TAIPEI (Reuters) - The World Health Organization opened a formal line of communication with Taiwan this month, a health official said Friday, one of the clearest signs yet that the island's detente with political rival China is working.
The WHO sent Taiwan a letter on January 13 saying it would allow the self-ruled island, over which China claims sovereignty, to contact the global organization about disease outbreaks such as SARS and avian influenza, the island's Department of Health said.
"Improvements in relations between Taiwan and mainland China have been a big help in getting this item passed," said island foreign ministry spokesman Henry Chen.
China has claimed Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communists won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists (KMT) fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.
Beijing's 170 diplomatic allies around the world would once bar Taipei, with a mere 23 partners, from global bodies including the WHO that required statehood as a condition of membership.
But since China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May, easing tension through landmark negotiations and declaring a "diplomatic ceasefire," China has shown increased goodwill, officials and scholars say.
"(WHO access) has a big impact on us," Chen said. "Do you remember SARS in 2003? We had no channel to ask for help."
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome originated in southern China in 2002 and went on to kill hundreds of people around the world, including about 350 in China and at least 37 in Taiwan, bringing Asian tourism and air industries almost to a halt.
Taiwan first applied to join the WHO's International Health Regulations, which allow for the new communication channel, in 2005 under then-president Chen Shui-bian, who antagonized China by seeking formal independence.
As China normally forbids the use of "Taiwan" or its formal name "Republic of China" in any organizations to which both belong, it is unclear yet what the island will call itself when talking to the WHO, the health department said.
"I think this is a major step forward. We will have a contact person in Taipei, so we can receive info from the WHO directly or report information from Taiwan," said Raymond Wu, a political risk consultant in Taiwan, speculating that China has "left the door open" to expanding the island's WHO role later.
Taiwan is also seeking observer status at the WHO's annual general assembly, which meets in May.
Editing by Alex Richardson