Taiwan’s Mask Diplomacy and the International Responses

Written by Najee Woods.

Image credit: 20200407_taiwanscreencovid by Prachatai /Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

COV-19 has changed the global order as we know it. This deadly Coronavirus, first found in Wuhan, China, approx. 394k patients have died, while the Coronavirus infected another 6.4 million. While the world is engulfed in this pandemic, one nation has stepped up its humanitarian aid and provided a light of hope to the world, Taiwan. The Taiwanese government has taken up the mantle and provided an essential piece of cloth to combat COV-19: surgical masks.

In the beginning stages of COV-19, Taiwan’s mask supply was not enough to generously donate to other countries. The Taiwanese government initially banned exporting face masks when COV-19 was at its peak in East Asia. The reasoning behind this decision was because Taiwan could only manufacture approx. 1.88 million masks per day in late January. The low amount of mask supplies in Taiwan, led to the Tsai Administration implementing a mask rationing system, which not only equally distributed masks to citizens but also prevented certain individuals from hoarding Taiwan’s mask supply.

Since late January, Taiwan has ramped up its mask production from 1.88 million to 20 million masks a day. This was only possible due to Taiwan setting up additional production lines within a short period. With a steady amount of mask supply in Taiwan, this has allowed the government to begin donating face masks to countries hardest hit by the Coronavirus. Taiwan has also become the second-largest mask producer in the entire world, only behind the People’s Republic of China.

In early April, President Tsai Ing-wen announced that the nation would donate 10 million masks to nations in need, particularly to the United States and European countries. These countries being the two hardest hit by COV-19. The news was welcomed by both the governments of the United States and the Europe Union. The U.S. Department of State lauded Taiwan for being a true friend in a time of need, while the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen personally thanked Taiwan via her official Twitter account.

The American Institute of Taiwan, which represents U.S.-Taiwan ties in the absence of official diplomatic relations, signed an additional agreement with Taiwan. This agreement stipulated that Taiwan would donate 100,000 masks per week to the United States. To date, Taiwan has donated more than 10 million masks to the world. Such recipients of Taiwan’s generosity include European nations, Japan, Canada and other countries. Hence, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry has said they would assist companies in exporting micro surgical face mask factories overseas. Needless to say, the Taiwanese mask has become a hot commodity.

On the other hand, the international community has become suspicious over the PRC’s role in covering up the COV-19 outbreak. To save its already damaged global image, Beijing has decided to conduct its own form of mask diplomacy to win back political legitimacy. However, Spain, Australia, Netherlands and turkey have reportedly returned Chinese manufactured masks, citing masks were defective and did not meet medical safety standards. To make matters worse, reports have been surfacing that Huawei have been donating masks in an attempt to persuade countries to allow the Chinese tech giant to participate in developing 5G networks in various countries.

Taiwanese surgical masks have now helped the nation gain more global recognition and develop its humanitarian image. Indeed, ‘Made in Taiwan’ masks and the hashtag #TaiwanCanHelp may have paved the way for Taiwan’s voice being heard in the international arena.

So far, Taiwan has received unprecedented praise from the international community, which has translated into more global support for Taiwan gaining observer status within the World Health Organization. Even though Taiwan was not invited to the annual World Health Assembly for the 4th straight year, nations such as Germany, New Zealand and Australia—who previously didn’t publicly support Taiwan—have publicly backed Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO as an observer. That is a diplomatic win for Taiwan. As more nations continue to learn more about Taiwan’s contributions, it could potentially open the doors for forming a clear consensus on Taiwanese international participation, without political obstruction from Beijing.

Najee J Woods (葉忠正), a graduate of Wright State University with two bachelor’s degree’s in Political Science and Chinese Studies. He’s currently a writer for American Citizen’s For Taiwan and a member of Formosan Association for Public Affairs. This article is part of the special issue on Taiwan’s international participation.

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