This formal invitation is very important according to Henry Chen, spokesman for Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry. “Do you remember SARS in 2003? We had no channel to ask for help,” he said. At the time SARS killed about 350 people in the mainland and at least 37 in Taiwan (photo: people in a Taipei street at the time of the outbreak). “Improvements in relations between Taiwan and mainland China have been a big help in getting this item passed,” he added.
Beijing considers the island a rebel island and has done its utmost to deny it any international recognition. Whilst 170 countries recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC), only 23 recognise Taiwan as an independent nation.
In 2005 then President Chen Shui-bian, who is staunchly pro-independence and anti-PRC, applied unsuccessfully for WHO membership.
As the Beijing government normally forbids the use of “Taiwan” or its formal name “Republic of China” in any organisations to which both belong, it is unclear what the island will call itself when talking to the WHO.
Experts suggest that this could be just the first step. Now that direct ties between the WHO and Taiwan are accepted Taiwan could get greater recognition from the UN agency.