Taiwan in the World Post-Covid: Alone at Sea?

By Veronica Burgstaller, a recent MA graduate from KU Leuven, Belgium in European Studies, where she focused in particular on European foreign affairs and Europe-Asia relations. She received a BA in International Studies from Leiden University with Chinese language. Previously she also lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for three years. As half Indonesian and half Austrian, she has spent most of her live between the two continents of Europe and Asia.

Even as the Covid Pandemic has literally forced countries to shut their doors to the outside world, politics still continues behind closed doors. With only 3% of the population having been vaccinated in Taiwan, a surge in cases in early summer this year have made vaccines into a politicized issue and left the government struggling to acquire more of them. Yet, despite assurances by Mainland China that there is no hidden agenda behind its offer to supply vaccines, the Tsai Ing-wen government has refused Beijing’s offer. Instead, it has relied on other donors. Japan and the US respectively sent 1.24 million and 750,000 doses to Taiwan, a move that has come under fire in Beijing.

In addition, Taiwan has started to develop its own Medigen vaccine which it began to administer in August. But the island has also received donations from more unlikely allies: Poland and Lithuania. This comes after Lithuania moved out of the 17+1 diplomatic framework between the EU and China, and decided to set up a representative office for Taiwan which led Beijing to recall its ambassador from Vilnius. This example of vaccine diplomacy is part of a much larger geopolitical strife that has sparked once more. These developments urge a revaluation of what the (near) future of Taiwan will be like and whether it is really the “most dangerous place on earth” as the much-cited article by the Economist in May pronounced.

Historical Mistake (or Not)?

It is always good to look back on history, especially recent history, for a better contextual understanding of contemporary crises. From the 1920s, the nationalist Kuomintang Party and the Communist Party vied for power until 1949, when the Kuomintang, led by the charismatic Chiang Kai-shek were pushed further and further back until Chiang was forced to flee to what is now called the Republic of China, or Taiwan. The relationship between Taipei and Beijing have since then been dictated by the ‘One China, Two Systems’ principle, a phrase quite equivocal, varying according to who is referred to under the name ‘One China’ – Taiwan or Mainland China.

In contemporary times, Taiwan is known as one of the strongest and most forward-looking democracies in Southeast Asia, most famous maybe as being the first country in the region to legalise same-sex marriage. However, one should also keep in mind, that the island was not always that democratic. Its citizens suffered under a long period of Martial Law, with harsh censorship which repressed several fundamental freedoms of expression, speech, assembly and so forth. In spite of this, Taiwan enjoyed a seat at the United Nations (UN) Security Council until 1971.

Nonetheless, developments on the other side of the globe, or the rise of the Soviet Union, turned Western powers into cats on hot bricks, causing them to side with what was then believed to be the lesser of the two evil – the Republic of China. However, even though China was Communist, by the 1960s it had fallen out with its closest ally, Moscow. With the goal of big China containing Russia, Taiwan was, without consulting its opinion, replaced by China at the UN. This decision has chartered the course of geopolitics in the region and the world at large. Since then and up until today, the West has yet to resolve it’s hate-dependency relationship with China. In the 1980s and 1990s many developed countries relied on China’s cheap exports. Now, countries depend on China not just for exports, but for cash too, with Beijing having become the world’s largest bilateral creditor.

The world needs China, but China may not need the world any longer. In recent years, China, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, has become more assertive about what it wants – the so-called “China Dream” – a vision of greater economic prosperity and military superiority. Developments have been more than worrying, considering the human rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang, the introduction of patriotic Xi Jinping thought in school curriculums, continuing crackdowns in the name of the so-called ‘fight against corruption’ and the blacklisting of high-profile actors such as Zhao Wei or Fan Bingbing for unknown reasons. And – coming back to Mainland China and Taiwan relations – the recent dispatchment of warplanes by Beijing into Taiwan’s’ defence zone and Xi Jinping’s open declaration that “reunification is a must.” This action has put into doubt whether the status quo of Taiwan’s situation can be safeguarded much longer.

The Future of Taiwan

History always provides lessons, but these lessons too often fall on deaf ears. For the world, Hong Kong has been a lesson. The Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement in 2019 which evolved from the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 has been a demonstration of the desperation of Hong Kong citizens to preserve democratic values. But the only contribution from the rest of the world was to view and replay their desperation on smart screens. In June 2020, Beijing enforced its will on Hong Kong and implemented the National Security Law. Since then, already 117 people have been arrested under the new law. Will this be the future of Taiwan too?

Both the US and individual EU countries have demonstrated greater solidarity with Taiwan. Trump might have been a leader whose populist policies and extreme narratives did not appeal to everyone, however, for Taiwan he was good news. Under Trump, The Taiwan Assurance Act was passed, which strengthened defence ties between the US and Taiwan. He was also the first president to accept a direct congratulatory call by Tsai Ing-wen when he assumed his presidency. So far, Biden is set to continue Trump’s legacy and in August, he approved arms sale to the island and resumed talks to go forward with a trade agreement – the Trade and Investment Framework Agreements (TIFA). The slow encroachment of Chinese influence through the Belt-and-Road initiative, a series of infrastructural and development investment in Eastern Europe, Africa, Central Asia, and other parts of the world, has also caused several eastern European countries, who are impacted more directly by the project than other EU countries, to rethink the benefits and disadvantages of closer relations with China.

As mentioned above, Lithuania’s actions have been badly received by Beijing. China-Taiwan relations are now at their lowest point in 40 years. There have been signs that both the EU and US will take more tangible steps to support Taiwan. However, with regards to the EU, it is yet to be determined whether it will stand in solidarity with some of its member states, or whether it will consider China as a more important player for its economic and political future. Equally, the US has not yet retracked its policy of strategic ambiguity, which allows it to maintain amiable relationship with China, while not excluding the possibility of defending Taiwan. Taiwan is not completely alone at sea yet. The international community will see if the various lifeboats surrounding the island will throw their buoys in time – preferably before democracy loses its fight to China.

Image Credit: https://www.eyeontaiwan.com/illustration-by-kyoko-nemotoasia-insighttaiwan-caught-in-us-china-diplomatic-crossfire

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