China is shrewdly using the COVID-19 crisis to advance its international agenda. Beijing insists that it has made heroic efforts to contain and beat back the disease and then used its experience and its deep pockets to raise China’s diplomatic profile with extensive aid to other countries hard hit by the pandemic.
A less-noticed element of that campaign is an amplification of policy to isolate Taiwan, an effort that has assumed greater urgency in recent months with the re-election of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen earlier this year.
China has for years insisted that Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, cannot be a member of the World Health Organization, the United Nations body that is on the front-lines of organizing an international response to global health crises — an objection that extends to any international institution of which Beijing is also a member.
In this case, as in previous health crises such as the 2003 SARS outbreak, exclusion has meant that Taiwan is denied access to critical information in a timely manner, potentially endangering the lives of the 24 million people who live on the island, and those organizations do not enjoy the assistance or inputs that Taiwan can provide.
This isolation of Taiwan has continued during the new coronavirus outbreak. Taiwan officials have not been allowed to attend key meetings and WHO officials have refused to address questions about Taiwan, creating obvious and awkward moments in interviews with the media.
China’s project has been complicated by two recent developments. The first is Taiwan’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, which is among the best in the world. The second is the signing into law in the United States of the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, which obliges the U.S. to help build international support for Taiwan precisely as Beijing seeks to bend the Taipei government to its will. The TAIPEI Act will amplify tensions in the U.S.-China relationship that governments in the region, including Japan, will not be able to ignore.
Taiwan has a remarkable record of success in responding to the coronavirus outbreak. According to the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control, as of April 12 the island had a confirmed total of 388 cases and just six deaths. That is an impressive achievement, especially given the island’s proximity to the Chinese mainland and the deep integration of the two economies.
Taiwan’s success undercuts the Chinese leadership’s message that its anti-coronavirus campaign is the best response to the disease, an assertion that bolsters the credibility, legitimacy and authority of the Chinese Communist Party and its authoritarian governing style. Put bluntly, the success of a Chinese democracy — Taiwan — in handling this crisis is a rejection of the claim, put forward in a recent Global Times article — the mouthpiece of Chinese nationalists — that China’s model is “the ‘only’ proven successful model so far that could be replicated to halt the virus once and for all, so to save millions of lives.”
Taiwan has also seized the moment to launch its own diplomatic campaign, which has included the donation of 10 million masks to other countries to help fight the disease as well as the dispatch of medical teams to countries battling the outbreak. Taipei’s assistance is dwarfed by that of China, but the symbolism is unmistakable and it has infuriated Beijing. The Taiwan Affairs Office, which handles cross-strait relations for the mainland, has denounced Taipei’s mask donations and condemned that government for “engaging in a confrontation with the motherland.”
U.S. praise for Taiwan’s efforts inflames Chinese sensitivities. After a virtual forum on Taiwan at the end of March, the U.S. State Department applauded Taipei, urging other countries to work with it to combat COVID-19 and noted that they “can benefit from better understanding the Taiwan Model, as well as the generous contributions and impressive expertise Taiwan — a vibrant democracy and force for good — brings to the global community.”
That meeting followed passage of the TAIPEI act, bipartisan legislation signed by President Donald Trump, that obliges the U.S. to do more to support Taiwan’s international profile. That means rewarding countries that strengthen ties to the island, punishing those that “take serious or significant actions to undermine the security or prosperity of Taiwan,” and campaigning for its membership in international organizations.
The legislation was inspired by the “diplomatic war” fought by Taipei and Beijing, a battle that has assumed new intensity since Tsai took office in 2016. China has won over seven of the countries that previously recognized Taiwan, reducing to 15 the governments that have diplomatic ties with Taipei.
The People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CCP, denounced the TAIPEI Act as “evil,” “a hegemonic threat” that “sabotages” the “one China principle” (the notion that China and Taiwan are part of the same political entity, a stipulation that Tsai and her supporters deny) and “violates international law.” U.S.-China ties are at a critical juncture, the editorial continued, and it is up to the U.S. to make the right choices to ensure that they are not damaged.
To reinforce its message, China has been increasing military activities around Taiwan, which military experts have described as “a pattern of increasingly provocative naval and military aviation operations,” including unusual nighttime sorties and long-endurance early-warning exercises. Those experts believe that the uptick is intended to remind Taiwan of China’s displeasure and show that its military capabilities are not degraded by the coronavirus outbreak.
The U.S. has responded with an increase in its air and naval presence near Taiwan and in the South China Sea. Among the signals was the March 25 Taiwan Strait transit by the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell. China denounced the passage, which the U.S. called “routine” and “consistent with international law.”
Japan must be concerned about these developments. Taiwan’s security is intertwined with that of Japan. The island flanks the sea lanes that are Japan’s lifelines to the world, the waterways through which this country’s energy and trade flows.
While Japan and Taiwan do not have official ties — they maintain relations through the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, a nongovernmental institution that is, like the American Institute of Taiwan, a diplomatic fiction that respects the “one China policy” — there is a thick web of relations between the two that includes cultural, economic and even political ties, although the last subject is usually addressed in whispers.
A U.S. ally, Japan must be prepared for a cross-strait conflict that expands to include the United States. Article 6 of their mutual security treaty allows the U.S. to use its bases in Japan for “the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East,” a geographic descriptor that includes Taiwan.
Various iterations of the bilateral Japan-U.S. defense guidelines have addressed this responsibility, although the phrasing is delicate. There are frequent visits to the island by retired Japanese military officers and civilian defense officials; while they are not secrets, they are kept quiet. China knows of these ties and tolerates them as long as they are not too obvious or too blatant a rejection of its “one-China” demands.
China’s patience risks running short. Tsai’s re-election confounded Beijing’s hope that a majority of the island’s public would see the value of closer ties with the mainland. While Beijing is pleased to see Trump question longstanding verities like the value of U.S. alliances, it is worried that the same skepticism could prompt him to challenge Washington’s arm-length approach to Taiwan. The steady strengthening of U.S. ties to the island suggests he may be so inclined. Amid an all-consuming fight against the coronavirus, the U.S. and Japan must be ready for renewed tensions with China over Taiwan.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”
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