Just as Taiwan’s presidential elections were coming to a close and hostility between People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States increased, the Covid-19 pandemic heightened existing tensions across the Taiwan Strait. The pandemic crisis, and China’s relatively successful efforts to control the domestic spread of infections, reignited controversies over the relative advantages of authoritarian vs. democratic political systems; as the controversy developed, Taiwan chose to stand with the United States and other democratic countries, leading to intensified political pressure from the PRC. Here I examine how the pandemic has contributed to rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait and how Taiwan is coping with the PRC’s pressure.
Friction over the initial response to Covid-19“The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic worsened already strained relations between the PRC and Taiwan.”
In January 2020, President Tsai Ing-wen won reelection with the highest number of votes in Taiwanese presidential election history. The biggest issue of the election campaign was how Taiwan could maintain the status quo of de-facto independence from the PRC at a time when the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, called for unification under the banner of “one country, two systems,” which is the formula the PRC uses to govern Hong Kong. The on-going repression of protests in Hong Kong—triggered by the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill by the pro-PRC government—added to the pressure on Taiwan, as PRC leaders may worry that Hong Kong’s protests could be influenced by Taiwanese civil society. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party gained support during the election with her call for a “defensive battle for freedom and democracy,” arguing that Taiwan should break away from economic dependence on mainland China, block political infiltration from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and strengthen cooperation with the United States and other democratic countries. The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic worsened already strained relations between the PRC and Taiwan.
Taiwanese authorities became aware of the outbreak of the new virus in Wuhan at the end of 2019, reporting it immediately to the World Health Organization (WHO). Taiwan’s quick initial response in blocking the spread of Covid-19 was the result of reforms it had introduced after the bitter experience of the SARS epidemic in 2003. As of February 10, 2021, there are 935 confirmed cases in Taiwan, including 9 deaths and 853 recoveries, and Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking placed Taiwan as the fourth best place in the world to weather the pandemic, out of 53 countries, as of February 2021.
Despite Taiwan’s success in controlling the spread of the virus, Taiwan’s early notification to the World Health Organization (WHO) was ignored, potentially delaying measures to mitigate the spread of infections around the world. To understand why, we must briefly review the way international organizations treat Taiwan. The Republic of China (ROC), the government ruling Taiwan since 1945, was one of the founding members of the United Nations, and the “China seat” in that organization was held by the ROC until 1971 when the PRC was recognized as the representative of China. Since 1971 the PRC has waged a diplomatic campaign to exclude the ROC from UN affiliated organizations, including the WHO, and has demanded that governments that recognize the PRC follow its “one China” principle.
In Taiwan, as soon as the Tsai Ing-wen government noticed the virus, it decided to ban travel from mainland China, a decision made earlier than other countries. The government also set up a system to increase mask production, while banning mask exports to mainland China. In response, the PRC government, which was arranging special charter flights to evacuate the citizens of foreign countries, followed its “one China” principle, and refused to authorize flights by Taiwanese airlines, delaying the arrangement of repatriation charter planes for Taiwanese living in mainland China. This act significantly damaged Taiwanese people’s trust in the PRC government with a March 2020 ROC Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) poll showing that 76.6 percent and 61.5 percent of the public believed the PRC government to be unfriendly toward the ROC government and the ROC people, respectively, the highest level in 15 years.“As soon as Covid-19 began to spread, the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that Taiwan’s WHO participation would be dealt in accordance with the “one China” principle and blocked the participation of Taiwanese experts at WHO meetings.”
At the international level, despite Taiwan’s early success in managing the pandemic, the PRC continued to block Taiwanese participation in the WHO, when all stakeholders in global health should be able to contribute to and benefit from the WHO’s efforts against the pandemic. As soon as Covid-19 began to spread, the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that Taiwan’s WHO participation would be dealt in accordance with the “one China” principle and blocked the participation of Taiwanese experts at WHO meetings. Taiwan’s participation as an observer at the WHO Annual Meeting (WHA) was also blocked.1The PRC allowed Taiwan to take part in the WHA as an observer, under the name “Chinese Taipei” from 2009 to 2016 when the Ma Ying-jeou administration kept dialogue with the PRC based on a “agree to disagree” approach to the “One China” (the so-called the 1992 Consensus). But the PRC has opposed inviting a Taiwanese delegation since 2017, after Tsai inaugurated her new administration and stopped mentioning the consensus in 2016. According to the ROC MAC opinion poll, 91.6 percent of the public were against the PRC in how it was “harming the health, safety, interests, and rights of the Taiwanese people by blocking Taiwan’s participation in the WHO” amidst the pandemic.
The US-China “New Cold War” and Taiwan
In contrast with the chill in cross-Strait relations, US-Taiwan relations have become closer. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into focus a new dimension the growing tension between the United States and China, which some characterize as the beginning of a “New Cold War.”2For an analysis of the new Cold War at its early stage, see Niall Ferguson, “The New Cold War? It’s With China, and It Has Already Begun,” New York Times, December 2, 2019. Since mid-February 2020, the United States and the PRC governments have waged a propaganda war over who is to blame for the outbreak of the pandemic; for example, President Trump began to use the term “Chinese virus,” and the PRC released a white paper on Covid-19 that prized its “highly efficient system” for containing the Covid-19 outbreak. In the midst of that battle, the Trump administration announced that it was going to withdraw from the WHO, claiming it was under Chinese influence. In response, the PRC launched a campaign to praise its own medical aid to foreign countries, criticizing the US government’s epidemic prevention policy and attitude toward WHO.“The ‘Taiwan Model’ has been internationally recognized as a good example that shows how democratic regimes can effectively control the spread of an epidemic disease.”
