As of Saturday, Taiwan has recorded 440 coronavirus cases and seven deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. In comparison, Australia – with a population of 25 million – has reported over 7,000 infections and 98 deaths.
Anxious to share his experiences in the fight against Covid-19, Taiwan is now pushing for a greater voice in global health discussions. The United States, Japan and New Zealand have expressed their support for Taiwan to join the World Health Assembly next week, an annual meeting of the members of the World Health Organization (WHO).
And that’s not good with Beijing.
China considers the island part of its territory and for years has prevented it from taking part in many global institutions, also refusing to have diplomatic relations with countries that maintain official ties with Taiwan.
Taiwan, which is not a member of the WHO, joined the WHO as an observer from 2009 to 2016, when the island was ruled by Beijing’s friend Kuomintang (KMT). But when the Progressive Democratic Party for Independence (DPP) took office in 2016, ties were frayed with Beijing, and Taipei has not joined the WHA ever since.
But as the virus offers Taiwan a rare opportunity to strengthen its international profile, Beijing accused Taipei of pushing for formal independence and intensified military exercises across the island. There have even been some marginal calls within China for the country to use the pandemic as an opportunity to invade Taiwan.
Democracy vs authoritarianism
While the number of new infections has dropped in China and has spread overseas in recent months, state media have sprouted Beijing’s success in defeating the virus, highlighting other governments’ failures to curb its spread – in especially the United States and other Western democracies.
Within China, this sparked the claim that its authoritarian political system was superior to that of liberal democracies when it came to tackling the pandemic.
In addition, the Chinese government has faced criticism for its initial management of the epidemic. The authorities were accused of silencing health workers who tried to issue an alert on the virus, minimizing the severity of the epidemic and delaying the admission of human-to-human transmission in the early critical stages.
‘Taiwan can help’
As China moved to help countries by donating personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies, questions were raised about the reasons behind the so-called “mask diplomacy”.
In March, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned of the “geopolitical component” of Beijing’s push for soft-power, stating that Europe must be aware of “a struggle for influence through spinning and the “politics of generosity”. “
In addition to donating medical supplies, Taiwan has sought to develop bilateral partnerships to fight the pandemic – a move that has drawn Beijing’s wrath.
In addition to bilateral cooperation, Taiwan has doubled its offer to return to the WHO annual assembly.
On March 27, the United States passed a law in support of Taipei’s participation in international institutions and its efforts to strengthen ties with other countries, and more nations are usually wary of being on the wrong side of Beijing, such as Japan, Canada. and New Zealand have publicly ruled in favor of Taiwan joining the WHA again.
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian reprimanded New Zealand for precisely this, asking it to “immediately stop making wrong statements about Taiwan, to avoid damaging our bilateral relations.” Beijing has called Taipei’s attempt to rejoin the WHA a “political conspiracy”.
“In the United States, there are people who blatantly support Taiwan in joining the WHO,” said a spokesman for the Taiwanese Bureau of Affairs in China last week. “They are politicizing epidemic prevention problems and sending a seriously wrong signal to the Taiwanese independence forces. We strongly oppose this.”
On social media and the Chinese press, some called on the People’s Liberation Army to take advantage of the pandemic to invade Taiwan, arguing that the times could not have been better, with the United States worried about the coronavirus and its military might in the region. crushed by a blast on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.
However, most observers agree that this posture is unlikely to be accompanied by hostile actions against Taiwan.
Timothy Heath, a senior international researcher at RAND Corporation, a US think tank, said that the weakness of the Chinese economy precludes any such move. The coronavirus epidemic led the Chinese economy to shrink by 6.8% in the first half of this year – the worst drop since quarterly records began in 1992.
“China needs access to (global) markets after their recovery, and it is therefore in China’s best interest to maintain good ties with the United States and the world,” said Heath. “A reckless attack on Taiwan would only exacerbate tensions with Washington and increase the risk of economic and other sanctions – potentially paralyzing the Chinese economy.”
He added that while Beijing “cares a lot about Taiwan,” the Chinese government cares even more “about maintaining economic growth that underlies the (Communist Party) rule.”
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