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(Image: EPA/Ritchie B. Tongo)

The federal government has doubled down on its diplomatic stoush with Beijing by calling for Taiwan to be readmitted to the World Health Assembly (WHA) — the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation (WHO) — as an observer, a status removed at Beijing’s behest four years ago.

But unlike the government’s quixotic call for a transparent, independent inquiry into the origins and early spread of COVID-19, this time it has chosen the right issue. Conversely it is one that will be at least as difficult to prosecute due to Beijing insistence that it has a right to control Taiwan.

It is timely too, as the COVID-19 crisis and Taiwan’s world-standard response (currently 439 infections and 6 deaths), has triggered a long overdue revaluation of Taiwan internationally. It is here that Australia can and should play a key role.

Beijing has already pushed back hard on calls for an open inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. 

For a taste of just how the Chinese Communist Party plays hardball, look no further than its internal crackdown on whistleblowers, including the suppression of medical experts who belled the cat on the disease in January.

At least one early whistleblower detained and released has since died of the virus. Authorities have made it clear they are determined to maintain control of information on the genesis of the virus, persecuting anyone who differs from the official narrative.

While Australia has so far used megaphone diplomacy in vain attempts to get China to play ball on an inquiry, the move to bring Taiwan back to the WHA makes more strategic sense.  

It’s a country with which Australia has long had a strong trading and investment relationship, as well as very close and mutually beneficial people-to-people ties.

Taiwan is officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), and Australia’s relationship, like most Western nations who happily trade with the country, is somewhat invidious. 

Forced by Beijing to withdraw recognition from Taipei in 1972 in order to establish diplomatic relations with China, Australia — like its peers and all but a dozen nations in the world — has gone along with the fiction that Taiwan is not independent.

This is ignores that Taiwan has its own military and elects its own government. It’s a thriving developed county whose population, at 24 million, almost mirrors Australia’s.

Despite this, “… the Australian Government does not recognise the ROC as a sovereign state and does not regard the authorities in Taiwan as having the status of a national government,’’ states Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “Dealings between Australian government officials and Taiwan, therefore, take place unofficially … Australia’s representative office in Taiwan does not have diplomatic status nor do Taiwan’s representative offices in Australia …”

The most immediate focus is the upcoming WHA annual meeting in May. when the WHO director-general reports on the WHO’s annual work. WHO has been widely condemned for kowtowing to China and even enabling the CCP’S campaign of misinformation.

Unlike Canberra’s calls for a COVID-19 inquiry, our WHA bid has strong backing from the United States. China of course is not happy at all, maintaining its official policy of “reunification” with Taiwan, even though mainland China has rarely controlled the island historically and the ruling Communist Party never has. 

As China conducts its own misplaced megaphone diplomacy and economic threats, putting many nations offside, there has never been a better chance for a coalition building in favour of Taiwan.

China’s bigger picture on Taiwan is of course strategic, which is why the CCP has assiduously been blocking the Republic of China’s access to global forums for decades in a effort to isolate it. 

This has not worked, however, with the US continuing to maintain a defence treaty with Taiwan, regularly supplying the country with strategic arms. Many observers think it’s now even more likely that the US would quickly come to the aid of the ROC should Beijing attempt to restart armed hostilities.

This week, a senior People Liberation Army figure spoke out about such murmurings in an unusually downbeat commentary that suggest a window of opportunity

“China’s ultimate goal is not the reunification of Taiwan but to achieve the dream of national rejuvenation — so that all 1.4 billion Chinese can have a good life,” Qiao Liang, a retired admiral and professor at the PLA National Defence University in Beijing, said in an interview May 4.

“Could it be achieved by taking Taiwan back? Of course not. So we shouldn’t make this the top priority. If Beijing wants to take Taiwan back by force, it will need to mobilise all its resources and power to do this,” he said. “You shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket, it’s too costly.”

In a major break from Chinese tradition on the island, Qiao also said Taiwan was not just a domestic issue, admitting that Washington was involved in settling the dispute on the future of the territory.

Taiwan has now had a democratically elected president and legislature for 24 years since transitioning from a military dictatorship. It is one of a handful of properly functioning democracies in East and Southeast Asia.

It is in Australia’s interests to keep it that way, and the best way to do this is to keep Taiwan in the spotlight, especially amidst the overweening focus on COVID-19 to the exclusion of so much else.

Talking up Taiwan looks like actual foreign policy from Canberra, as distinct from simply shrieking unrealistic demands at closed-eared Beijing.

Peter Fray

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