In the war of words over Covid-19, the PRC has stressed the superiority of its authoritarian regimes over democratic system of the United States in dealing with such crises.3Josiar Case, Telling China’s COVID-19 Story Well: Beijing’s Efforts to Control Information and Shape Public Narratives Regarding the 2020 Global Pandemic (CNA, December 2020). Taiwan’s success in controlling the virus has become an important counternarrative. Taiwan shares the same cultural background as the PRC, but employed a model that was fully accountable and did not overly restrict people’s freedom. The “Taiwan Model” has been internationally recognized as a good example that shows how democratic regimes can effectively control the spread of an epidemic disease. In addition, Taiwan established a system of mask production at an early stage and actively supported friendly countries with donations of medical supplies, effectively raising Taiwan’s reputation in the international community under its “Taiwan Can Help” campaign.4For more on the “Taiwan Can Help” campaign, see its website.
The “Taiwan Model” and the “Taiwan Can Help” campaign were well received not only in the United States but also in many advanced democracies, boosting international support for Taiwan’s participation in the WHA. Although Taiwan was not invited to the WHA in May, the issue of Taiwan’s future WHA participation is still being considered as a result of strong requests by countries such as the United States, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. Explicit support from advanced democracies in this process has given Taiwan great confidence in its position as a democratic regime distinct from the PRC.
Taiwan’s successful experiences in fighting Covid-19 and the confidence gained from international support are further strengthening the “Taiwanese” vs. “Chinese” identity of the Taiwanese people. The Election Study Center of the National Chengchi University has for many years conducted opinion polls that include a question asking respondents to select their identity between “Chinese,” “Taiwanese,” or “Both”; the answer “Taiwanese” rose to a record high of 67 percent in June 2020. In addition, according to the Formosa Poll, satisfaction with the Tsai Ing-wen administration has risen sharply since January 2020, reaching the highest record since her inauguration in May 2016 of 70.3 percent in April 2020.
Tensions after the Covid-19 crisis
The US-China tensions have transformed into debates over the value of freedom and democracy in which the PRC has expressed even stronger confidence in its system after dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, with varying responses to those claims from advanced democracies and emerging economies. Under these circumstances, the Tsai Ing-wen government has strongly asserted its support for freedom and democracy and keeping a distance from China. However, the Xi Jinping government has strengthened its pressure on Taiwan across military, economic, technological, and political realms.“The PRC has criticized Taiwan for ‘attempting to use the epidemic to seek independence,’ and strengthened its military pressure toward the island nation.”
The most serious issue is rising military tension. The PRC has criticized Taiwan for “attempting to use the epidemic to seek independence,” and strengthened its military pressure toward the island nation. During the Covid-19 crisis, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has expanded the range and frequency of its operations around Taiwan; escalations, which began in 2016, have included a gradual increase in flights by military aircraft around Taiwan and the sailing of carrier strike groups through the Taiwan Strait. In the Taiwan Strait today, there is an increased risk that the PLA’s military operations will collide with the US military, which is strengthening its involvement in defense of Taiwan.
Economically and technologically, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC)—the main firm engaged in wafer processing for semiconductors used by the Chinese tech company Huawei—has become a crucial player in the US-China battle for technological hegemony. The US government has strengthened export controls on Huawei and requested TSMC to suspend new orders from Huawei and to build its processing factories in the United States. These demands represent a major challenge for TSMC’s overall business strategy. As semiconductors are an important industry for Taiwan, the Tsai government is now under pressure to balance how to reduce the impact of the Sino-US friction on Taiwanese companies, and how to support Taiwanese companies struggling to retain or recruit talent due to pressure from the PRC government.
Politically, the momentum of the PRC’s diplomatic pressure and political influence operations in Taiwan have diminished slightly during the Covid-19 crisis. However, there has been no change in the PRC’s policy to strengthen its influence operations toward the international community and Taiwanese society, and to maintain its “one-China” principle. In the international community, the PRC demands that friendly countries and interested parties, like multinational corporations, express more rigorous support for the “one-China” principle. There are still many Taiwanese companies, organizations, media, and individuals who have significant interests in mainland China, and the CCP continues to try to influence Taiwanese society through these groups and individuals.“In the case of Taiwan, the specific problem is that the difficulties of cooperation with neighboring countries have been compounded by the PRC’s ‘one-China’ principle.”
In the US-China “New Cold War” that has emerged with the Covid-19 crisis, Taiwan should not simply strengthen its ties with the United States but should seek ways to protect its interests and maximize profits while balancing between the two powers. This is a common issue for US friendly countries located around the PRC, including Japan, South Korea, ASEAN countries, Australia and New Zealand. However, in the case of Taiwan, the specific problem is that the difficulties of cooperation with neighboring countries have been compounded by the PRC’s “one-China” principle. Post–Covid-19 Taiwan must find a way to overcome these challenges and build closer relations with neighboring countries.
Banner photo: Wang Yu Ching / Office of the President of Taiwan/Flickr.