Is This Taiwan’s Moment?

Countries “are not backing down in the face of Chinese pressure” over the island, its foreign minister says.

Tsai Ing-wen waves to supporters.
Taiwan's Tsai Ing-wen won reelection in January 2020. (Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images)

Taiwanese media this week became enraptured by photos of prominent White House officials wearing surgical masks. Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s jack-of-all-trades son-in-law, sported one, as did National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany. The face coverings themselves didn’t drive the intrigue so much as what was imprinted in tiny block font on their bottom edge: Made in Taiwan.

Exactly how the masks reached Pennsylvania Avenue is unclear. The Washington Post reported that the National Security Council rushed to purchase them from Taiwan in mid-March, and the island is donating 100,000 each week to the United States through FEMA.

Origin story aside, the personal protective equipment marked another small but meaningful moment in Taiwan’s recent ascent in the geopolitical consciousness. Those three words emblazoned on the masks—largely unnoticed by anyone not looking for them or lacking a telephoto lens—were a form of political statement, proof that Taiwan’s recent barrage of health-care diplomacy was reaching the highest levels of the U.S. government. “For people here in Taiwan, we are very happy that face masks donated by Taiwan are being put to good use,” Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, told me in a phone interview from Taipei.

That use has been not just epidemiological, but diplomatic: A growing chorus of countries is calling for a change to Taiwan’s unusual diplomatic purgatory, a result of China’s claim to Taiwan and its insistence that other nations not deal with Taipei. Beijing’s view will be challenged soon, with members of the World Health Organization debating this month whether to resume allowing Taiwan to attend meetings as an observer. There is “light at the end of the tunnel,” Wu said, with more and more countries speaking up for Taiwan. “They are not backing down in the face of Chinese pressure.”

As China looks to grow its power by offering health and financial assistance to countries hit hard by the coronavirus, the outbreak has presented an opportunity for Taiwan to solidify itself as the antithesis of Beijing: a democratic and reliable international partner that, after controlling the virus at home, can assist governments as far afield, and as powerful, as America’s—despite Taipei’s exclusion from much of the international community’s formal workings. It has sought to demonstrate that moves to isolate the self-governing island are counterproductive. Indeed, the pandemic is shaping up to be a moment of global recognition for Taiwan.

Even before the pandemic, Taiwan was capitalizing on Beijing’s assertiveness. Buoyed by mass demonstrations in Hong Kong resulting from China’s tightening grip on the city, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen won reelection in January, capturing the largest vote total in the island’s history in a boisterous election that looked at times more like a street party than a political event. Two months later, when Beijing expelled a host of American journalists, Taiwan openly called for them to relocate to Taipei, touting its free press, an offer some have accepted.

A hotel in Taipei, Taiwan uses room lights to celebrate zero confirmed COVID-19 cases. (Ann Wang / Reuters)

When the coronavirus emerged from Wuhan, Taiwan moved quickly to head it off. Authorities seized on past experience from the 2003 SARS outbreak and leveraged the island’s strong technology sector to bring the virus under control without the draconian measures used in mainland China. With a population of 23 million—more than New York State—and only 110 miles from China, Taiwan has recorded 440 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and just seven deaths. The island has gone more than 30 days without a new locally transmitted infection.

After containing the virus at home, it pivoted to providing aid abroad, countering the unevenly received “mask diplomacy” deployed by Beijing, under the banner “Taiwan Can Help.” (Wu made a point of reminding me frequently during our conversation that the aid from Taiwan came with no strings attached.) Its deftness in dealing with the pandemic won effusive praise, and Wu described relations with the U.S. as being at a historic high, but it has also brought attention to the island’s diplomatic quagmire.

Viewed as a rogue province by Beijing, Taiwan—formally known as the Republic of China—is a geopolitical anomaly, an outsider gazing in longingly at the structures of the international community. This awkward position is most pronounced in its absence from the United Nations, which regards the government of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing as speaking for the island, even though it has never controlled Taiwan. This position was cemented in October 1971, when Taiwan was expelled from the UN and the seat allocated to China on the Security Council was taken over by the government of Mao Zedong. In the years since, as it has grown in clout, Beijing has used its position to block Taiwan’s efforts to participate in the global body and its organizations, including the WHO.

