Tue, May 20, 2003 - Page 11 News List

Taiwan has more to gain than lose from SARS

WHO BID The epidemic could not only help Taipei gain observership at the UN agency, it could cause a reassessment among investors who've been high on China

By William Pesek Jr.  /  BLOOMBERG , SYDNEY

Taiwan's SARS epidemic is about all investors there can talk about these days. It's now the world's third most-infected area, and the economic costs continue to mount.

There may be a silver lining to all this pain and suffering: SARS could boost Taiwan's standing in the world, offering long-term benefits to the economy and encouraging investors to head its way.

Yesterday, the World Health Assembly's annual conference began in Geneva. Among the issues to be discussed is Taiwan's bid for "observer" status in the World Health Organization's highest decision-making body. It's an uphill battle, but the SARS crisis offers Taiwan's people their best shot in years at being recognized by the WHO.

China has long held that it can provide for Taiwan's health needs, and that the WHO has no business meddling in its domestic affairs. That argument had little credibility before the SARS outbreak; now it has none, given how badly China has fumbled its own epidemic.

Beijing will look really, really bad blocking Taiwan's bid for WHO recognition -- another sign it's putting politics above lives. Bad publicity forced China to reverse its initial policy of hiding its outbreak. Most evidence points to SARS beginning in China, and its failure to alert global health officials may have accelerated the disease's spread.

All this has emboldened Taipei to step up efforts to demand representation in the WHO, and Beijing may have little choice but to let it happen. Taiwan should indeed be admitted no matter how much Beijing protests. The health of millions of Taiwanese must come before politics or Beijing's feelings.

It would be another important step toward independence, building on Taiwan's inclusion in the WTO and APEC.

For Taiwan, "SARS is both a small plague and a huge opportunity," says Tom Plate, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and director of the non-profit Asia-Pacific Media Network.

Why should investors care? While a WHO nod would be a political signal, it could bring economic benefits. For one thing, it would give Taiwan some much-needed time in the spotlight. For another, it could suggest Beijing is easing its stance toward Taiwan, convincing investors a peaceful resolution between the two is possible.

Any sign the cross-strait quarrel is simmering down might encourage investors to buy Taiwanese stocks and bonds. If corporate executives see light at the end of the tunnel for Taiwan, they may reconsider putting all their interests in China.

If SARS has taught multinational companies anything, it's the danger of putting all their eggs in one proverbial basket -- like China. At a minimum, it may cause a reassessment among investors who've been down on Taiwan and high on China. Taiwan could win some of the foreign direct investment racing to China.

Thanks to China's abysmal handling of SARS, leaders in Taipei are enjoying a level of international acceptance not seen in many years. Last week, Japan's foreign minister and health minister urged the WHO to give Taiwan observer status. The US Congress and EU also have passed resolutions backing Taiwan's WHO bid.

If not for the SARS crisis, it's not clear Taiwan would be receiving such high-level support. And it's about time for a place that has its own government and constitution to get its due from the global community.

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