China and Taiwan: The ‘One-China’ Policy and the Controversy of ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’

Written by Daouda Cissé.

Image credit: Chinese flag with Covid-19 vaccine by Marco Verch Professional Photographer/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, China has exerted its influence at home and abroad through providing personal protective equipment (PPE), masks, medical equipment and so on. Due to its capacity to manufacture such equipment based on its past experience to survive other pandemics, it seems that China was a bit more prepared than other countries to face the Covid-19 pandemic. Even though China has contributed to assisting other countries in acquiring health equipment and material and getting vaccines to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic through the so-called mask diplomacy and vaccine diplomacy, Chinese officials are also using their comparative and competitive advantages to exert power, politics and diplomacy over its adversaries or allies.

While China has been in close ties with its allies during the pandemic to help overcome its deadly consequences, the political and diplomatic rhetoric of the ‘One-China’ policy that stipulates the recognition of one China is being used against Taiwan and its allies in the race to acquire vaccines. Like in its role in distributing PPE and masks globally, China also contributes to providing its vaccines to its allies and partners, particularly developing countries where Chinese officials are expanding soft power through its vaccine diplomacy. 

However, the story is different for Taiwan and its diplomatic allies as China uses its ‘One-China’ policy to prevent them from acquiring Covid-19 vaccines from Chinese and other manufacturers globally. 

Politics and Diplomacy at the Heart of COVID-19 Vaccines between China and Taiwan

After enjoying a whole year and half of a quasi-normalcy (while many countries were counting dozens of thousands of cases and deaths daily) due to managing to prevent and contain the spread of the virus on the island, Taiwan has recently noticed a surge of Covid-19 cases and deaths. Daily infections have reached a few hundred (300-500 cases on average) compared to a few cases from March 2020 to the first half of May 2021. Such a surge has created panic and fear among the Taiwanese population. Thus, even though there is no lockdown or curfew, many abide by the government’s restrictive measures. Alongside the spike in Covid-19 cases, the death toll is nearing a total of 200 now.

Many health experts and observers in Taiwan and abroad link such a surge in Covid-19 related cases and deaths to the delay for the island to acquire vaccines for its population. As the pandemic was not severe in Taiwan until recently, Taiwanese officials were not in a hurry to get vaccines. The same mindset has also prevailed among the Taiwanese population for the same reasons. However, alongside popular rhetoric and comments, politics and diplomacy matter a lot between China and Taiwan on the one hand and China and Taiwan and their allies or adversaries on the other hand. 

While the ‘One-China’ policy has been used again by China to prevent Taiwan from acquiring vaccines from Chinese as well as global vaccines manufacturers, Taiwanese officials also expressed concerns about the trust and quality of China’s vaccines that they are reluctant to get. The recent surge has opened windows for Taiwan to reconsider China’s vaccines to protect its most vulnerable populations that may be more exposed and affected if they contract Covid-19; by expressing their willingness to deal directly with Chinese vaccines’ suppliers. But China has refused such a proposal.

On the margins of the political and diplomatic battle between China and Taiwan, Paraguay, as one of Taiwan’s allies, has also considered not getting Chinese vaccines which they said come with strings attached based on the ‘One-China’ policy. Paraguay has previously turned to China to acquire vaccines at affordable prices and reliable production and distribution capacity but did not pursue it. China seeks to use its vaccine diplomacy as a stepping-stone for Taiwan’s allies to switch allegiance. Undoubtedly, Chinese officials also promote short-and long-term economic gains that may come with such an allegiance to China by Taiwan’s allies, particularly given the worst economic crisis the pandemic has created.

Honduras, another Taiwan’s ally, has raised concerns about the lack of assistance from Taiwan to acquire vaccines and even threatened to end its diplomatic ties with the island. Its officials have mentioned that China has been assisting its partners and not Taiwan. To ease such diplomatic tensions and not for Taiwan to lose another ally to China’s detriment, the United States stated that it would share its vaccines excess with several developing countries, including Paraguay and Honduras. Even though this event is not without direct and indirect interests for the United States, the Biden administration stated that such a gesture is about saving lives and not gaining favours. Following on the United States’ path, Japan has recently shared 1.2 million Covid-19 vaccines with Taiwan.

Health First and Politics After

As countries are looking for various and diverse alternatives to acquire vaccines to fight against Covid-19, politics and geopolitics affect peoples’ lives. There is a need to hold leaders accountable as the global fight against the pandemic and the world economic recovery is lagging. In the case of China and Taiwan, China keeps on exerting power over Taiwan as well as its allies for political, diplomatic and economic influence and uses that as leverage. In this regard, China has earlier condemned Germany and Japan in their then attempts to offer assistance to Taiwan to secure its vaccines supplies as only about 3% of its population have been vaccinated so far. 

Taiwan’s officials stated that the island only received 900,000 out of the 20 million ordered vaccines. The ‘One-China’ policy drives the difficulty for Taiwan to acquire vaccines from abroad and secure the safety of its population through the new surge of Covid-19 cases and deaths. Taiwan’s most close allies (the United States, EU, Canada and Australia, for instance) could play a role in facilitating Taiwan’s access to vaccines. However, the already complicated relations that they currently have with China over several issues: the Uighurs’ situation in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan itself on the one hand and economic, political and diplomatic tensions, on the other hand, did not help accelerate the Taiwanese population’s access to vaccines.

When politics and geopolitics matter the most in many countries’ relations (including between China and Taiwan), the fight against the pandemic is far from being tackled, and most of the world population’s health is at risk with high possibilities of the rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus and its variants. Both China and Taiwan must put health and safety over their political tensions.  Unfortunately, this does not seem to happen, and at least for now, politics prevails more than their populations’ safety, health and security during the deadly pandemic. Political tensions over health and safety priorities have added to heated debates among Taiwan’s population about Chinese officials’ controversial political and diplomatic attitudes, mainly channelled through the ‘One-China’ policy.

Daouda Cissé is a Canada based researcher. He is currently a visiting scholar at the National Chengchi University in Taipei through Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) fellowship programme. His research explores China’s domestic and overseas political economy with a particular focus on Africa-China relations.

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