TI Viral Politics: Taiwan, China, and Covid vaccination

Written by Ian Inkster.

Image credit: Corona Virus Vaccination by The Focal Project/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

On 28 May, just after the Taiwanese authorities had apparently rejected outright Beijing’s offer to supply Covid 19 vaccines to Taiwan, Hsiao Bi-khim was urgently requesting from the USA ‘access to safe and effective vaccines.’ By 3 June, we knew that Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines had been approved by both WHO and Covax Facility for distribution to other nations, that many millions of vaccines have been sent out from China to Africa and Asia, and that whatever the political interpretation, these vaccines were offered early to Taiwan free of charge.

With the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi using the important BRICS talks to strongly criticise ‘hoarding’ by nations such as the UK or the USA, Taiwan was caught in a complex global web partly of its own making.This cannot last.

This picture of Taiwan relying on the USA whilst rejecting Chinese vaccine help is a typical one. Perhaps it was initially partly justifiable in terms of doubts about the efficacy and provenance of China’s vaccines and the mainland’s insidious political motivations. But that, of course, is part of a much broader regional tension that has existed on and off since 1949 and certainly since China replaced Taiwan in the United Nations on 25 October 1971 (UN resolution2758).

It may be an understandable dilemma. It can be deconstructed and overhauled, examined and criticised. But above all, it is unfortunate and dangerous. Taiwan is potentially more in danger from Covid 19 and its new variants (now seemingly including Delta) than it is from mainland China. This, however, should not be exaggerated, and panic should not be used as an excuse for hasty actions.

Most estimates are that at the time of the Chinese vaccine offer, Taiwan had vaccinated less than 0.5% of its population against Covid 19, compared to a world average of around 10%. These are figures based on at least one vaccination jab by 27 May. Within East Asia, China claimed (on and off) a figure of around 30%, whilst Singapore was first place with over 36%, leading South Korea with 8% and Hong Kong with 17%. But this was and is no game. With its vaccination rate of around 60%, the USA is managing to beat down its overall Covid levels, reducing the per capita incidence of rates and mortality of Covid within its shores. Britain is all but dancing in vaccine triumph.

In terms of new cases per million of the population (for 26 May), the world figure was 71, equal to that of the USA, Europe reached 80, while China claimed an extreme low of 0.10, Hong Kong 0.17, Japan 36, South Korea 12, Singapore 6, Taiwan 21. So, on these figures, Taiwan and Japan were suffering most from new cases within East Asia, but the region was and is still generally far better off in terms of new cases than the rest of the world.

In terms of mortality, new deaths per million for 26 May were around only 1 for the world at large, 2 for Europe, nearly 2 for the USA but below 1 for all East Asia. Perhaps these official figures put things in more perspective despite the fear of ‘spikes’ and new dangers from new variants of the Covid 19 virus.

However, the most recent reliable information suggests that the notion of a spike needs to be seriously questioned – it is as much a figment of western media verbosity as a sustained phenomenon. And such commotion spreads as easily as the virus. By 2 June, the entirety of East Asia recorded only 3,826 new cases, with Taiwan ranking 70 amongst 222 nations or entities ranked in the global database. For new covid mortality during the ‘spike’ itself, East Asia in total numbered 109, compared to 126 for Malaysia or 514 for the USA. It might be recalled that Malaysia has been a model of low Covidity for many months, whilst the USA has one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world.

However, within East Asia, Taiwan has fared relatively poorly – even discounting China entirely, Taiwan’s new cases and new deaths remain the highest per capita in the region. But this is now on a declining slope in absolute terms. For the week 26 May to 1 June, Taiwan’s daily cases had already fallen from 534 to 327, deaths ranging from 21 to 11.

Furthermore, and crucially for national health, the recent spike in Taiwan and recent rises elsewhere in Eat Asia have not yet disturbed the general East Asian edge over other rich-nation groupings such as Europe or the USA. In terms of cases per million since the inception of the virus in early 2020 to 29 May 2021, cases for the world registered as 21,863, for the USA 102,249, for the UK 65,694, for Japan 102 and for Taiwan 327.

If Japan and Taiwan have the most worrying ‘spikes’, they are of small statistical account compared to the long trend of the Covid months. But, on the other hand, vaccination and the appearance of new variants have thrown doubt on the established East Asian Covid edge. It is this that makes the politics of vaccination such a disturbing global as well as regional phenomenon.

The global pandemic has had a multitude of unforeseen impacts. Still, it was probably clear enough from the start that it was unlikely to leave the tenuous East Asian balance—the significant problem between China and Hong Kong, the huge, often unuttered, compromise between China and Taiwan, and the vexatious character of interventions from outside powers (especially the USA and the UK)—undisturbed.

It always seemed that Covid 19 would either make things worse for the relationships within East Asia or make them better by prompting some truly progressive cooperation. After all, in the last analysis, the great economies of East Asia, all growing faster than the West, all sharing so much in terms of history, language and underlying culture, had generated massive commercial complementarities. That is, East Asian economies represent the global system in themselves, with almost no help from the rest of our world! From farming to futurist robotics, between them, there is nothing that East Asia cannot produce. China has three East Asian economies (Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea) as amongst the top five of its importing and its exporting partners. All East Asian economies have China as a major exporter and importer. This linkage covers an all-but complete world of trade.

That world, of course, includes novel vaccinations that work. So, in these pages and elsewhere, I have asked repeatedly that our political leaders, from the USA and the UK to China and Taiwan, from India to Germany, cooperate not only in fighting the pandemic at its earlier stages but in developing and sharing the vaccinations of the most recent period between all nations in our world.

Although some global instruments were set up, very little was done to address the confusion exhibited, especially in the UK and the USA as to what to do with vaccination as it evolved: To produce and retain everything that worked until all their national populations were fully covered and cases and deaths per capita were measurable and assuredly on the steep decline. Or to systematically select the most vulnerable in their societies (mostly elderly) and medical and care workers or others for vaccine coverage, bringing in fuller vaccination on a sliding scale towards the youthful members to be covered over a more extended time. That latter option would allow a simultaneous move towards organised global vaccination in terms of vaccine production and supply and the expert administration and delivery of vaccines into the arms of all those who live in our world.

If accomplished through existing huge organisations already well-established and globally funded (WHO and the UN being the obvious front-runners), this would have cost very little indeed compared to the moral, political, and economic costs of the present vaccine confusion, hesitation and distrust that emanated first from Europe and the UK and has since spread everywhere.

Within this context, the Taiwan-China hiatus has been posed too readily as framing an unsolvable problem – that Taiwan loses face if the government accepts help from China, but that it loses internal respect if it is seen as uncaring of its people when it rejects such offers. The solution for the two systems was to for once come together in a research and pragmatic partnership for themselves, for the rest of East Asia and the world at large, particularly its southern and poorer hemisphere.

More generally, we could then have surmised that without constant yet erratic interventions from the rest of the world, East Asian development might evolve in future years as a highly sophisticated regional moral economy. We can now never know this, for the international elements that work against such progress are also sophisticated but far more powerful and have been mightily at work. Yet, the ‘global lab’ created by Covid might have provided the knowledge and space for some inroads towards an East Asian emergence that would be less fractious than the world we now live in. Unfortunately, the recent China-Taiwan vaccine tussle clearly illustrates that too often leaders are not learners in this new Covid lab. The trouble is that the national government represents national personality to the outside world.

Professor Ian Inkster is a global historian and political economist at the Center of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London, and a Senior Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme and China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, UK.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Covid-19 Spike.

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