The People’s Republic of China and Taiwan both have the word “China” in their names – the latter’s official name is the Republic of China. But that’s where the similarities end: The two countries have been embroiled in a bitter geopolitical conflict, which came to a head when the coronavirus crisis hit the globe.
The main point of contention is whether the island nation of Taiwan is a sovereign state or a breakaway province – a claim heavily and bitterly disputed by both sides. The latter, in particular, is a stance that China has played to its advantage, starting from Taiwan’s exclusion from the United Nations in 1971 to having the nation compete as “Chinese Taipei” at the Olympics.
In recent times, China has increased its anti-Taiwanese rhetoric, in part, because of the election – and subsequent re-election – of pro-independence hardliner Tsai Ing-wen as president of Taiwan. When Tsai rolled out measures to block China’s “one country, two systems” framework for political unification with the island, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson An Fengshan accused Tsai of “harming the interest of both sides to progress.”
Health authorities in China first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) the presence of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan on Dec. 31, 2019 – despite infections cropping up in the city as early as November.
Taiwan, however, was locked out of the conversation, the latest in a string of moves from Beijing to oppose the country’s inclusion to the global health agency. This effectively meant that the island nation had to contain the outbreak without official help from WHO or other international bodies.
According to Chou Jih-haw, chief of Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control, the government had written to both the WHO and China as early as Dec. 31 to ask whether the new outbreak had human-to-human transmission; an inquiry that wasn’t answered.
That same day, the government began screening passengers flying in from Wuhan. On Jan. 2, the country established a coronavirus response team. This move won plaudits from public health experts around the world, saying that it allowed Taiwan to effectively control the spread of the virus.
While the WHO was busy praising China for its “increased capacity to manage new outbreaks,” saying that the novel coronavirus does not transmit readily between people, Taiwan concluded otherwise. It stated that the virus was far more dangerous than initially assumed and that it was highly capable of human-to-human transmission.
It’s worth noting that during this time, China flew bombers around the island – a move that prompted Tsai to scramble warplanes – and made it significantly harder for Taiwan to evacuate its residents from Wuhan. Despite these hurdles, the country was well-prepared to respond to its first COVID-19 patient on Jan. 21.
Taking notes from its bungled approach to the 2003 SARS outbreak, the country activated its Central Epidemic Command Center, which implemented quarantines and conducted drills at hospitals. The country also banned the export of masks and ramped up their production, which meant that people would be able to buy surgical masks.
It was only at this time that the WHO recognized that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission in Wuhan. By the time the WHO recognized the severity of COVID-19 and declared it a public health emergency, there were already over 9,000 confirmed cases worldwide.
Despite the kneecapping from both WHO and China, Taiwan proved competent when it came to handling the crisis. As of May 2, the island nation only had 429 confirmed COVID-19 cases and six deaths – no small feat for an island just over 110 miles off the coast of mainland China.
Taiwan’s recent success in handling the coronavirus outbreak has earned praise from health experts around the world, and attracted powerful friends.
Beijing ramped up its efforts to win over the European Union by sending medical teams and test kits. But their efforts, a mix of soft power policy, political messaging and aid shipments – which it calls mask diplomacy – provoked a backlash, from Israel banning the use of Chinese-made testing kits to reports of subpar medical masks.
In addition, medical equipment purchased by Spain, the Netherlands and Turkey from private Chinese companies turned out faulty.
When Taipei sent masks to the EU, on the other hand, it got this tweet from no less than EU President Ursula von der Leyen:
The European Union thanks Taiwan for its donation of 5.6 million masks to help fight the #coronavirus. We really appreciate this gesture of solidarity. This global virus outbreak requires international solidarity & cooperation. Acts like this show that we are #StrongerTogether.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) April 1, 2020
When asked about von der Leyen’s tweet, EU foreign affairs spokesperson Virginie Battu-Henrikson said that it still recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China.
“The EU promotes practical solutions regarding Taiwan’s participation in international frameworks wherever this is consistent with the EU’s ‘One China’ policy and the EU’s policy objectives,” she added. Most analysts and EU officials agree: While it appears unlikely that governments would favor Taiwan over China, it does create the potential for more informal diplomacy in the months ahead.
In fact, Taiwan has found its partner in the EU in the Czech Republic; the two inked a formal partnership for fighting COVID-19 in April. The central European country has long been in China’s crosshairs, thanks to Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib, who has managed to infuriate both Chinese and Russian authorities over his recent policies. In particular, Hrib has called China out for its persecution of the Uyghurs and for “hiding the facts” about the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. has also voiced its support for Taiwan’s participation in the WHO, following its successful response to COVID-19 – drawing sharp criticism from China. In a tweet, the U.S. Mission to the UN pushed for the inclusion of Taiwan to the global organization, saying that barring the country is an “affront to UN principles.”
In response, a spokesperson for China’s UN Mission called the tweet a serious violation of the General Assembly resolution – the same one that ousted Taiwan – and the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“There is only one China in the world. The government of the People’s Republic China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China,” the unnamed spokesperson said.
But if Taiwan plays its cards right, it might just change this narrative.
According to data from Johns Hopkins University Saturday, since it emerged from the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, the coronavirus has infected over 3.3 million people and caused 237,796 deaths worldwide.
More of the latest news about the COVID-19 outbreak at Pandemic.news.