22.04.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Taiwan’s Political Status amid the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic

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The political games being played over Taiwan for the last few months are yet another example of how the common SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus crisis has barely had any effect on the nature of global political processes.

Taiwan’s issue with mainland China has long been one of the main sticking points in deteriorating relations between the world’s two leading powers, and it does not look like the unprecedented common threat of the coronavirus crisis is going to change that any time soon.

There are three sides in this political triangle — the United States, Taiwan and China — although Japan’s presence is growing stronger. Each side continues to pursue their own country’s national interests amid the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, either by trying to use it to their own advantage, or by acting as if nothing has changed.

Taiwan is trying to get as much as it can out of the situation politically, by “setting an example” for the rest of the world on how to fight the coronavirus epidemic effectively. And Taipei has good reason for positioning itself in this way. Taiwan looks very strong when compared to other countries and how they are faring with the spread of the epidemic. This is of course assuming that the figures have not been manipulated, which a growing number of countries are being accused of, and that the existing data is enough to give us a full picture. That is why the World Health Organization (WHO) reconsidering letting Taiwan join the organization looks far more likely that it did six months ago.

While allowing Taiwan to join the WHO would apparently be harmless, these calls to end its exclusion have a very significant political motivation. The WHO is the health agency of its parent organization, the United Nations, and its full members are member states of this top intergovernmental organization. Taiwan had been a member until October 1971, when the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) lost its United Nations seat as “China”, replaced by the People’s Republic of China (PRC, mainland China). This had a series of consequences, including Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO.

Since then (i.e. since Taiwan was excluded from the UN), Taiwan’s legal status under international law has been defined by the slippery term of “distinct”. Less than 20 states recognize the ROC and have full diplomatic relations with Taipei; these are predominantly small island states in the Pacific and Caribbean. The vast majority of countries consider the PRC to be the only “China”.

Washington, Beijing’s main rival in foreign relations, is apparently one of them. The US publicly recognizes the “One-China policy”, but Washington avoids elaborating on America’s position. On the contrary, the importance of restoring Taiwan’s status as a sovereign state with sufficient international recognition has increased dramatically since the turn of the new millennium, when it became fairly obvious that China was set to become the strongest geopolitical competitor for the entire twenty-first century.

Taiwan’s status has essentially been moving in this direction at a crawl for almost two decades without any sudden movements to pick up the pace of its progress, a process which has been discussed in numerous articles published in NEO. This progress has been facilitated by the policy of Taiwan’s current ruling party in particular (in office for a second consecutive term), the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led by incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen.

Attempts to participate in various international events and organizations as an “independent” country, including in sports, have been an important part of this process. It must be said that Beijing did little to thwart these attempts until recently. For instance, the PRC only asked for decorum to be upheld when Taipei sought to change the name for its teams and athletes sent to compete in international competitions from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan”.

Moreover, when the (relatively) mainland-friendly Kuomintang Party (KMT) was in power in Taiwan, Beijing gave Taipei a sort of reward for good behavior by having Taiwan admitted to the WHO as an observer. The DPP initially took advantage of this reward when they came to power in January 2016.

However, the decisive course of the new Tsai Ing-wen administration towards the goal of gaining independence from the Chinese “mainland” also led to Taiwan losing its status as an observer in the WHO in spring 2017. Taiwan’s crawl towards independence stalled when it lost its hard-won place in the WHO. As one would expect, this not only led to a backlash in Taipei, but also in Washington, where attempts were made to present the PRC’s veto of Taipei’s attendance as more evidence that mainland China’s communist regime is inhumane.

There was another surge in calls to “include” Taiwan in the WHO again as the coronavirus began to spread, especially given that Taiwanese representative where noticeably absent at an emergency meeting convened by the WHO on January 22 this year in Geneva. On the same day, President Tsai Ing-wen mentioned that the island had recorded its first coronavirus case, arguing that Taiwan needs to be able to participate in the work of the WHO.

She has of course received full support from the United States on this issue. This was expressed in the emotional appeal Senator Mitt Romney made a week later, calling on the PRC to “stop bullying” Taiwan over its WHO membership.

It is worth mentioning that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also spoke in favor of allowing Taiwan to participate in the WHO at the end of January. The Japanese leader has stopped at this, and has not made any more public statements or taken any further action on the issue, as Japan has recently been trying to stay in Beijing’s good books. After all, Tokyo has begun to set its own sights on building relations with the PRC.

However, Abe also spoke about fulfilling Japan’s obligation as an ally to their big brother, the United States. Their military and political alliance with the United States is still relevant for Japan. It will stay that way for at least the next few years.

It is hard to ignore the background noise of the games still being played by both major players over Taiwan’s political status, with their periodic displays of military muscle in the region. It seems they will stop at nothing, even at the height of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

On January 31, a US Air Force B-52H bomber flew near Taipei’s airspace, and in early March, the US aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, accompanied by the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill, arrived in the Vietnamese port of Da Nang for a five-day visit. This is the second time an American aircraft carrier has paid a visit to Da Nang Port. The US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson arrived there in March 2018.

The US Navy has been conducting its show of force maneuvers in the South China Sea on a frequent basis in recent years, which have been stoking tensions with the PRC for control of this strategic marine territory. Da Nang Port is just 350 km away from the Paracel Islands controlled by China, which Vietnam claims to own in a territorial dispute. This port is also not too far from the Luzon Strait to the south of Taiwan, which flows out from the South China Sea to the Philippine Sea in the western Pacific Ocean.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force and Navy both went behind Taiwan’s back yet again, in March and April respectively, and made their presence felt in the Strait of Taiwan and the Pacific Ocean. Needless to say, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) maintains an almost constant presence in the South China Sea. This is also why Taiwan talks about the need to “prepare for attack”.

Finally, it is safe to say that Taiwan’s successful response in the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic will help strengthen Tsai Ing-wen’s position in Taiwan, who won a landslide victory and was re-elected for another presidential term at the beginning of January this year.

However, this means that we can forget about seeing any positive progress being made with Taiwan’s political status. At least, for the next few years.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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