“America Can Help?”: In Vaccine Diplomatic Isolation, Washington Calls Taiwan’s Shots

Tsai Ing Wen
Credit: Tsai Ing-wen / Twitter

Acalls from the KMT opposition to buy Chinese-made vaccines grow louder and Latin American allies threaten to cut ties for doses, the stakes for US-Taiwan ties grow higher. The Biden administration, facing demands for vaccines from many other allies around the globe, must prioritize Taiwan or risk dealing a double-blow to the Tsai administration, who has bet big on Washington’s help to not only stave off a rising tide of Covid cases at home, but hold on to its few Latin American allies abroad. With vaccine drama dominating the media landscape, how the US responds now will show the Taiwanese public whether the much-celebrated gains in the bilateral relationship really deliver for them when it matters.

Domestic scene worsens

Taiwan has seen rising new infections since a new outbreak hit this month, reporting over 600 new cases on Thursday. The temperature of the political debate is rising too, with the KMT opposition party calling on the government to purchase Chinese-made vaccine BioNTech, which manufacturer Fosun has offered to supply. An intensifying media storm is playing out amid rising fears of cognitive warfare carried out online by China’s state-sanctioned trolls, as well as new counter-allegations of disinformation campaigns linked to the ruling DPP, creating uncertainty among the public. 

Taiwan currently has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world, and while the government has ordered over 20 million vaccines from the US, attempts to source from other countries, such as Germany, have been interrupted amid reported interference by China. The manufacturing of a local vaccine is being accelerated, though questions remain over whether it will meet the rollout for the end of July as announced. Taiwan’s envoy in Washington is trying to hasten the delivery of the vaccines, yet a vaguely-worded statement from the de facto U.S. ambassador in Taipei that offered no timeline has shown Washington is in no rush to deliver the doses soon. Adding to the despseration, Taiwan also needs the U.S. to send the same vaccines southward to keep its friends in Latin America on side.

Unstable allies

Taiwan’s Latin American allies have threatened to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing if vaccines are not supplied soon enough. The first was Paraguay, which Taipei was able to placate by securing funding for its largest Latin American ally to purchase vaccines from India. By the time Honduras threatened to cut ties this month, New Delhi had banned vaccine exports to prioritize local immunization amid its unprecedented second wave, prompting Taiwan to seek US help. State department officials have since announced that Honduras and other Latin American countries will receive priority delivery of the doses. Taipei is now in the precarious position of relying on the US to appease its allies in the region, while also urging Washington to hasten delivery of doses for its own people. This puts the Biden administration in a difficult bind as dozens of other allied democracies are calling upon the US for assistance, including India, whose outbreak constitutes a humanitarian crisis.

Bilateral ties at stake

Yet there will be real costs to bilateral ties if the US leaves Taiwan to wait it out. Taipei Mayor Koh Wen-je’s lashing out at the de facto U.S. ambassador for America’s apparent lack of urgency in supplying the vaccines this week is only a taste of the backlash that is to come if America does not act quickly to resolve the issue. As I wrote earlier this month, Taiwan is undergoing a severe stress test to its national resilience, with the most recent outbreak coming amid increasing territorial incursions by China and a drought that is undermining its industrial output. At a time when many Taiwanese are still undecided on how strong the new Biden administration’s commitment to standby their country amid Chinese aggression, a failure by the US fail to deliver now will be framed as proof that Washington merely offers empty promises. How Washington responds will not only reveal how serious the US is about safeguarding recent gains in its bilateral ties with Taiwan, but will also act as a bellwether for what is to come next in the global vaccine diplomacy race between the US and China.

Liam Gavan Gibson is a Taipei-based freelance geopolitical analyst, who mainly focuses on Indo-Pacific affairs. He also produces podcasts and is the founder of Policy People, an online platform for think tank experts. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.