Taiwan International and Cross-strait – April 2020

Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung has been giving daily press conferences on the state of the COVID-19 outbreak in Taiwan since late January. Photo: Martti Chen

Taiwan’s COVID-19  Response Applauded

There has been a flood of positive media coverage regarding Taiwan’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic over the past month. Reports have emphasized the government’s early action to contain the virus, citing its previous experience with SARS and the information it began receiving from China in late 2019 as the main reasons for its preparedness. Taiwan has also been commended for its use of new technologies, including big data and AI, to track down infected and quarantined individuals and anyone they might have come into contact with.  

The Taiwan government’s transparency throughout the COVID-19 outbreak is being presented as a valuable counterexample to the notion that authoritarian governments are able to handle crises more effectively. The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), headed by Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, has given daily televised and live-streamed briefings on the status of the outbreak since January. Vice President Chen Chien-jen, a Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologist, has also been actively communicating with the public via social media and regular public service announcements.  

Furthermore, as demand for surgical masks began surging in the early days of the outbreak, the government instituted a mask-rationing system that prevented hoarding. With the help of local manufacturers, Taiwan boosted mask production to 10 million units per day by mid-March, making it the second largest producer of masks in the world. On March 12, the CECC launched an online portal for preordering surgical masks in order to better distribute mask purchases throughout the island.  

Taiwan’s responsible handling of the COVID-19 crisis has caused many around the world to question why it is still being prevented from joining the World Health Organization or regaining its observer status in the annual World Health Assembly. 

Taiwan Diplomat Expelled from Haiti

Bernard Liu, Taiwan’s ambassador to Haiti, was expelled from the Caribbean country in March, though bilateral ties remain intact. PHOTO: Martti Chen

Taiwanese diplomat Bernard Liu was expelled from Haiti in January, following an interaction he had with Haitian President Jovenal Moise apparently related to a bilateral project. Described in the Haitian press as a “small incident” related to national security, and by Taiwan’s Apple Daily as a heated quarrel, the exchange led Haiti to request that Liu leave the country within 72 hours and that he be replaced. Nevertheless, the two-time ambassador to Haiti did not return to Taiwan until mid-March. Government representatives from both countries emphasized that the matter has not affected bilateral ties. 

Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have received more pronounced media attention in recent years. Since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, China has been waging a campaign of poaching the handful of remaining allies. After the Solomon Islands and Kiribati broke ties in short succession last fall, Taiwan was left with only 15 diplomatic partners. Most recently, the PRC began putting economic and political pressure on Eswatini, Taiwan’s sole remaining ally on the African continent. 

China Ramps Up Air Force Drills

China’s military has begun ramping up air force drills near Taiwan, encroaching on Taiwan’s air space three times since Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected as president in early January. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense on February 10 announced that a group of Chinese H-6 bombers and J-11 fighters had flown over the median line in the Taiwan Strait. A few weeks later, on February 28, a group of Chinese fighter jets and surveillance planes reportedly flew at night into the waters off Taiwan’s southwestern coast, close to its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).  

The most recent incident, on March 17, involved Chinese J-11 fighters and KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft once again approaching Taiwan’s ADIZ in the same area.  

In each case, Taiwan’s air force scrambled its own aircraft to warn off the approaching Chinese jets.  

Both President Tsai and Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu have criticized Beijing for conducting threatening military exercises around Taiwan. Tsai stated that the drills were “meaningless and unnecessary” and that the Chinese government should instead be focusing its efforts on containing the coronavirus outbreak within its borders.