In recent years, Taiwan has faced a relentless pressure campaign from Beijing, which has sought to isolate Taiwan on the international stage. The country has been denied meaningful participation in international organizations, has seen its formal diplomatic partners shrink in number, and has had its name erased from business websites across the world. Whether due to implicit or explicit Chinese intimidation, informal partners from Europe to Australia have been cautious in advancing bilateral ties. Yet much to China’s chagrin, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) that originated in Wuhan may give Taiwan an opportunity to escape from Beijing’s vise. If Taiwan can continue to successfully manage the spread of the disease domestically while pursuing good-natured engagement with international partners, Taipei may well emerge from this crisis significantly improving the country’s international standing. And, as Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff, might advise, “you never want a serious crisis go to waste.”
China’s mishandling of the novel coronavirus in the early going is indisputable. Its infectious disease reporting system, designed in the aftermath of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and refined in the interceding years, failed when it was needed most. Meant to be “fast, thorough and, just as important, immune from meddling,” it turned out to be none of those things. Many of China’s missteps are well known now, and more may come to light in the days and months to come. Suffice to say, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was slow to act in the public interest, but moved fast when it came to manipulating people and information both for its internal and external audiences.
As Beijing has seemingly gotten a grip on the outbreak, it has turned its attention abroad, apparently seeking to erase from international public consciousness its earlier missteps and to present itself as a savior to countries now suffering from the virus. Its propagandists have sought to muddy the waters about the virus’ origin, while Beijing has begun provisioning (for a price) much needed medical equipment to states facing the pandemic. Whether this effort will succeed is an open question, but the prevalence of faulty supplies sold thus far and Beijing’s disdainfully transparent peddling in conspiracy theories may be ultimately counterproductive.
By contrast, Taipei has thus far handled the disease with aplomb. In response to rumors out of Wuhan of a new disease in late December, Taipei was quick to begin screening travelers from the city. Taipei also warned the World Health Organization of the possibility of human-to-human transmission (a warning that was apparently ignored), three weeks before Beijing admitted the same. As Gary Schmitt and I have described, Taiwan’s approach has been “technocratic yet compassionate,” relying “on transparency, proactive searches for possible cases, responsible use of data, admittedly aggressive contact tracing, and government support for the sick and quarantined.” The war against the virus is not over, but thus far Taiwan has been particularly adept in waging it.
Like China, Taiwan has now begun focusing more intently on contributing to the global fight against COVID-19. Unlike China, it is donating millions of masks to the United States, Europe, and countries closer to home. From the earliest inklings of the emergence of a new virus up until now, the contrast between China and Taiwan could not be starker—a contrast that redounds to Taiwan’s benefit.
Taipei, while still focused on the crisis at hand, may be thinking about how it can make use of that contrast to advance its international standing. In particular, Taipei may have a chance to make substantial progress on three important foreign policy goals: (1) more normal (if still unofficial) relations with more of its overseas friends; (2) meaningful participation in international organizations; and (3) expanded trade with a wide variety of economic partners.
If it is to be successful in doing so, however, Taiwan will need to continue to enhance its own reputation as a responsible stakeholder. In the coming months, there will be three key ways to do so: by helping friends in need, by engaging in public diplomacy, and by seeking a boost from the United States.
Helping Friends in Need
Perhaps most importantly, Taiwan should keep doing what it is already doing. On April 1, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) announced a donation of 10 million face masks to medical workers in need, with more donations expected to follow as Taiwan’s own supplies allow. Per Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, the country will donate 2 million face masks to the United States (to which it has already agreed to sell 100,000 masks weekly), 7 million to European countries, and 1 million to its diplomatic allies. Diplomatic allies will also receive “84 thermal imaging devices made in Taiwan,” as well as infrared forehead thermometers.
