In a Switch, Taiwan to Take Part in WHO Conference

By Jane Rickards
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 30, 2009

TAIPEI, Taiwan, April 29 -- The Taiwanese government said Wednesday that it will send observers to a United Nations health conference next month, its first participation in a formal U.N. activity since 1971, when the world body switched recognition to mainland China.

The announcement is a sign of considerable warming between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China, which had used its influence in the past to block Taiwan from participating in the U.N.'s World Health Organization. China apparently gave a green light this week for the WHO to invite Taiwan to the 62nd World Health Assembly, a gathering of the WHO's governing body, which begins May 18 in Geneva.

The move comes as the WHO seeks international cooperation to combat a potential pandemic of swine flu. During a similar crisis in 2003, Taiwan complained that its exclusion from the WHO complicated its response to an outbreak of the virus responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who took office last May on a platform of improving ties with China, has taken steps to end decades of simmering tensions with the communist mainland. In recent months, Taiwan and China have instituted direct flights, boosted tourism and agreed to loosen restrictions on investments across the straits.

The WHO invitation marks a spreading of the goodwill into a particularly prickly area, Taiwan's participation in international organizations.

Margaret Chan, the WHO's director general, issued the formal invitation Tuesday night, asking Taiwan to send nonvoting observers to the Geneva gathering under the banner of "Chinese Taipei." Taiwan's health minister, Yeh Ching-chuan, said Wednesday that he had accepted the offer. Participating in the conference will give Taiwan "more channels for accessing health information," Yeh told reporters.

Experts on relations between Taiwan and the mainland said they believed the two sides had been secretly negotiating the matter for months.

"They're finding a way to accept each other," said Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. "This will provide room for more positive negotiations for future international participation."

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