Taiwan’s International Outreach: Will It Annoy Beijing?

President Tsai Ing-wen
Image credit: VOA / Public Domain

Taiwan’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic has been lauded globally. In spite of its proximity to China, it has managed to control the number of cases. As of April 2, 2020 the total number of coronavirus cases in Taiwan were 348 (this includes 5 deaths).

Announcement on April 1, 2020

On Wednesday, April 1, 2020 in a media conference, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen announced steps being taken by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government to control the spread of the coronavirus, and to deal with the economic implications of the virus. While Taiwan has been able to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the economy is likely to face a serious slow down as a result of the epidemic. In March, the Central Bank of Taiwan slashed the full year growth to 1.92% from a December forecast of 2.57%.

Tsai Ing-wen highlighted that her government would spend up to $35 billion USD (1.05 Trillion Taiwanese Dollars), which amounts to 5% of the country’s GDP, to protect Taiwan’s economy from the impact of the coronavirus. 

International Cooperation

She also announced the steps being taken for enhancing cooperation with other countries to deal with the pandemic, while also mentioning the assistance which Taipei is providing to other countries. 

Tsai Ing-wen said that Taiwan would cooperate with the EU, US and Czechoslovakia to develop an antivirus vaccine. In February 2020, Taiwan-based Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp. decided to join hands with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. In March 2020,  Director of the American Institute of Taiwan (AIT), the de facto embassy of the US in Taiwan, Brent Christensen and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan, Joseph Wu signed a statement to enhance cooperation and share best practices. Some of the areas listed for bilateral cooperation in the statement are: “research and development of rapid tests; research and development of vaccines; research and development of medicines; contact tracing techniques and technology; joint conferences with scientists and experts; and cooperation and exchanges of medical supplies and equipment”.

The Taiwanese President also announced  that Taiwan would donate 10 million face masks to EU, US and UK. European Union President, Ursula Von Der Leyen thanked Taiwan for its gesture. Said the EU leader, “The European Union thanks Taiwan for its donation of 5.6 million masks to help fight the coronavirus. We really appreciate this gesture of solidarity”. The AIT also thanked Taiwan for the “generous mask donations“.

Beijing would be closely watching Taiwan’s assistance to the US, EU and UK and would not be particularly pleased with its latest announcements, since it always views Taiwan’s cooperation with the west with suspicion. The increasing solidarity between the EU, US and Taiwan on the coronavirus issue is likely to further rile Beijing.

EU-Taiwan ties in recent months

It would be pertinent to point out that when the coronavirus broke out, EU along with Canada and Japan had supported Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organisation (WHO). China allowed Taiwan’s participation in the WHO as a non-state actor till 2016, however, ever since Tsai Ing-wen took over as President, it has objected to the same. After the coronavirus outbreak, EU was of the view that Taiwan’s technical expertise and capacities should be utilized. Taiwan’s knowledge of the virus based on its proximity with China was also considered an important factor for its participation in the WHO. 

Taiwan has stated that the main reason for WHO not allowing its participation in important meetings is pressure from Beijing. Taipei has also blamed the WHO  for not paying heed to its warnings with regard to the possibility of human to human transmission of the coronavirus at the end of last year. 

Taiwan’s international cooperation

So far, China’s assistance to other countries has got publicity and attention with some countries like Italy, Spain, Ukraine lauding Beijing for its assistance, while others like Czechoslovakia have refused Chinese aid. The mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib has been particularly critical of China’s policies in recent times, especially the violation of Human Rights and ill treatment of its minorities.

Interestingly, China was the first country to provide assistance to Italy with doctors, masks and medical equipment reaching the country on March 13. Italy was full of praise for China for its assistance, while it criticized the EU for not responding to Italy’s requests for support. Chinese billionaire and CEO of Ali Baba has donated masks and testing kits to Africa (1.1million testing kits, 6 million masks & 60,000 protective suits), Asia (1.8 million face masks and over 2,10000 testing kits) and the US (500000 testing kits and 1 million masks).

An alternative narrative 

With Taiwan, US, EU and South Korea  assisting other countries in their fight against coronavirus in different ways, Beijing’s narrative of being the only country which has the ability to help other countries in the current crisis, has been blunted.

First, China is not likely to be particularly happy with Taiwan’s assistance to the EU, US and UK since it raises Taipei’s stature internationally and enhances its soft power. Taiwan’s remarkable handling of the coronavirus, while being transparent as opposed to China’s suppression of crucial information with regard to the virus also sends a clear message that suppression of information and authoritarianism is no answer to deal with complex challenges like the coronavirus.

Second, there is likely to be a divide within the EU over ties with China. As mentioned earlier, countries like Italy and Spain have welcomed assistance from China, while some countries have been cautious. The countries which feel that the EU and other countries have not helped them in their fight against the virus will veer towards China, while others would not be opposed to seeking assistance from Taiwan. 

Third, European Union’s acceptance of Taiwan’s assistance sends an unequivocal signal that even in the midst of the current global crisis, Brussels has the ability to act independently, and would not buckle under pressure from Beijing. The EU also dissented in the past year on a number of issues with the US, and by not kowtowing to China. Brussels in spite of all its shortcomings and perceived ineffectiveness has shown that it still retains relevance on the world stage.

Post the coronavirus crisis, many countries in the west and Asia are likely to reassess their ties with Taiwan, and could strengthen economic and diplomatic ties with Taipei. Beijing needs to realize that it cannot have a veto over other countries’ foreign policy. It is also essential for the US and other democracies to join hands and ensure that Taiwan’s voice on key issues is not suppressed in the future. While Anti-China rhetoric is unnecessary, political correctness which often results in Beijing’s shortcomings being swept under the carpet, needs to end.

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