Taiwan’s status has led to a series of bizarre interactions involving international organizations. In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, staff of the International Civil Aviation Organization blocked individuals on Twitter who pointed out or questioned Taiwan’s exclusion from the body. Then, in March, a WHO adviser appeared to hang up during a Skype interview with a Hong Kong reporter for RTHK when asked about Taiwan. After the clip gained substantial traction on social media and additional media coverage, the WHO said it was distorted by editing. RTHK has denied the claim.

Spurred by Taiwan’s handling of the coronavirus, however, a host of countries including the U.S., Japan, and New Zealand have called for it to be allowed to participate in the WHO and observe next week’s World Health Assembly, the group’s decision-making body. Taiwan participated as an observer at WHA meetings from 2009 to 2016 under the name Chinese Taipei, a special arrangement that was agreed to during the administration of Tsai’s more China-friendly predecessor. The more recent call for it to rejoin the talks was fiercely opposed by Beijing, which has reacted with anger at countries that have supported the island.

Wu admitted it was highly unlikely that Taiwan would be able to attend the WHA meeting, which begins Monday. “The World Health Organization, especially the secretariat … seems to have very close connections with the Chinese authorities,” he told me, adding that Beijing was deploying “stunts” to keep Taiwan out. (A WHO lawyer said this week that the organization’s director-general has “no mandate” to invite Taiwan and it must be decided instead by member states. Wu called the statement “baloney.”)

Beijing’s pressure campaign has been directed not just at countries supporting Taiwan, but the island itself. A series of articles and comments from Chinese officials and think tanks have in recent days debated the merits of taking over Taiwan by force, while the world is distracted by the coronavirus. Shortly before I spoke with Wu, a U.S. warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait, which separates the island from China, the sixth such passage this year. “There are conflicting signals coming out of China,” Wu told me. “The talk-tough type of rhetoric has been on the rise, but at the same time we also see a couple of [Chinese military] leaders saying that this is not the right time to take military actions against Taiwan … What we see across the Taiwan Strait is that China is increasing its presence and military threat against Taiwan.”

It is this type of activity, Wu said, that necessitated the sale of arms to Taiwan from the U.S., a recurring cause of tension between Beijing and Washington but one that Trump has authorized. Wu also credited senior American officials for frequently speaking out in favor of Taiwan. In the lead-up to November’s election, China appears to be a central theme for Trump and the Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. Both have accused each other of being weak on China, with Biden highlighting Trump’s seesawing statements that move between praising Chinese President Xi Jinping and shifting blame to Beijing.

Taiwan, Wu said, was enjoying bipartisan support in Washington, something he expected to continue. “In the last couple of years, we see that the majority of people in Washington, D.C., the majority of the policy community, the majority of the members of the Hill are supportive of Taiwan,” Wu said. “We enjoy support from both sides of the aisle, so we feel very comfortable that even if there is going to be a change of administration in Washington, D.C., I’m very sure that our relations with the United States will continue to be very good.”

Still, the support of the U.S., while welcome, remains informal. The American government does not officially recognize Taiwan, and countries that do have been in short supply since Tsai took office in 2016. In September, prior to her reelection, the Solomon Islands switched its diplomatic allegiance to Beijing. Days later, the Pacific nation of Kiribati did the same, leaving Taiwan with just over a dozen countries with which it maintains diplomatic relations. Wu said it was difficult to watch former allies embrace Beijing, arguing that many were not doing so because of any strategic reasoning, but because “China is putting cash directly in the pockets of dirty politicians.” Some of those countries, he said, were experiencing regrets over their decisions, finding that Beijing’s “rosy promises are empty promises.”

After initially declining to name specific countries, Wu said that the Dominican Republic, which broke with Taiwan in May 2018, appeared to be cooling on China, and there were some very early signals that some there would like to see it switch allegiances again. The Caribbean island has historical ties to Taiwan—immigrants from there and Hong Kong began arriving in the 1980s to establish businesses and manufacturing plants.

When the Dominican Republic cut ties with Taiwan, Reuters reported that China offered billions of dollars in investments to encourage the switch. Over the past three years, “many people have started missing Taiwan because the Chinese authorities are not doing any type of proper assistance to this country,” Wu told me. “What they see is there is a new boss that is dictating the country around, and they don’t feel comfortable over this.”