(Time) – When the World Health Assembly (WHA) convenes in Geneva on Monday, it will do so for the first time in nine years without Taiwan, a self-governed democracy that also boasts some of the highest medical standards in Asia.
Since 2009, Taiwan has been an official observer at this annual World Health Organization gathering, allowing it to participate in the global fight against disease.
This year China has blocked its attendance over Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s refusal to publicly endorse Beijing’s view that the island and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation.
Taipei is infuriated that its exclusion could not only endanger its own 23m citizens, but create a loophole in global health security networks that, it claims, will risk lives across Asia and beyond.
On May 15, Taiwanese Vice President, Chen Chien-jen, sat down with TIME at the presidential office in central Taipei to explain why he believes Taiwan has a “fundamental right” to attend.
Not only has Taiwan contributed over $6bn to international health, he says, benefiting more than 80 countries since 1996, but it has made significant medical breakthroughs it would like to share.
Chen also warns that disease knows no borders. When SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] devastated East Asia in 2003, Chen, a renowned epidemiologist, led efforts to successfully contain the Taiwanese outbreak, but not before 37 people died and 150,000 were quarantined.
The WHO’s initial reluctance to respond to appeals for help, and China’s indifference towards protecting Taiwan, resulted in more casualties, he claims.
The support of the U.S. and many other countries for Taiwan’s bid to join the WHA has so far failed to yield an invitation. Chen concludes that the WHO, a non-political body, has fallen under the control of China.