President Tsai also announced that her government has “asked firms to increase quinine production,” in order to ensure adequate global supply as the drug is used in the treatment of COVID-19. The president also announced “technological support” for foreign partners, which in some ways may be the most important leg of this “Taiwan Can Help” triad:
We will share our domestic electronic quarantine system that utilized big data analytics, so that countries in need can accurately trace the contact history of confirmed cases, and investigate outbreaks effectively to prevent them from spreading. Our public and private hospitals will also continue to use videoconferencing to share our disease prevention experience and technologies to countries that need help.
Many European countries may be particularly keen on these efforts. Given the size of Taiwan’s population, its public health system operates on a scale that many in Europe can understand and with which they can identify. Aspects of Taipei’s efforts to combat the virus, particularly when it comes to contact tracing and the use of big data, are likely to be more relevant to many in Europe—especially those not yet facing a severe outbreak—than China’s own experiences.
China has been busy in the information domain. A report in Formiche, an Italian outlet, described Chinese state media and diplomats as working “tirelessly to depict China as Italy’s savior.” According to Francesco Bechis and Gabriele Carrer, the report’s authors, these traditional propagandistic efforts were matched with a social media campaign:
On Twitter, the mobilization was a great success, with thousands of posts celebrating Chinese solidarity. Yet not all of this was created by human hand. Nearly half of the tweets (46.3%) published between March 11 and 23 with the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia (Go China, go Italy, ed.) and more than one third (37.1%) of those with the hashtag #grazieCina (thank you China, ed.) came from bots…
Taipei need not play these games to compete with Beijing in shaping public opinion, but it does need a robust public diplomacy effort to ensure that its cooperative approach to countering the pandemic boosts Taiwan’s standing amongst both governments and populations writ large. Indeed, the simple act of conducting above-board public diplomacy will put Taiwan in a positive light as compared to China, given the latter’s penchant for spreading disinformation.
Wherever Taiwan is delivering aid or sharing experience, its ambassadors should be striving to publish op-eds, conduct media interviews, speak at think tank conferences, and host cultural events (when public health conditions permit) in order to facilitate engagement with the public. Taiwan’s diplomats do regularly engage in such efforts, but in the midst of this unique historical moment, they may be particularly effective.
A US Boost
The United States can and should aid Taiwan’s efforts to enhance its international standing, an outcome that is in American interest. Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, for example, might consider working with the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and with partners in Japan, Europe, and elsewhere to host a series of virtual Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) seminars on COVID-19 responses. Such a GCTF series would be a natural follow-on to the recent COVID-19 virtual forum recently co-hosted by the State Department, AIT, and Foreign Ministry, and complement Taiwan’s ongoing efforts to provide “technological support,” as President Tsai described.
For its part, Washington should consider taking unprecedented steps within its own bilateral relationship that could have a positive effect on Taiwan’s other diplomatic ties. The National Security Council has already publicly thanked the people of Taiwan for supporting US efforts to combat the pandemic. Once the United States is past the worst of its own outbreak, President Donald Trump should call President Tsai to thank her personally for coming to America’s aid during its hour of need. Such an act would draw attention to the positive role Taiwan has played during the crisis, while perhaps creating more space for other countries to deepen their own engagement with Taipei.
At the same time, the speaker of the House of Representatives should consider inviting Tsai Ing-wen, if she is willing, to address Congress (a move that a group of Republican senators called for in early 2019). Doing so would be a remarkable and appropriate way to show appreciation for a faithful friend, while providing Taiwan’s president a platform with global reach. Holding Taiwan up as a country to be admired, while holding China to account for the damage it wrought, could provide an enormous boost to Taipei’s quest for more robust engagement with the international community.
Despite the pandemic, China has ensured that the WHO keeps Taipei at arm’s length and has continued to employ military intimidation against Taiwan. If anything, it has sought to tighten the vise—a vise from which Taiwan, if it plays its cards right, may be able to slip right out.
The main point: The contrast between Taiwan’s and China’s responses to COVID-19 could not be starker. Taipei should take advantage of its enhanced reputation to pursue deeper engagement with the international community.