As of Saturday, Taiwan has recorded 440 coronavirus cases and seven deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. By comparison, Australia — with a population of 25 million — has reported more than 7,000 infections and 98 deaths.
Eager to share its experiences in fighting Covid-19, Taiwan is now pushing for a greater voice in global health discussions. The United States, Japan and New Zealand have all voiced support for Taiwan to join next week’s World Health Assembly — an annual meeting of World Health Organization (WHO) members.
And this doesn’t sit well with Beijing.
China regards the island as part of its territory, and has for years blocked it from taking part in many global institutions, while also refusing to have diplomatic relations with countries that maintain official ties with Taiwan.
Taiwan, which is not a WHO member, joined the WHA as an observer from 2009 to 2016, when the island was governed by the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT). But when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took office in 2016, ties frayed with Beijing — and Taipei hasn’t joined the WHA since.
But as the virus gives Taiwan a rare opportunity to boost its international profile, Beijing has accused Taipei of pushing for formal independence — and stepped up military drills around the island. There have even been some fringe calls within China for the country to use the pandemic as an opportunity to invade Taiwan.
Democracy vs authoritarianism
As the number of new infections dropped in China and surged abroad in recent months, state media touted Beijing’s success in defeating the virus while highlighting the failures of other governments to contain its spread — particularly the US and other Western democracies.
Inside China, that sparked claims its authoritarian political system was superior to those of liberal democracies when it came to tackling the pandemic.
Furthermore, the Chinese government has faced criticism for its initial handling of the outbreak. Authorities have been accused of silencing medical workers who tried to sound the alarm on the virus, downplaying the severity of the outbreak and delaying admission of human-to-human transmission in the critical early stages.
‘Taiwan can help’
As China moved to help countries by donating personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies, questions have been raised as to the motives behind its so-called “mask diplomacy.”
In March, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned about the “geopolitical component” of Beijing soft-power push, saying Europe must be aware of “a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity.'”
As well as donating medical supplies, Taiwan has sought to develop bilateral partnerships to fight the pandemic — a move that has drawn the wrath of Beijing.
In addition to bilateral cooperation, Taiwan has doubled down on its bid to return to the WHO’s annual assembly.
On March 27, the US passed a law supporting Taipei’s participation in international institutions and its efforts to strengthen ties with other countries, and multiple nations usually wary of being on the wrong side of Beijing, such as Japan, Canada and New Zealand, have publicly spoken out in favor of Taiwan rejoining the WHA.
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian rebuked New Zealand for just that, calling on it to “immediately stop making wrong statements on Taiwan, to avoid damaging our bilateral relationship.” Beijing has called Taipei’s attempt to rejoin the WHA a “political plot.”
“In the United States, there are people who blatantly support Taiwan to join the WHO,” a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said last week. “They are politicizing epidemic prevention issues and sending a seriously wrong signal to the Taiwan independence forces. We resolutely object to that.”
On social media and in the Chinese press, some have called on the People’s Liberation Army to take advantage of the pandemic to invade Taiwan, arguing that the timing could not be better, with the US preoccupied with the coronavirus and its military might in the region crimped by an outbreak on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.
However, most observers agree that such posturing is unlikely to be matched by any hostile action against Taiwan.
Timothy Heath, a senior international researcher at the RAND Corporation, a US think tank, said the weakness of China’s economy precludes any such move. The coronavirus outbreak has resulted in the Chinese economy contracting by 6.8% in the first part of this year — the worst plunge since quarterly records began in 1992.
“China needs access to (global) markets once they recover, and so it is in China’s interests to maintain good ties with the US and the world,” Heath said. “A reckless attack on Taiwan would only exacerbate tensions with Washington and could elevate the risk of economic sanctions and other penalties — potentially crippling the Chinese economy.”
He added that while Beijing “cares a great deal about Taiwan,” the Chinese government cares “even more about maintaining the economic growth that underpins the (Communist Party’s) rule.”