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Taiwan’s Political Pandemic

Mar 26, 2020
  • Tian Feilong

    Associate Professor, the Law School of Beihang University

Taiwan has interacted frequently with the United States government and media during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was the swift approval of the Taipei Act of 2019, the political motion for Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization, the U.S. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (which designates Taiwan as a country) and corresponding principles in the latest AIT statement on U.S.-Taiwan anti-pandemic cooperation.

These maneuvers are international political challenges and incremental breakthroughs the U.S. and Taiwan have engineered to take advantage of the window of opportunity provided by the pandemic. They actively damage both Chinese sovereignty and international law.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic and in step with its spread, multiple levels of international political gaming have unfolded between China and the U.S. Cross-strait  relations and U.S.-Taiwan relations are one important dimension.

In China-U.S. relations, the Taiwan issue is a strategic pivot point and point of contention: Taiwan is a part of the Chinese sovereign order and a staging base for the country’s maritime maneuvers and the building of a community with a shared future for humanity. It is also part of the first island chain and Cold War system used by the U.S. to contain China, and a pivot point in the western Pacific for the U.S. democratic values alliance, which is portrayed as a beacon of freedom in Asia.

Taiwan’s status under international law is also an increasingly prominent topic in the U.S. Congress and often referred to as a democracy. It follows that Taiwan has played a role in the China-U.S. trade war, the East China Sea and South China Sea disputes and in the political wrangling during the ongoing pandemic.

Against the macro backdrop of the China-U.S. competition for global power, U.S.-Taiwan relations show a tendency of continually breaking through the previous “one China” bottom line. As the U.S. has identified the Chinese mainland as a major threat, all strategic resources conducive to the containment of China will become its chessmen. Taiwan’s long-term chessmanization is an important component of America’s China strategy. Under these circumstances, the U.S. show of political goodwill to Taiwan by means of anti-pandemic cooperation is an act of strategic consolidation aimed at luring Taiwan to confront the mainland and bind it further onto the U.S. bandwagon for confronting China.      

Taiwan has further affirmed a basis in public opinion for separatism following the Jan. 11 presidential elections. It has adopted a dual-track pro-U.S./anti-China strategy, adjusted its foreign policy thinking after repeated frustrations in diplomatic gaming with the mainland and shifted focus to “substantial” diplomatic ties with the U.S. and Japan.

The outcome of the by-election of the Kuomintang chairman reflected the party’s indigenization and pro-U.S. inclinations. The 1992 Consensus and the idea of “one country, two systems” have lost political traction on the island. The Taipei Act of 2019 passed by the U.S. Congress indicates that U.S. authorities and Taiwan have reached a basic consensus on guaranteeing diplomatic and international space for the island.

Anti-pandemic cooperation is a supportive move by the U.S. to help Taiwan gain a seat at the table in international health cooperation and governance. Utilizing the pandemic to break through the “one China” bottom line and seek international status is a set policy of Taiwan authorities, the implications of which include two aspects.

The first is using its vulnerable position and identity to seek international support for its participation in the WHO, which consists of sovereign states. But this effort directly contradicts existing UN resolutions and China’s principled stance against it. Nor is it consistent with WHO rules on membership qualifications and actions. Hence, a substantive breakthrough is unlikely at this point.

At the same time, overseas propaganda and lobbying may boost Taiwan’s sense of international status.

Second is using the pandemic’s public welfare patina to achieve breakthrough progress in relations with the U.S. The latest American Institute in Taiwan statement shows that lobbying by Taiwan has made certain progress. The U.S. has upgraded Taiwan’s international status to that of a “quasi-ally” and offered it cooperation and support.

Such breakthroughs in U.S.-Taiwan ties is a gradual and extremely dangerous process, which inflicts lasting damage on Chinese sovereignty and national interests and further amplifies the difficulty of peaceful reunification.

