Following its mishandling of the early phase of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei Province, in late December 2019, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in recent weeks has launched a major discursive campaign to regain control of the narrative. In so doing, Beijing is attempting to turn crisis into opportunity. As the epidemic has transformed into a global pandemic, the party has employed global messaging campaigns in order to repair—if not bolster—its reputation with the Chinese public and to encourage amnesia about China’s role in the outbreak, and to instead position it as a source of succor. This “humanitarian aid blitz,” as Voice of America described it, has come replete with medical equipment by the crateful, dispatched to countries that are struggling to cope with the pandemic within their borders. Inevitably, this “aid”—which is not free—has been accompanied by prominent displays of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) flag and much propaganda by Chinese officials and state-run media. The script for this assistance could have come straight out of recent China-funded Hollywood blockbusters: China as the indispensable partner, whose intervention and “cooperation” with international partners ultimately saves humanity. In this scenario, the norms of international governance, and Taiwan’s ability to exist within that system, would inevitably be transformed.
COVID-19 and a New World Order?
Such “soft power” initiatives are not unique to China. Every superpower, and any country aspiring to such status, will at one point seek to underscore the essential role that it can play on the international stage. Yet there is a difference. China’s “aid” has been overwhelmingly transactional, in that assistance in time of emergency has often been conditional. Rather than being humanitarian, therefore, it comes at a price—and not just the sums of money the Chinese have actually asked their partners to disburse.
In many cases, recipients of Chinese “aid” ostensibly had to “earn” the so-called assistance through displays of deference. The Czech Republic, for example, was asked to demonstrate its gratitude before China shipped medical supplies to the central European country. From Europe to Africa, heads of state, foreign ministers, stars, and athletes have had to make profuse expressions of appreciation and indebtedness towards Beijing, in ways that left little doubt as to the demands from propaganda that preceded those actions.
However, there is reason to believe that countries that allowed Chinese “aid” during COVID-19 will be charged not once but twice for Beijing’s generosity. Sensing a moment of weakness within the international system, Beijing is now using this opportunity to consolidate its global position by tightening its grip on various partners, autocratic and not. This opening was created by the United States’ struggle to contain the epidemic at home and its perceived inability to play the leadership role abroad that has long been expected of it by the international community. And while the United States has indeed provided assistance to some countries—including a pledge of up to USD $100 million for international efforts—its quieter approach means that, in many cases, such aid has gone unnoticed. This stands in stark contrast with Beijing’s flaunting of its assistance, which is allowing it to win the propaganda war. Some countries in Europe, meanwhile, have also lamented the “impotent bureaucracy” of the EU and its apparent inability to coordinate a response. In response, Beijing has jumped in, with special focus on the 16+1 group of countries, whose cheerleader, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, vocally insulted the EU while hailing China as a savior in the COVID-19 crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has therefore given Beijing a new opportunity to displace the United States, not just within the Indo-Pacific, but now on the global stage. This effort has furthermore been facilitated by the CCP’s near-complete co-optation of UN institutions, whose heads (some, as the World Health Organization Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, installed with help from the Chinese) have occasionally amplified Beijing’s messaging on the early stages of the pandemic. Besides undermining confidence in UN agencies’ reliability, the uncomfortably close relationship that has developed between specialized agencies like the WHO with Chinese authorities has raised questions about whether such agencies place access to China above global health.
Much of Beijing’s efforts to rewrite the history of COVID-19 and erase its initial mishandling in Wuhan is likely aimed at the Chinese public in order to avoid mobilized discontent that could threaten the CCP’s ability to rule. The pandemic has also provided the opportunity Beijing had been waiting for to break the West’s back and assume its “rightful” position as a global superpower. By cashing in its second check from recipients of its “aid” during the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing will likely aim to solidify dependencies through quid pro quos. This could include allowing greater investment by China in those countries and regions or giving Huawei access to their telecommunications infrastructure. In other words, the COVID-19 outbreak has given China a chance to create facts on the ground around the globe and to elevate itself to a position of superiority in dozens of bilateral and regional relationships. While recent revelations in several countries that “donated” Chinese COVID-19 kits are defective may temporarily undermine Beijing’s soft power campaign, the long-term effects of its efforts will remain. The returns that Beijing will extract from its captive states could have repercussions for Taiwan.
