitin Gadkari, recently said that the COVID virus came out of a laboratory in Wuhan. That theory has been going on since the pandemic began but is now being pushed by none other President Trump. Before Gadkari, all conspiracy theories like this was being discussed over social media. The fact that Gadkari himself has spoken about this, maybe an indication that India will side with the US to push for an independent investigation of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The US is stressing on the “rule of law, transparency, and accountability” to fight the pandemic. India too believes in this. So India may go ahead and side with the US, Japan and Europe at the WHO.

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