Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Taiwan president: China approves island WHO role

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) - Taiwan said Wednesday it had persuaded China to allow it to participate in a key U.N. body, offering a victory for President Ma Ying-jeou's campaign to win greater international recognition for the democratic island.

China, which for almost six decades has struggled against Taiwanese participation in international bodies, confirmed that Taiwan will attend next month's meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva as an observer.

The WHA is the decision-making authority for the World Health Organization.

Agreement on the issue is a major achievement for Ma, who took office 11 months ago amid promises to turn the corner on his predecessor's anti-China stand, and work for better relations with Beijing.

Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949. China continues to claim the island as part of its territory and normally objects to Taipei's participation in international organizations as a symbol of national sovereignty.

Wednesday's announcement comes amid rising worldwide concern over the spread of swine flu, which is believed to have claimed more than 150 lives and sickened thousands in Mexico and infected people in several other countries.

Speaking to staffers at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Ma said Beijing had lifted its longtime objections to Taipei's participation in the WHA, calling it a victory for his China engagement policy.

"The mainland authorities have made a friendly gesture," he said.

Ma spokesman Wang Yu-chi said the island would participate in the assembly under the name Chinese Taipei, the same title it uses in the Olympics.

In Beijing, the official Xinhua news agency said the agreement on the WHA issue reflected China's desire to promote better relations with Taipei.

"Such an arrangement shows our goodwill to achieve practical benefits for Taiwan people and indicates our sincerity to promote peaceful development of cross-Straits relations," it quoted Health Ministry spokesman Mao Qun'an as saying.

The United States welcomed the announcement.

"We have long supported Taiwan's meaningful participation in the WHO, including observer status at the WHA," State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters in Washington. "We look forward to the participation of Taiwan at the WHA and the benefits Taiwan's public health expertise will bring to the international community."

Relations between China and Taiwan have improved significantly since Ma's election last March. Predecessor Chen Shui-bian was reviled by Beijing, because of his support for formal Taiwanese independence.

Taiwan - including under Chen - pushed hard for WHA participation, because of the access to key medical information it provides. It used the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 as an example, saying that Beijing's refusal to let it participate undermined its ability to deal effectively with the deadly epidemic.

Chiu Ya-wen, a researcher at Taiwan's National Health Research Institutes, said that Taiwan's WHA participation would provide the island practical benefits if and when the swine flu crisis affects it.

"Becoming an observer at the WHA will help us combat the swine flu better as we will be able to communicate our needs to the WHO directly, and WHO may be able to send experts to Taiwan if necessary," she said.



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