Repercussions for Taiwan
Reacting early and aggressively, in late December, to signs that something terrible was brewing in China, Taiwan has also turned the crisis into an opportunity to shine on the international stage. As the epidemic turned into a pandemic, Taiwan’s successful handling of the crisis—despite its exclusion from the WHO—has earned it unprecedented attention among foreign governments and the media. Its stellar response bucked the narrative which Beijing was simultaneously trying to rewrite.
And that, of course, was unacceptable to the Chinese authorities. Thus, as Beijing was seeking to frame itself as a responsible partner in global efforts to combat the COVID-19 outbreak, it also initiated efforts to undermine Taiwan’s response to the virus by targeting it with dis/misinformation campaigns and state propaganda, interfering with the repatriation of Taiwanese nationals from Wuhan, and on two separate occasions by launching threatening maneuvers by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), including its first nighttime mission. Chinese officials have also repeatedly accused Taiwan of “using the pandemic to conspire for independence” (以疫謀獨), especially after the Tsai administration announced material assistance to the United States and European countries to help combat the pandemic. Even the UN has played a role in this, with the WHO chief reportedly attributing his tarnished reputation to an alleged “politically motivated scheme” led by “Taiwanese hackers.”
Such behavior has made it clear that Beijing’s discontent with the results of the January 11 general elections in Taiwan—in which the China-skeptic Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected with record-breaking 8-million-plus votes—will cause its punitive stance toward Taiwan to continue unabated. This approach will be augmented by the increased influence that Beijing has acquired from its opportunism amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while many of the checks which it will cash in from various recipients of its conditional “aid” will likely have a Taiwan component to them. Already, growing Chinese influence at UN agencies, from the WHO to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has led officials there to shun Taiwan, censor calls for its participation in times of crisis, and for all intents and purposes adopt Beijing’s position on the territorial dispute in the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing’s exertion of increased influence on various countries, regions, and global institutions during the COVID-19 crisis will conceivably result in future demands by China to isolate Taiwan: by remaining silent on Chinese behavior in the Taiwan Strait, by voting with China at the UN General Assembly to counter appeals for greater participation for Taiwan, or by being complicit in actions that reduce the validity of the Republic of China (Taiwan) passport or limit the ability of Taiwan to conduct business with other countries, even if at the unofficial level.
Therefore, President Trump’s late-March signing into law of the TAIPEI Act, a piece of legislation which calls on Washington to “reduce its economic, security, and diplomatic engagements with nations that take serious or significant actions to undermine Taiwan,” could not have come at a more opportune time. The US Navy transit through the Taiwan Strait on March 26 also sent an important signal of support for Taiwan by the US, while reminding Beijing that its unwillingness to set politics aside in times of a global emergency and attempts to intimidate Taiwan while the world is distracted will not be countenanced.
As the COVID-19 crisis abates (and it will), the political landscape will have been changed—very likely in Beijing’s favor. Once the outbreak is behind us, China will shift its attention back to the “Taiwan problem” and seek to further isolate Taiwan for the choices its people have made through democratic mechanisms. No doubt it will also attempt to negate any gain, if only reputational, that Taiwan may have made during the outbreak. As long as Taiwan’s success story remains in existence, it will continue to provide a counter to the narrative that Beijing is seeking to impose on the international community. The only solution to this problem will be for Beijing to intensify its efforts to isolate Taiwan and erase its existence.
It therefore remains to be seen whether Taiwan will come out of the COVID-19 outbreak in a stronger position, thanks to good publicity and the enactment of the TAIPEI Act, or weakened due to gains made by Beijing in various countries and institutions. What is certain is that the CCP will not stand still: even at the height of the health crisis, it continued to play politics over Taiwan. Once the crisis has passed, we can expect it to renew—and possibly to ramp up—its campaign against Taiwan. Whether it is successful in those endeavors will be contingent on Taiwan and its partners showing a willingness to push back by adopting countervailing measures.
The main point: Beijing has seized an opportunity created by the COVID-19 pandemic to position itself as a global leader. Through propaganda and conditional aid, the Chinese regime hopes to increase its influence with countries the world over. Once the pandemic has passed, China could use this new influence to further isolate Taiwan.