Taiwan-related legislation in the U.S. has pressed constantly ahead. It has repeatedly broken through the “one China” principle that was a prerequisite to the establishment of China-U.S. diplomatic relations. China has maintained vigilance and restraint, but the U.S. hasn’t stopped, and instead has dangerously pushed the envelope time and again.

Second, following past routine, the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices issued by the U.S. State Department, lists Taiwan separately as an independent  “democracy/country,” along with China, which indicates that the U.S. adherence to the one-China policy has drifted away and morphed into “one China, two representatives,” which is inconsistent with the political basis of the establishment of China-U.S. diplomatic relations.

Nor is it consistent with international law established by UN resolutions, and therefore constitute dual challenges to Chinese sovereignty and the order of international law.

Third, in violation of WHO guidelines for epidemic control, the AIT statement again explicitly uses the label “Wuhan virus,” which stigmatizes China. Taiwan has expressed no disagreement, and has even actively embraced it, displaying ignorance about the WHO policy guidelines and blind obedience to U.S. policy and interests —so much so that the concept was widely adopted by the mainstream media in Taiwan in the early days.

This reflects the tacit consensuses the U.S. and Taiwan have achieved in the war of public opinion, giving some ammunition to the diplomatic wrangling against China.

Fourth, multiple rounds of elections and democratic consolidations after Taiwan’s democratization have helped support the notion of Taiwan independence. Localism permeates every corner of public discourse.  Witch-hunting with regard to the 1992 Consensus is taking a ride on the populist atmosphere, resulting in tyranny of the majority.

The refusal of offers of peaceful reunification of the two sides of the Taiwan strait, merciless political persecution and retrospective judicial punishment of pro-reunification forces on the island have reduced all options to only one — Taiwan independence and a high risk of cross-strait conflict.

U.S.-Taiwan anti-pandemic cooperation appears to be in line with Taiwan’s present diplomatic and public health interests, but it is a dangerous step toward China-U.S. confrontation and cross-strait conflict.

To sum up, both China-U.S. relations and U.S.-Taiwan relations are undergoing a test and restructuring as a result of the global health crisis. U.S. policy choices have international strategic considerations: America may abandon Taiwan at some critical juncture, which is the rationale of “chessman politics.” It’s an opportunistic risk Taiwan can’t escape.

Yet Taiwan’s excessively pro-U.S. policies do serious harm to its own fundamental interests, as well as to the long-term interests of public health.

First, in the global anti-pandemic campaign, the mainland’s advanced experience, substantial aid to other countries and global pandemic control efforts in collaboration with the WHO are precious practical resources. Taiwan’s disregard of these, as well as its rampant stigmatization of the mainland — is a kind of anti-intellectual political orientation.

Second, on the matter of charter flights for Taiwan compatriots wanting to return to the island, Taiwan authorities have created layer after layer of barricades that only damage Taiwan compatriots’ interests but also sabotage precious opportunities for cross-strait anti-pandemic collaboration — not to mention repairing broken ties. The pandemic has been wantonly politicized.

Third, the long-term interests of public health in Taiwan  rest not on sporadic, condescending gifts from the U.S. or its patronage, but on the legitimate international law that allows Taiwan to participate in WHO activities in accordance with set conventions on the basis of peaceful development of cross-strait relations.

Taiwan has sacrificed substance for shadow and created long-standing loopholes in the island’s public health prevention and control regime in the era of globalization. This also does direct harm to the fundamental welfare of the Taiwan public.

Fourth, the COVID-19 pandemic will completely alter the geographical pattern of globalization and economic operations. The Chinese mainland will become the most vibrant and attractive economic space and development engine, while Taiwan’s retrograde choices on anti-pandemic cooperation and cross-strait ties will harm its economic and social interests in the long run.

Incremental breakthroughs in U.S.-Taiwan relations and acceleration of political localism and separatism in Taiwan may very well become a critical incentive for cross-straits conflict as China acts in favor its own strategic interests.

Structural change in the geopolitical order of East Asia will present both tests and opportunities for China’s maritime maneuvers and promotion of the building of a community with a shared future. 

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