India PM Narednra Modi with Chinese President XI Jinping
India PM Narednra Modi with Chinese President XI Jinping

International relations have taken on new dimensions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the churning process that is now on will take on new hues after the proposed meeting of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on May 18. The meeting would not only deliberate on the future response to the pandemic but also on the question of granting observer status to Taiwan in the World Health Assembly (WHA), a proposition that is anathema to China. Fortuitously, India will assume leadership of the executive board of WHO at the meeting and it will be a huge challenge for New Delhi to deal with the proposition on Taiwan’s role. Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla has participated in at least seven group phone calls with counterparts in the US, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam over the last two months on whether to let Taiwan attend the WHA as an observer. Four of these seven countries — US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand — are signatories to a demarche, urging the WHO to allow Taiwan to be admitted as an observer because its input will be “meaningful and important” on issues relating to the pandemic. Other signatories to this demarche are Canada, France, Germany, and the UK.

While China is pushing India hard to stick to its one-China policy which does not recognise Taiwan’s independent existence, propounded by her first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and therefore is seeking to deny Taiwan observer status in WHO, India cannot be oblivious of the worldwide support to Taiwan which includes countries that are working in tandem with India strategically like the US, Japan and Australia in efforts to contain Chinese expansionism. Taiwan attended the World Health Assembly as a non-voting observer from 2009 to 2016. But China scuttled Taiwan’s presence after Tsai Ing-wen, who challenged China, was elected President in 2016. She was re-elected early this year and her second term will begin on May 20, two days after WHA’s decision on May 18.

For India, the WHO meeting comes at a time when tensions have been rekindled on the Line of Actual Control following clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in Pangong Tso, a lake in eastern Ladakh, and Naku La, a high mountain pass in Sikkim. India’s opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir which is a brainchild of Chinese president Xi Jinping is also a sore point with China. The Indian stance at the WHO meeting will be watched with great interest in the geo-political context. As it appears, there is little scope for a tightrope walk. New Delhi will have to take a clear line for or against Taiwan’s observer status. India has a growing relationship with Taiwan but a much larger trade relationship with China.

The Indian dilemma is heightened by the fact that the US is now at daggers drawn with Beijing on the issue of Chinese negligence, or perhaps, design, in allowing coronavirus to spread from the Wuhan lab to the rest of the world. US President Donald Trump said recently, in a sign of escalation, that he has no interest in speaking to President Xi Jinping right now and that he could even cut ties with the world's second largest economy. Trump and his Republican backers have accused Beijing of failing to alert the world to the severity and scope of the coronavirus outbreak, which has sparked a sharp global recession and threatened his November re-election chances. Earlier this year, Trump had defunded the WHO, which it accuses of connivance with China, calling it for acting as a “PR agency” for China.

India has real interests in containing Chinese power, though it would not like to be seen doing that. China’s deep-seated nexus with Pakistan to thwart Indian initiatives at the UN cannot be ignored. All in all, India’s tenure at the head of the WHO will be a testing time for its foreign policy goals. The Chinese have never fought shy of disregarding Indian sensibilities despite growing trade relations. It is now time to see whether India pays it back in the same coin especially in the context of India’s growing closeness with Taiwan and the fact that most of the world’s most significant countries are arrayed against China. But India’s trade interests militate against any rash, ill-thought-out course.

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