• China considers Taiwan one of its provinces
  • Taiwan regards itself as an independent, sovereign nation
  • China has blocked Taiwan from participation in WHO

The coronavirus outbreak in China has restarted a political battle of wills between Beijing and Taiwan, with the World Health Organization, or WHO, caught in the middle.

On Thursday Taiwan accused China of feeding wrong information about virus infections on the island nation to WHO after the United Nations health agency published inaccurate case data earlier this week.

On Tuesday, WHO correctly reduced the number of virus cases reported in Taiwan to 10 from its previous estimate of 13 (data which was provided by Beijing).

Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control said there were 11 confirmed cases of the virus in Taiwan thus far.

However, other reports indicate the actual number of infections in Taiwan is now 13 (matching China’s original estimate).

Despite the trivial nature of these differences, the episode has exposed deep political wounds that have festered for decades between Taiwan and mainland China.

Taiwan is not a member of WHO while Beijing has long insisted the island state is a Chinese “province” and not an independent nation. Thus, China contends that it duly represents Taiwan’s interests in any global organization.

In contrast, Taiwan – formally called the Republic of China – asserts it is an independent, democratic, sovereign state totally separate from the People’s Republic of China.

Taiwan is also not a member of the United Nations, the parent of WHO. But WHO treats Taiwan as part of China.

China’s foreign ministry claimed the case numbers it reported to WHO for Taiwan all derived from Taiwan’s government itself. “If there are mistakes, [then] the relevant authorities in the Taiwan region [are] deliberately reporting mistakes to us,” the ministry said.

Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said China initially provided WHO with wrong information, perhaps intentionally. Ou also said Taiwan complained to WHO for repeatedly changing how they refer to the island. The Geneva-based agency now calls Taiwan “Taipei and environs,” but has in the past referred to it as “Taiwan, China,” and “Taipei municipality” and even just “Taipei.”

“I’d like to ask the WHO, how many times are you going to change Taiwan’s name? These are not our correct names. Let me reiterate - our name is Taiwan, whose formal name is the Republic of China,” Ou said. “We beseech the WHO not to put Taiwan’s information under China, creating mistake after mistake after mistake.”

Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu also condemned WHO for including Taiwan as part of China.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office -- an administrative agency under the control of Beijing -- also warned Taiwan should not “use the virus to plot independence.”

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying said on Monday: “Taiwan compatriots are our brothers and sisters. If they encounter difficulties overseas, we are always ready to help. The WHO is a special UN agency consisting of sovereign states. Taiwan’s participation in the activities of international organizations such as the WHO must be arranged properly through cross-strait consultations under the one-China principle.”

In terms of real world consequences, Taiwan cited that the earlier wrong data on infections led to Italy and Vietnam both banning flights from Taiwan (as well as mainland China).

Vietnam’s ban was reversed after Taiwanese diplomats intervened, but Italy’s prohibition remains in place.

Myanmar also ordered domestic carriers to halt charter flights between the city of Mandalay and Taipei.

By being lumped in with China, Taiwanese travelers are facing other problems. For example, Bangladesh stopped issuing visa on-arrival to Chinese citizens, but that rule was also applied to Taiwanese.

“Cases like what’s happening with Italy also show that the interests of the Taiwanese people are negatively affected by the WHO’s decision to list Taiwan as part of China,” said Wu. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of passengers who got caught up at the airports will not be able to get compensation from airlines, and certainly not from the WHO.”

Kuan-Yu Chiang, a physician and president of the Taiwan Association for Global Health Diplomacy, asserted that since all the virus cases in Taiwan were linked to people who either visited or lived in China, Taiwan is not itself part of the outbreak.

"Last week, when WHO started to publish a world map of the epidemic using color coding to indicate the same level of seriousness, Taiwan was given [the] same level as China. That has a direct impact on Taiwanese people and airlines who are travelling there," said Chunhuei Chi, a Taiwanese-American professor at Oregon State University who specializes in global health.

Taiwan has now temporarily banned the entry of all Chinese citizens who live in mainland China.

Meanwhile, the virus has led Taiwan to become more vocal about its exclusion from WHO.

Earlier in the week, Ou condemned China for trying to restrict Taiwan’s access to WHO meetings about the virus. “Putting political considerations over people’s health and safety; this, basically, is extremely vile,” she said.

Ou declared that as an island Taiwan is particularly vulnerable to the deadly virus.

“Disease knows no national boundaries and there should be no loopholes in global epidemic prevention,” Ou said.

Taiwan has also complained that it has not received up-to-date information on the virus spread from WHO.

U.S. politicians, including Senators Mitt Romney (R.-Utah) and Cory Gardner (R.-Colo.), have also recently called for Taiwan’s immediate inclusion in WHO.

On Wednesday evening, Andrew Bremberg, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said it is a “technical imperative that WHO present visible public health data on Taiwan as an affected area and engage directly with Taiwan public health authorities on actions.”

In response, China’s delegation in Geneva expressed its “strong dissatisfaction” that some countries have even raised the issue of Taiwan’s participation at WHO.

WHO responded to the ongoing spat by stating that it “has received vital information from Taiwanese authorities and will be reporting back through established channels.”