Last year, the countries of East Asia were hailed for their success stories in the effort to stop the coronavirus pandemic. Today, these same countries are battling a resurgence in infections. One unintended consequence of their early success in suppressing the virus has been a late start in vaccinating their populations.
China alone has successfully contained the spread of the virus, vaccinated its people and taken measures to get its economy back on track.
The Asian giant’s government immediately set up special hospital wards for coronavirus patients and called up a large number of regional health care professionals to provide assistance. Domestic vaccines are in full production and more than 25 million doses are administered daily. The speed with which China is vaccinating its citizens is particularly striking when compared to India (5 million doses a day) or Japan (1 million doses a day).
By contrast, Taiwan, formerly a so-called “MVP” in the fight against the virus, is struggling. Airline pilots reportedly brought the Alpha (U.K.) variant to Taiwan, where it spread to hotel workers, resulting in community-wide infections. Taiwan’s vaccine rollout has also been sluggish: As of June 23, just 7% of the population had been vaccinated.
Taiwan’s greatest miscalculation was its last-minute deferment of the purchase of the Pfizer vaccine from Germany’s BioNTech. As Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen explained to the Taiwanese public: “We were close to completing the contract with the original German plant, but because of China’s intervention, up to now there’s been no way to complete it.”
According to Lai I-Chung, then the international affairs chief of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP): “China says it is prepared to provide Taiwan with the Chinese vaccine, but works everywhere to obstruct our access to anything but the China-made vaccine. Beijing’s interference brought last year’s negotiations between the Taiwanese government and BioNTech to a standstill when we were on the brink of concluding an agreement.”
Last December, the Hong Kong government announced its purchase of vaccines using Pfizer’s mRNA technology platform from the Shangai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group. This meant that the Chinese pharmaceutical giant’s commercial rights to the vaccine extended beyond the mainland to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao.
In short, the contract between BioNTech and Shangai Fosun gives the latter exclusive distribution rights to the Pfizer vaccine within the “Greater China” market — including Taiwan. This means that no other country and no company other than Shangai Fosun can sell the Pfizer vaccine to Taiwan.
Taiwan found itself constrained by external limitations — in the words of Taiwan’s health minister and Central Epidemic Command Center chief Chen Shih-chung, “There’s no problem with the contract. The problem was something outside of the contract.”
China’s actions have flustered Taiwan as it struggles to secure enough vaccines for its citizens. The Taiwan Affairs Office of the Chinese government announced it was prepared to supply Taiwan with the Chinese-manufactured vaccine, as “mainland China wants to make every effort to help the people of Taiwan defeat the virus.”
Toward that end, China urged the Taiwanese government to “quickly remove artificial obstacles for mainland vaccines being sent to Taiwan and allow the broad mass of Taiwanese compatriots to receive the safe and effective mainland vaccine.” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council rejected China’s show of “false sympathy,” and claimed that “without China’s interference, Taiwan would receive more reliable vaccines more quickly from the international community.”
The Taiwanese also harbor a deep distrust of Chinese-manufactured vaccines. In the words of Chen Shih-chung, “the Chinese jabs are too scary for us to use.” According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Taiwanese magazine Global Views Monthly, 55% of respondents would prefer a vaccine developed in Taiwan, while 32% would choose an American or European-made vaccine. Just 1.3% preferred a Chinese-made vaccine.
China has also reportedly pressed Paraguay and Honduras to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan as a condition for supplying them with vaccines. These two countries, together with Guatemala and Nicaragua, are the four Central and South American countries that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In all four countries, vaccination rates have stalled at between 2% and 4%. China’s vaccine diplomacy with these four countries clearly amounts to a “One China” offensive.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Japan have extended a helping hand to Taiwan. On June 4, Japan donated 1.24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Taiwan. Shortly thereafter, a bipartisan delegation of three U.S. senators visited Taiwan, where Sen. Tammy Duckworth announced the donation of 750,000 doses. On June 20, the Biden administration tripled its original pledge by donating a total of 2.5 million doses of the Moderna mRNA vaccine to Taiwan.
Japan later provided another batch of doses to Taiwan on July 15, amounting to 3.24 million doses in total. The Taiwanese government welcomed these international donations, while China strongly objected to this as “interference in China’s domestic affairs.”
The pandemic-era political struggle between China’s Communist Party and Taiwan’s DPP has also become a battle of public opinion as to which government really values the lives of ordinary Taiwanese citizens. Lai I-Chung blasted China, arguing that “obstructing Taiwan’s access to vaccines is no different than the deliberate murder of the Taiwanese people,” while Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Ma Xiaoguang asked: “Is the DPP’s political survival more important than the lives of Taiwanese residents?”
Japan and the U.S. are now caught up in China and Taiwan’s so-called “unrestricted warfare” over vaccines. With this “war” over vaccinations and the geopolitical battles pertaining to the “peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait” by these four nations, whichever side wins, that outcome looks more and more like it will rest on the will of the Taiwanese people.
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.
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