As the United States, Europe, and much of the world are grappling with the global health pandemic created by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) that originated in Wuhan, China has begun to slowly reopen the initial epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. At the same time, China has kicked its global health diplomacy into high gear, providing medical supplies and sending medical experts to coronavirus hot spots to deflect blame for being the source of the outbreak. As Beijing seeks to assert global leadership over the coronavirus response and continues to sow disinformation in Taiwan, China’s relations with the United States and Taiwan have become further strained. With Washington touting the “Taiwan model” on combating COVID-19, the United States and Taiwan, meanwhile, have bolstered cooperation over the virus and continue to strengthen bilateral relations in an increasingly bifurcated international order.
Declaring Victory in Wuhan
Beijing has touted Wuhan’s progress since the city was sealed off on January 23 as a key initial victory in the country’s ongoing battle against the coronavirus. On March 10, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) made a much publicized trip to Wuhan and declared, “Initial success has been achieved in stabilizing the situation and turning the tide.” Xi visited patients and health care workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital (火神山醫院), a makeshift medical center that was completed in 10 days. With the number of new coronavirus cases continuing to drop in the city, Wuhan closed all of its temporary hospitals, according to Chinese state media. Shortly after Xi’s visit to Wuhan, health care authorities reported a rapid decline in the number of new infection cases, including locally transmitted cases, and imported cases. Since March 18, there have been mostly “zero” transmission cases reported in Hubei Province, including Wuhan. As a result, China plans to lift its two-and-a-half-month lockdown on Wuhan on April 8, three weeks after it eased travel restrictions on the rest of Hubei Province on March 25.
However, there are questions concerning the accuracy and reliability of Chinese official health data. China’s national tally of confirmed coronavirus cases notably excludes asymptomatic carriers—people who do not show symptoms but are still carriers of the virus—contrary to classification guidelines by the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the South China Morning Post, more than 43,000 people in China had tested positive for COVID-19 by the end of February but were asymptomatic and thus not included in the official count. As of April 5, China’s National Health Commission reported 81,708 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 3,331 deaths. However, news reports indicate that the high number of urns in funeral homes in Wuhan surpassed the city’s official coronavirus death toll, suggesting that Wuhan’s actual coronavirus death toll could be in the tens of thousands. A US intelligence report also supports the view that China has been underreporting its infection cases and deaths. Wuhan has played a pivotal role in Xi’s campaign to convince domestic and foreign audiences that China has the coronavirus increasingly under control.
In an effort to deflect global criticism over the pandemic’s outbreak in China, the Chinese government has brewed conspiracy theories on the origin of COVID-19. On March 12, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) falsely accused the US military of bringing the virus to Wuhan on his Twitter feed, suggesting that the coronavirus had started in the United States in the fall of 2019 and that American patients had been misdiagnosed with the flu. Such disinformation was echoed by other Chinese officials, suggesting a coordinated campaign to obfuscate the fact that the novel coronavirus first appeared in China. Another foreign ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, pointed to “different opinions in the US and among the larger international community on the origin of the virus.” The Chinese Embassy in South Africa also tweeted: “Although the epidemic first broke out in China, it did not necessarily mean that the virus is originated from China, let alone ‘made in China’.” President Donald J. Trump responded to Chinese attempts to blame the United States by exclusively referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” with other members of his administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, publicly emphasizing the Chinese origin of the coronavirus and Beijing’s cover-up and disinformation campaign. Chinese social media also spread rumors that the virus could have started in Italy as early as October 2019, before Wuhan’s outbreak in December.
Chinese Global Health Assistance
At a time when the epicenter of COVID-19 has shifted from China to Italy and now to the United States, China is capitalizing on the Trump administration’s perceived failure to curb coronavirus infections and poor leadership at home. When confronted with US criticism, Chinese officials have sought to portray such accusations as detrimental to international cooperation to save lives and have tried to shift the global narrative on China from being the source of the virus towards being the leading provider of global assistance to combat the pandemic. Indeed, Chinese state media has sought to highlight China’s global health leadership with images of deliveries of Chinese medical supplies—including ventilators, masks, and testing kits—to virus-afflicted countries throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, and even the United States. According to Chinese state media, the first shipment of medical supplies arrived in New York City on March 29, carrying 12 million gloves, 130,000 N95 masks, 1.7 million surgical masks, and other supplies. Similar stories have been released about Chinese shipments to Italy and Spain, South Korea, the Philippines, Cambodia, Serbia, and multiple African countries. Several foreign officials have also expressed gratitude for the Chinese shipments on social media. Some countries, however, have expressed concerns about faulty Chinese equipment and inaccurate testing kits they received from China.
Some experts have argued that China may emerge from the coronavirus pandemic as a stronger global power relative to the United States, as Beijing positions itself as an international health leader that not only supplies materials to affected countries but also coordinates multilateral responses to the global health crisis. The United States, by contrast, is unprepared to lead a global response to the pandemic. With Washington already perturbed by China’s Belt and Road Initiative (originally referred to as “One Belt, One Road”), it now must contend with Xi’s renewed calls for another China-centered “Health Silk Road” (健康絲綢之路), which could potentially further erode American leadership on global governance issues. The coronavirus pandemic has further accentuated the bipolar nature of the international system and the division of the world into US-led and China-led camps. Taiwan, caught between both major powers, will need to make hard choices on whether it will strategically decouple from China in the economic and political spheres over the long run.
The United States and Taiwan continue to strengthen bilateral relations amid the coronavirus outbreak. President Trump signed into law on March 26 the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement (TAIPEI) Act, aimed at bolstering Taiwan’s diplomatic alliances around the world, deepening US-Taiwan economic relations, and supporting Taiwan’s participation in international organizations in which statehood is not a requirement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on March 30 the United States backs Taiwan’s observer status in the World Health Organization and will assist Taipei’s participation in the global health body. Furthermore, the American Institute in Taipei (AIT) is working with the non-profit Taiwan FactCheck Center (台灣事實查核中心) to counter disinformation on the coronavirus on social media. China’s disinformation campaign in Taiwan has spread fake news about the coronavirus, including claims that Taiwan’s government had covered up the real number of coronavirus infections and deaths. This coordinated disinformation campaign was launched by netizens in China across multiple social platforms in order to provoke public mistrust in Taiwan’s government.
More recently, Washington and Taipei have stepped up cooperation over fighting COVID-19. With the United States standing at a critical juncture in staving off coronavirus infections—which have topped 330,000 cases and a death toll exceeding 8,900—Taiwan has pledged to send 2 million face masks to the United States. Washington also committed to sending Taiwan the raw materials to make 300,000 protective outfits. Furthermore, representatives from AIT, the US Department of State, the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), and the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs met in a virtual forum on March 31 to discuss expanding Taiwan’s participation on the global stage, including sharing lessons from the “Taiwan Model” to assist other countries in managing COVID-19. The “Taiwan Model” provides a democratic alternative to the Chinese narrative on coronavirus prevention, suggesting that democracies can also successfully contain the virus without resorting to extreme, authoritarian measures. In the face of an international order increasingly bifurcated between the United States and China as a result of the coronavirus, Taipei and Washington are building new bonds that go beyond traditional security interests and shared political values.
The main point: China has utilized the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen its global position, particularly in the absence of American leadership. Beijing has sought to deflect criticism over the origin of the coronavirus in China by providing medical assistance to virus-afflicted countries and sowing disinformation, further straining relations with the United States and Taiwan.