Our Head of ASEAN Studies Program, A Ibrahim Almuttaqi was quoted in South China Morning Post's on 'US push for Taiwan WHO observer status seen falling flat in Southeast Asia.' Read below for the full article:

US push for Taiwan WHO observer status seen falling flat in Southeast Asia

- Diplomatic observers said that the sway China holds over many economies in the region would preclude them offering their support to the US-led effort
- The way US President Donald Trump's administration has framed the issue as one of its many proxy battles with Beijing is also likely to put countries off

Southeast Asian nations already straining from the United States-China tug of war for regional influence are likely to avoid supporting Washington's drive for Taiwan to be granted observer status for a top-level meeting of the World Health Organisation, analysts have said.

Even though the leaders of these countries understand the "moral and logical" arguments for allowing Taiwanese delegates to attend the annual meeting on May 18 - which will be live-streamed because of the coronavirus pandemic - they are unlikely to offer their support because of the significant sway China holds over their economies, the diplomatic observers said.

In lobbying internationally for Taiwan, representatives of US President Donald Trump's administration are seen as not only reaching out to traditional allies - the likes of Australia and New Zealand already back Taiwan's inclusion - but also to partners in places like Southeast Asia.

Observer status can be granted to Taiwan if a simple majority of the WHO's 194 members agree to it.

"This is about basically choosing sides and [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] would probably not want to stick their necks out ... for the issue of Taiwan that Chinese consider to be one of their core interests," said Hoo Tiang Boon, a professor at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who studies cross-straits relations and Chinese foreign policy.

"Asean already has other issues with China such as the South China Sea [dispute]. I don't see the countries wanting Taiwan to be another issue."

On the off-chance that there are countries in the region willing to risk Beijing's wrath to back Taiwan, their governments are likely to be put off by the way Trump's administration has sought to use the issue as its latest proxy battle against China, the experts said.

Taiwan has won rave reviews for the manner in which it has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, recording just 440 cases in total - with no new local infection for the last 24 days.

Its playbook of fastidious testing, isolation, intensive social distancing and making mask-wearing compulsory early on in the outbreak is now being viewed as the most effective way to deal with the Covid-19 disease that has sickened more than 3.7 million people and killed over 264,000.

Taiwanese officials were also among the first to warn about human-to-human transmission of the virus.

But they have complained that their lack of observer status with the WHO meant the world health body was not sharing the same information with them as it was disseminating among member states amid the pandemic. Officials from the self-ruling democracy also claim that the WHO has turned down 70 per cent of its requests to attend technical meetings over the last decade.

"I think most Southeast Asian countries wouldn't object to Taiwan's observer status in the WHO, but are hesitant to play a part under the US' current way of conduct," said Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Offering a similar view was A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi, head of the Asean Studies programme at Jakarta's Habibie Centre, who said the issue had become "more of a political dispute between Washington and Beijing than a genuine debate on the value of Taiwan's status in the WHO".

The question of whether Taiwan should be allowed to attend the conference despite not being a WHO member state came into sharp focus on Wednesday after US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo urged "all nations" to support Taiwan's participation as an observer.

Pompeo said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had the power to invite officials from Taipei to the conference.

In turn, the world health body's legal counsel Derek Walton also on Wednesday said the involvement of "Taiwan, China" in the meeting was a question for members.

Observers said they expect America's key strategic partners in Europe, as well as others such as Japan, to come out in support of Taiwan following Pompeo's latest remarks.

Still, with China wielding considerable influence over a vast number of countries in Asia and Latin America, the US push is seen as having little chance of success.

Taiwan - viewed by China as a renegade province - had sent observers to meetings of the WHO from 2009 to 2016. But following the election of President Tsai Ing Wen - who Beijing views as supporting independence, a charge that she denies - Taiwan has been blocked from attending the annual meetings.

Graeme Smith, a researcher of Chinese influence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said none of the region's countries would be "thanking the US for putting them in this position".

"However strong the moral case may be for supporting Taiwan, the fact of the matter is that the economies of most of these countries are tied at the hip with China," said Smith, a fellow at Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific.

Hoo, the Singaporean professor, said he believed the WHO is unlikely to prod Asean countries too hard on this particular issue. But the region may not be able to stand on the sidelines if the issue was something of far more significance to US interests, such as electing a new WHO chief.

Heavy US lobbying in March saw the American-backed Singaporean candidate Daren Tang beat out a Chinese nominee in a race to lead the World Intellectual Property Organisation, a UN body like the WHO.

"If this were the election [for WHO secretary general], we can likely expect the US lobbying effort to be far more intensive and serious," he said.

[This article was first published in South China Morning Post on 8th May 2020 and can be found at: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3083378/us-push-taiwan-who-observer-status-seen-falling-flat-southeast]

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