COVID-19: A turning point for the geopolitical status of Taiwan
Source: zydeaosika

Since the last confrontation, tensions are still present between the communists on mainland China and the nationalists on the islander province, Taiwan. Much of the friction has been created by the history between the two states over the governance of the province.

The island of Taiwan has become a parliamentary democracy. The government is largely composed of members from the Nationalist Party called the ‘Guomindang’. This is led by President Tsai Ing-wen who was elected in 2016. 

Despite China’s refusal to recognise Taiwan as a state, the island has expanded considerably on the global economic stage. It has become a succeeding threat for the People’s Republic of China, along with other countries who share strong economic and political ties with the island.

In the past, Taiwan progressively increased its specialisation towards high value-added products. They have done this through companies like Foxcom or Pegatron, that take part in the broader assembly of iPhones. This enabled Taiwan’s foreign trade for goods and services to increase by 7.8% in 2018 and reach $725bn (123%) of the gross domestic product ($589 bn).

Moreover, Taiwan became one of the most important exporters globally. In 2018, exports of goods and services in the island increased by 5.5%. This is thanks to strong external demand for electronic components, metals, chemicals, and plastic products.

Even if Taiwan has gained prestige on the world economic stage, the pathway to global recognition is still long. In 2009, the island was granted observer status at the world health assembly, to help prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus. 

But in 2016, following a Chinese veto caused by the election of a president against the ‘One China’ policy, Taiwan was excluded from international meetings. Since then, the island has struggled to find its place on the international stage. 

Today, Taiwan’s geopolitical future can be envisioned in three different ways. This is: Taiwan gaining independence, China regaining complete control of the island, or the state remaining in the current status quo called an independence de facto.  

So, how did the COVID-19 crisis crystallise the tensions surrounding Taiwan’s geopolitical status? And how might this crisis affect Taiwan’s unstable and uncertain situation?

The current questioning of Taiwan’s geopolitical status by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other countries amidst the COVID-19 crisis

In December 2019, the coronavirus (COVID-19), a disease which appeared in Wuhan, China, began to spread at an incredible rate, through fluids exchanges such as spittle.

Ultimately, the virus generated more than 440.290 deaths worldwide by late June 2020. 

In March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic. They urged countries to instate social distancing as well as a national lockdown everywhere in the world, to stop the spreading of the deadly disease. 

However, at less than 200 kilometres off the coast of China, on the island of Taiwan, an official report of March 2020 shows only seven deaths out of the 23 million people living there and the 440 people infected with the disease. 

These results find an explanation with Taiwan’s highly efficient management of the pandemic. The decisions made on the island were strongly influenced by the deadly outbreak of the SARS COVID-2 in 2003.

The strategy adopted by the Taiwanese government in February 2020 was to suspend all inbound flights from China. Alongside this was the obligation to wear masks on public transport. 

In addition to these drastic measures, the government had organised the distribution of 9 masks per person every three weeks. They had also created a contagion tracking system that gave information and instructions to the Taiwanese people. 

The main highlight of Taiwan’s management of the COVID-19 was that no lockdown was imposed on the population. This meant the fundamental liberties of the nation were kept intact. 

The strategy undertaken by Taiwan was applauded by the WHO and by multiple countries, like the USA and the United Kingdom.

However, what enabled Taiwan to develop a strong argument on the international stage for their eventual independence was the mask diplomacy rather than the actual management of the COVID-19.

In addition to producing 15 million masks a day, Taiwan has also sent the surplus of their production to countries around the world. This was sent alongside medical supplies like frontal thermometers, thermal imaging cameras, and respirators.

Although Taiwan is not the only country to have used such diplomacy, it is the only country that was ignored by WHO when it blew the whistle on the virus spreading. 

In the USA, a wave of support in favour of Taiwan has been growing as pictured in The New York Times with an ad published on 14th April 2020. It read: “In time of isolation, we choose solidarity. You are not alone. Taiwan is with you.”

The mask diplomacy is a real blow for Beijing who wants to be seen as the doctor of the world. However, in reality, Beijing cannot contain the epidemic on their territory. 

Countries in desperate needs are turning their back on China’s help and seeking arrangements with other countries such as Taiwan.  

Taiwan’s position during this crisis is unique, temporary, and possibly beneficial for the future of its geopolitical role on the world stage.

In early May 2020, due to pressures from the U.S and Canada, WHO organised a vote to possibly grant back the observer status to Taiwan. This decision was a huge win for the national democratic government of Taiwan, who wanted to get back in the world health assembly as an observer for years. 

The foreseeable future of Taiwan’s geopolitical status due to the outbreak of the COVID-19

In June 2020, Taiwan decided to postpone their request for the vote of the observer status at the world health assembly at WHO. 

The Taiwanese government judged that the management of the COVID-19 crisis was more important than a political vote. This was especially because the vote could be stopped again due to China’s strong influence, given they are WHO’s second-largest contributor.

Although Taiwan’s future within WHO is uncertain, the outcome of the geopolitical status of the state can be assumed. The islander province will be stuck in a status quo that can only evolve in either independence, or a full Chinese takeover of Taiwan. 

It is important to recall that the Republic of China (Taiwan) meets the criteria of a state according to 1933 Montevideo convention. They are a defined territory, a permanent population and a Government exercising effective authority over that territory and population.

However, that definition doesn’t make Taiwan an independent state. Equally, it also doesn’t mean that the island of Taiwan belongs to the People’s Republic of China.

In today’s geopolitical stage, the island of Taiwan is a key location for the People’s Republic of China. This is due to simultaneously strategic, economic, and emotional importance.   

The “Century of humiliation” has become one of the main reasons why China will not allow Taiwan to exist as a separate sovereign nation.

This century is the period in which the Empire of China was subjugated by the Western powers, Russia and Japan. It is also the century in which the city of Hong Kong was ceded to the British Empire and the Opium War took place. After this period, the Chinese government pledged never to cede territory again.

Another point that can also be raised is that if China were to let Taiwan become an independent entity, multiple other islands or provinces like Tibet or Xinjiang could want to claim their independence  as well.

The importance of Taiwan for the Chinese government comes down to defence purposes. 

The island of Taiwan is the most important threat to Chinese coastal cities, partly due to the fact that Beijing can be reached in only four hours by US missiles stored in Taiwan.

Moreover, between Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, and Xiamen, a metropolis of the Fujian province, there are 356 kilometres. Multiple ways of transportations such as train, plane and buses were created to connect both cities. These led to a large economic trade between the two cities.

The outbreak of the Coronavirus has opened the door to many unanswered questions about Taiwan, such as worldwide recognition of the island. Only time will help clarify the complicated and ancient situation between China and Taiwan.

The friction between the two state seems to be getting more and more complicated due to the increase in numbers of the demonstrations launched by Hong Kong in 2019. This could incite the Taiwanese citizens in desperate need of independence, to rebel against the authority of the Chinese state, and reject the policy of “One country, two systems”.

At the dawn of a second wave of infection by the coronavirus, it is important to find a working solution for all. Although Taiwan’s geopolitical status is uncertain and will most likely not change, the island’s answer to the virus needs recognition despite the illegitimacy of the government.