Winston Peters defends support for Taiwan's inclusion in World Health Organization

Winston Peters has defended his comments about Taiwan's inclusion in the World Health Organization (WHO), claiming the state's successful measures against COVID-19 are vital "resources" in the fight against the "worldwide enemy". 

His response continues a tense back-and-forth exchange between China and New Zealand, which began when Peters, the Foreign Minister, called for Taiwan, or the Republic of China - a state considered by the Communist Party of China (CCP) as its territory - to have a seat at the WHO's table. 

He said it was his "personal opinion" that the state's successful measures against COVID-19 - with just four deaths and 440 confirmed cases - should be shared "in the interests [of] international health".

"You want every country in an international organisation designed to improve the world's health. It's just logic," Peters stated last week.

During a news conference in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian issued a stern condemnation in response to Peters' comments, claiming that expressing support for Taiwan violates the "one China" policy. 

"We express our strong dissatisfaction with the statements and resolutely oppose it, and we have already made stern representations with New Zealand," Zhao said.

"China urges New Zealand to strictly abide by the 'one China' principle and immediately stop making wrong statements on Taiwan, to avoid damaging our bilateral relationship."

In an interview with MagicTalk host Peter Williams on Tuesday, Peters flatly denied the possibility of New Zealand's relations with China being under stress in the aftermath of his comments. 

"No, they're not. The reality is that relations between nations, like people, are based on respect and the belief that we can disagree and still remain friends. As every woman knows, stability and subservience is not equality... either in relationships, or dare I say it, between nations. All we are saying is the obvious," he said.

Despite Williams' repeated attempts to get Peters to confirm if he would "dial back" his "personal" views for the sake of New Zealand's relationship with China, the Foreign Minister carefully tip-toed around giving a direct answer.

"I didn't talk about the 'one China' policy. I understand what it is. All I'm saying is, when we are going to be fighting a worldwide enemy called COVID-19, we need the best resources of every population - particularly one that has had a stand-out success record like Taiwan - [a record] even better than New Zealand and Australia," he said.

"When you look at that from an international responsibility point of view... the most responsible thing is to learn from each successful country to save our own citizens and at the same time, millions of people worldwide. That's the responsible thing to do."

MagicTalk host Peter Williams made repeated attempts to get Peters to say he would "dial back" his personal views on Taiwan, but the Foreign Minister carefully evaded a direct answer.
MagicTalk host Peter Williams made repeated attempts to get Peters to say he would "dial back" his personal views on Taiwan, but the Foreign Minister carefully evaded a direct answer. Photo credit: File

He claimed his comments were purely intended to suggest that Taiwan's measures to control the virus should be shared among the WHO member states, in order for the global response to be equipped with the "best resources" to fight the pandemic. 

"All we're saying is we need to get the best examples to defeat this plague... that [will] kill millions when it gets around the rest of the world. We owe it to those people, particularly the people who have needlessly died, to find an answer... it's not about pointing fingers. It's a matter of doing your national and international duty in the interest of humanity," he said. 

On Monday, China threatened Australia with an 80 percent tariff on barley, believed to be partly due to the country's support for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. This development is an example of the CCP's tendency to "bully" its trading partners, Williams said, suggesting it may not be a wise tactic to inflame an already rocky relationship with New Zealand's biggest trading partner.  

Peters reiterated that only New Zealand can "decide on our foreign policy".

"It's for us to decide our foreign policy... if you want to go down the pathway of the sycophantic behaviour of certain politicians with certain countries, I can point the finger and tell you they've been absolute grislings and sell-outs of this country's interests," he declared. 

"I have framed the conversation to say this humanitarian disaster deserves a worldwide answer... on where COVID-19 came from, it's inconceivable that if you want to help the world, that you wouldn't find out every detail of how it came in the first place... if we [have to have] a disagreement with the Chinese people on that, so be it.

"Whether you're the United States, France, the UK or our friends in Australia, they need to know: this country writes its own foreign policy... this country stands for principles and that's perhaps why we're the greatest country on earth."

'It's about being able to gather that knowledge'

During Tuesday's daily COVID-19 media briefing, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern adopted a similar approach to Peters, reiterating that Taiwan's successful response to the virus was an opportunity to "gather knowledge".

"Through a number of years we've always taken a 'one China' policy and that continues to be the case. What we're referring to here is our ability to learn from places during COVID-19 and their health responses, in the same way the world learned a lot from China's response. Their use of lockdown in Wuhan demonstrated the ability to control the spread of the virus in a way that probably saved a large number of lives," she said.

"Equally, a place like Taiwan has used some particular approaches that have also demonstrated success in their management. Really for us it's about being able to gather that knowledge but fundamentally does not change our policy with regards to 'one China'."

When a reporter questioned Ardern on Peters' response to the Chinese embassy's condemnation of his comments, which included telling Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi to "listen to her master back in Beijing", Ardern issued a swift comeback. 

"I would like to see the quote in full before being drawn in to comment on that," she said.