President Tsai’s Pandemic Diplomacy
In early April, President Tsai Ing-wen announced a new diplomatic initiative in an attempt to turn Taiwan’s success in battling the coronavirus into a geopolitical win, despite China’s efforts to isolate Taiwan politically. Noting that Taiwan had transformed from being an importer of facemasks to the world’s second largest producer, she said: “We cannot stop the spread of COVID-19 simply by preventing an outbreak within Taiwan. All members of the international community must pool their capabilities and work together to overcome this challenge.”
Tsai then pledged to donate 7 million masks to the EU, UK, and Switzerland, which have been hard-hit by the pandemic, with a further one million to go to Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and two million to the U.S., all under the slogan “Taiwan can help.” Plans also call for shipping an additional 100,000 masks per week to the U.S. under a separate bilateral cooperation agreement. Two million masks were sent to Japan in late April, and the foreign ministry said Taiwan is seeking to strengthen cooperation with Japan on vaccine research and the exchange of medical experts.
Taiwan also inked an agreement with the Czech Republic for cooperation on fighting COVID-19 and it has donated thermal cameras to four diplomatic allies in the South Pacific. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted her thanks for the masks, saying “We really appreciate the gesture of solidarity,” while the U.S. National Security Council also expressed its gratitude.
In rival diplomacy, Beijing is also delivering masks, ventilators, and other aid to countries hit hard by the pandemic, but its cause was not helped by donating face masks to the Netherlands that were found to be faulty and test kits to Spain that were rejected as substandard.
Continued W.H.O. Controversies
The international good will Taiwan has accumulated through its performance during the COVID-19 pandemic is raising questions as to whether Taiwan will be able to participate this year in the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the UN-affiliated World Health Organization. In recent years, pressure from China has kept Taiwan from being invited to the gathering. Although Beijing acquiesced to Taiwan’s attendance as observers during the Ma Ying-jeou administration, it reverted to opposing that connection once the Democratic Progressive Party returned to power in Taipei in 2016.
Although U.S. President Donald Trump has accused the WHO of mismanaging and covering up the spread of COVID-19 after it emerged in China – and Taiwan has received support from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and others – analysts say a breakthrough to enable Taiwan’s participation in the world health body is unlikely.
Further complicating matters was a row that erupted in early April when WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a native of Ethiopia, complained that he had been subjected to racist comments originating in Taiwan and that Taiwanese officials did nothing to suppress them. Responding that Taiwan opposed all forms of discrimination, President Tsai invited Tedros to visit the island. “For years we have been excluded from international organizations and we know better than anyone else what it feels like to be discriminated against and isolated,” Tsai said in a statement. In Beijing, China accused Taiwan of “venomously” attacking the WHO and backed up Tedros’s allegations.
In late April, Taiwan’s health minister Chen Shih-chung and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar held a conversation by teleconference. Chen thanked Azar for “the strong support extended by the United States for Taiwan’s participation in the WHO.” In turn, Azar thanked Taiwan for sharing its best medical practices. Reportedly, other cabinet-level Taiwan-U.S. contacts have taken place in the past, but they have been rare. The Chen-Azar dialogue was interpreted as a strong showing of American support for the democratic island.