'Taiwan Can Help': Taipei pushes back against Beijing during pandemic

Javier C. Hern√°ndez and Chris Horton, The New York Times

Posted at Apr 23 2020 10:40 AM

'Taiwan Can Help': Taipei pushes back against Beijing during pandemic 1
Soldiers from the military chemical unit disinfect the supply ship at a Naval base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, April 19, 2020. Picture taken on April 19, 2020. Taiwan Ministry of National Defense/ Handout via Reuters

TAIPEI — They are sending millions of masks, emblazoned with the words “made in Taiwan,” to the United States, Italy and other countries hit hard by the coronavirus. They are denouncing Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization. They are flaunting celebrity endorsements and creating hashtags like #TaiwanCanHelp.

Officials in Taiwan are attempting to turn their success in battling the coronavirus at home into a geopolitical win. Taiwan is competing with China on pandemic aid diplomacy in defiance of Beijing’s efforts to isolate the self-ruled democratic island that it claims as its own. The island is promoting itself as a model of democracy to try to undercut China’s own campaign to use the crisis to tout the strength of its authoritarian system.

The world is responding. US and European officials have praised Taiwan’s donations of more than 10 million masks. Politicians, business leaders and celebrities, including Bill Gates and Barbra Streisand, have hailed the island as exemplary in its fight against the coronavirus. 

“We can see that this is a good opportunity for us to let people know that Taiwan is a good global citizen,” Taiwan’s vice president, Chen Chien-jen, said this week in Taipei. “We have to fight for our participation.”

Taiwan, with a population of 23 million, has reported 426 cases of coronavirus and 6 deaths as of Wednesday, far fewer than many countries. The island stands out for having avoided painful and costly lockdowns by moving quickly to impose travel restrictions, screen visitors and deploy protective gear that it had stockpiled for years. Taiwan has even been able to continue with its baseball season, albeit without the crowds, holding its opening game this month. 

Taiwan’s diplomatic and public relations campaign is drawing fire from Beijing, which has dismissed the effort as an attempt to “seek independence under the pretext of the pandemic.”

Taiwan’s push for greater global recognition has in large part been an effort to raise questions about the cost of China’s campaign to isolate the island diplomatically. China has worked to shut Taiwan out of groups like the World Health Organization, a UN agency, denying it access to scientific briefings and emergency meetings.

Chen, the vice president, said that Taiwan had been “left as an orphan” because of China.

“No country can fight COVID-19 alone,” said Chen, an epidemiologist by training. He said the island wanted “a chance to share our knowledge and experience and our technologies with other countries.”

While Taiwan’s push for a greater voice in the health agency has drawn supportive comments from officials in the United States, Japan, Canada and elsewhere, experts say it is unlikely to result in any immediate breakthroughs. The WHO has said that the question of Taiwan’s membership in the agency is up to member states, not the WHO’s leaders, and that it has allowed Taiwan to participate in trainings and research conferences related to the virus.

The debate over Taiwan’s exclusion has at times been heated.

The director-general of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, facing criticism from the Trump administration and others that he is too deferential to China, has accused Taiwan of unleashing racist attacks against him online. Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has rejected Tedros’ claims, and her government has said that the online attacks were coordinated by Beijing.

The island wants to push a simple message: “Taiwan Can Help.” But underlying it is a multifaceted effort to challenge Beijing in the realm of coronavirus aid diplomacy.

Beijing hopes that deliveries of masks, ventilators and other aid to countries hit hard by the pandemic will help reshape the narrative and deflect from questions about how its initial efforts to conceal it made the pandemic worse. Taiwan, a major manufacturer of masks and other hospital equipment, is offering an alternative source of aid — and winning accolades for its response. On Tuesday, for instance, the foreign minister of Lithuania praised Taiwan’s donations as a “genuine act of solidarity.”

Taiwan has even sought to use the pandemic to promote its manufacturing prowess, pledging to export mask-making machines by early August.

More broadly, Taiwan has tapped into rising concerns around the world about the costs of the Chinese Communist Party’s penchant for secrecy. In contrast, Taiwan has presented its government as one that exudes confidence as it welcomes civic participation and the scrutiny of the press.

When China last month expelled reporters from 3 US news organizations, including The New York Times, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, sought to use the opportunity to burnish Taiwan’s credentials as a bastion of free speech. On Twitter, he welcomed the reporters to move to Taiwan, “a country that is a beacon of freedom & democracy.”

Even Tsai, the president, has adopted a more public diplomatic strategy, casting aside her usual approach of working behind the scenes in reaching out to foreign leaders.

She has in recent days traded messages of encouragement on Twitter with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Such conversations, which have been widely shared on social media sites, represent the kind of public leader-to-leader exchanges that China has long sought to prevent. In December 2016, for example, China denounced Tsai’s congratulatory phone call to Donald Trump, then the president-elect.

There are risks in Taiwan’s campaign. Chinese officials were already angered when, in the early days of the epidemic, Taiwan shut its borders to visitors from the mainland, Hong Kong and Macao, and imposed a ban on the export of masks. The island could further antagonize China at a time when the ruling Communist Party is pushing through hard-line actions, including mass surveillance efforts in the mainland and a crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

Beijing has shown no signs of easing its aggression toward Taiwan, despite the pandemic, sending warships into the waters off its coast. Some commentators in China have threatened economic punishment if the island continues making diplomatic overtures.

Chinese officials have accused Taiwan of working to “make reckless political maneuvers and hype up” its participation in global organizations.

“Their scheme will never succeed,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said this month at a news conference in Beijing.

Now some in Taiwan worry that Beijing might more severely restrict trade with the island.

“Politically, we want to keep a distance. But economically it’s very difficult,” said Alex Chiang, a retired professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “After the COVID crisis is over, we still have to go to China and cooperate with Chinese businesspeople in order to get economic recovery started.”

Mainland analysts argue that Taiwan’s moves to assert itself will worsen tensions between China and the United States. China is already upset that President Trump last month signed legislation aimed at discouraging Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies from cutting ties with the island under pressure from Beijing. 

“This will increase conflicts or even confrontations between China and US,” said Zhang Wensheng, associate dean at the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University in eastern China.

Taiwan’s citizens say they are trying to ignore the mainland’s threats.

Many have in recent days joined the effort to raise the island’s profile, helping spread hashtags like #TaiwanCanHelp and organizing crowdfunding campaigns to buy advertisements in Western news outlets highlighting the island’s successes.

“Who can isolate Taiwan?” said a website they started. “No one.”

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