US-China war of words clouds WHO meeting

Published: 10:43 AM, 16 May, 2020
US-China war of words clouds WHO meeting
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As the World Health Organization prepares to host its main annual meeting next week, fears abound that US-China tensions could hamper the strong action needed to address the COVID-19 crisis.

The UN health agency, which for months has been consumed by the towering task of trying to coordinate a global response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, will for the first time invite health ministers and other dignitaries to participate virtually in its annual meet.

The World Health Assembly, which has been trimmed from the usual three weeks to just two days, on Monday and Tuesday, is expected to focus almost solely on COVID-19, which in a matter of months has killed more than 300,000 globally, and infected nearly 4.5 million. 

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday the event would be "one of the most important (WHAs) since we were founded in 1948".

But the chance of reaching agreement on global measures to address the crisis could be threatened by steadily deteriorating relations between the world's two largest economies over the pandemic.

- 'Politicisation' -

"Of course I am concerned at the politicisation of the WHA and the risk of its failure," Gian Luca Burci, an adjunct professor at the Geneva Graduate Institute's Global Health Centre, told AFP.

US President Donald Trump this week threatened to cut ties with China, where the outbreak began late last year, over its role in the spread of COVID-19, and has repeatedly made unproven allegations that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.

He has also suspended funding to the WHO over allegations it initially downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak, and was kowtowing to Beijing.

Despite the tensions, countries hope to adopt by consensus a resolution urging a joint response to the pandemic.

Consultations around the resolution, tabled by the European Union, concluded this week after "tough" negotiations, according to Nora Kronig, who heads the international affairs division of Switzerland's public health office.

"One challenge was that it is almost impossible to negotiate in a virtual fashion. That makes it more complicated to build consensus in small groups," she told AFP.

But after several days, a tentative agreement was reached to approve the resolution, which among other things calls for more equitable access for tests, medical equipment, potential treatments and a possible future vaccine.

- 'Ambitious' -

An EU source hailed the draft as "ambitious", and pointed out that if it does indeed pass by consensus as expected, it would mark the first time a global forum achieves unanimous support for a text on the COVID-19 response.

The source said countries had not shied away from thorny topics, including a call for more WHO reform after determining that its capacities "have proven insufficient to prevent a crisis of this magnitude."

While diplomats have agreed in principle on the draft resolution, observers voiced concerns that in the current politicised atmosphere, some countries might still choose to break the consensus next week.

"My hope is that we will be able to join consensus," US Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Andrew Bremberg said Friday.

The United States and Europe are at loggerheads over future vaccine access, while Washington has also accused China of trying to steal US immunisation research. 

And Washington is also leading a number of countries in demanding that the WHO end its exclusion of Taiwan -- considered by Beijing to be part of its territory -- and allow it to access next week's assembly as an observer.

- Taiwan participation a 'minimum' -

"While this has been an ongoing concern for several years, this has taken on a heightened attention this year in response to the global pandemic," Bremberg said.

"Allowing for some sort of meaningful participation would seem to be the minimum that the WHO could do."

The UN health agency has, however, insisted that such a move would require a resolution by member states, who in 1972 decided Beijing was China's sole legitimate representative.

It has also suggested it can only issue an invite with Beijing's blessing.

Taiwan was invited to attend the WHA for a number of years as an observer, but that stopped in 2016, with the entrance of a new Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, who refuses to recognise the concept that Taiwan is part of "one China". 

The United States, which will be represented during the assembly by Health Secretary Alex Azar, is meanwhile not among a group of more than a dozen countries who have called for a vote on allowing Taiwan to participate.

Several diplomatic sources cautioned that putting this issue to a vote even under normal conditions would be a drawn-out process, and that doing so during a short, virtual meeting would be an unsurmountable logistical challenge.

It would "torpedo" the entire assembly, one diplomatic source warned.

Europe at odds

The clash between China and the United States over COVID-19 has caused a rift between European nations at the UN Security Council over a call for ceasefires in some conflict zones during the pandemic.

For two months, France has been trying to corral Washington and Beijing into a compromise on the resolution, which would urge a halt to fighting in countries like Afghanistan and Yemen as they struggle to cope with COVID-19. 

France and Tunisia had teamed up to draft the resolution. But on Tuesday, Germany and Estonia threw their hats in the ring with a competing resolution -- one they did not coordinate with France, and which includes language that would placate the prickly administration of US President Donald Trump.

The same day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by telephone with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu, with the State Department saying they "discussed cooperative efforts" at the Security Council.

"Everybody knows who is behind the new draft," quipped one diplomat under condition of anonymity.

"Estonia and Germany are just trying to clean up the mess the US has created," said Richard Gowan, who follows the United Nations for the International Crisis Group, which studies conflict resolution.

At the heart of the dispute is Trump's offensive against the World Health Organization, from which he has vowed to cut all US funding.

Trump has accused the WHO of responding too slowly to the illness that has killed more than 300,000 people worldwide, and of blindly accepting China's initial assurances about the virus first discovered in its metropolis of Wuhan.

Beijing denies wrongdoing and, as do others, accuses Trump of seeking to shift attention from his handling of COVID-19 in the United States, which has suffered by far the highest death toll.

China has threatened for the past two months to veto any resolution that does not reference the WHO, while the United States has indicated it would do likewise if the text does mention the UN agency.

- Compromise collapses -

The French-Tunisian draft tried to skirt around the rift by speaking of the role of "specialized health agencies."

The United States and China both indicated last week that they were fine with the compromise -- but Washington reversed course a day later.

That prompted the new initiative by Estonia, which holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month. The Estonian-German draft makes no mention of the WHO

"The Europeans are united on the substance but disagree on the method," another diplomat said.

Several diplomats said that some countries were taken aback by the Estonian-German effort, and said it would be difficult to resolve the two texts.

"The French are not happy," Gowan said, but he doubted that any Council member "really thinks a resolution will make a difference at this stage."

"It is just necessary to end this pointless debate at last," he said.

Violence in Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen has continued despite the virus, and despite calls first led by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for global peace.

Even if France and Tunisia press ahead, their room for maneuver is limited.

A diplomat doubted that either the United States or China wanted a resolution, believing it would only strengthen the hand of Guterres in the future.

Several sources saw growing tension between France, the only EU member with a Security Council veto, and the non-permanent European members, as Paris chose to focus on negotiating with the other permanent members.

The three EU members have divergent interests, Gowan noted.

France seeks to show its clout as one of the Big Five, Germany hopes to highlight its leadership against the pandemic, and Estonia, a former Soviet republic with historic tensions with Moscow, is prioritizing its security relationship with Washington.

After Estonia, France takes over the Security Council presidency and then Germany. 

The three powers called a news conference this week to celebrate the "European Spring" -- but it was abruptly canceled.


Agence France-Presse is an international news agency.