Taiwan Gives a Fresh Impetus to US-China Rivalry Amid COVID-19 Crisis

President Tsai Ing-wen inspects the Central Epidemic Command Center
President Tsai Ing-wen inspects the Central Epidemic Command Center on April 2, 2020. Image credit: Office of the President / CC BY

While the world is grappling with the COVID-19 and trying to contain its spread and the number of deaths, the rivalry between the United States and China has received a fresh impetus. COVID-19 has provided another dimension to the US-China rivalry in addition to strategic competition and trade war. Taiwan’s role has been important in this rivalry since it has combined the geopolitical factor along with the COVID-19 factor in propelling the competition between the US and China. 

The blame game between the US and China

COVID-19 has become a flashpoint for the US-China rivalry. The US has been blaming China for the spread of the coronavirus all over the world. The US President Donald Trump has criticized China saying that China did not take enough measures to stop the spread of the virus. As a result the world is suffering the consequences. The US has further accused China of concealing the real numbers related to COVID-19. 

A report by a US intelligence agency states that China has hidden the extent to which coronavirus has spread. The report says that the numbers given by the Chinese authorities are not true. But the US’ stand on China on this issue has been dented to some extent. Earlier, in the course of blaming China, Trump called COVID-19 as Chinese virus. However, recently as the number of cases in the US is increasing, China has come forward to help the US with the medical supplies. This could be considered as a setback to the US’ consistent attack on China. 

The role of the World Health Organization

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also been under scanner during this entire outbreak. From underplaying the magnitude of the outbreak to defending China’s actions the WHO’s role and functioning has raised questions. The WHO was expected to calculate the magnitude of this pandemic and take precautionary measures. But the organization has failed to do so. Overall the questions are being raised about the impartiality of the WHO and its reluctance to fix China’s responsibility in this outbreak. 

Taiwan’s position

Taiwan’s position has become unique in this entire pandemic. Apart from its political disputes with China, Taiwan is also not a member of the WHO. Taiwan and China have a long standing dispute as to the former’s status. Taiwan considers itself an independent country while China considers Taiwan as a part of the former and that Taiwan should be reunited with China. The second factor is – Taiwan is not a member of the WHO. But Taiwan has been successful in controlling the outbreak in its territory. 

Since December 2019 till now, Taiwan has registered less than 400 cases of COVID-19. The number of deaths stands at less than 10. Taiwan has received recognition for the way it has handled this crisis. Taiwan’s success has been due to preparedness, early response and use of technology. The pandemic has also highlighted the snubbing that Taiwan got from the WHO, apparently because of China’s objections. It was evident when a WHO official refused to answer a question about Taiwan posed by a Taiwanese journalist. Taiwan is not a member of the WHO due to China’s objections. Taiwan, a non-member state of the WHO, is handling the crisis well while the WHO’s image has been damaged due to its mishandling of this pandemic. 

Steps taken by the US

Taiwan’s position in this pandemic has given a chance to the US to take steps to support Taiwan as well as assert its authority in the Indo-Pacific region. Taiwan enjoys close relations with the US. The US took some steps to counter China in the past few days by supporting Taiwan. 

On March 25, USS McCampbell, a destroyer of US Pacific Fleet, sailed through the Taiwan Strait. The visit of this ship came at a time when tensions between the US and China were high on account of the COVID-19. This was followed by the US passing a law which requires it to increase its support to Taiwan at international level. The US passed The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act which apart from strengthening the US-Taiwan ties will also allow the US to alter engagement with the countries that influence Taiwan’s security and prosperity. 

China criticized the US’ actions. But China itself had conducted anti-submarine air drills in the South China Sea few days before the US’ ship’s visit to Taiwan. Similarly China deployed its Maritime Militia near the disputed Spratly Islands around the same time. 

Similarly the role of the WHO also provides the US with a reason to counter the organization as well as China. The US is a major contributor to the WHO. However China’s role in the WHO has been increasing. It is considered that China’s lobbying has resulted in Tedros Adhanom Ghegreyesus becoming the Director-General of the WHO. The WHO has not only defended but also praised China for handling this pandemic. Recently the US and Taiwan discussed ways to get closer coordination between the latter and the WHO.

While China’s assertive activities in the Indo-Pacific region have been increasing, the US’ strategic footprint has been decreasing. At least there has been uncertainty over the US’ policy towards the Indo-Pacific. But the COVID-19 outbreak and Taiwan’s role in it may have provided an opportunity to the US to renew its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.