Last month, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex M. Azar II made an official visit to Taiwan, where he met President Tsai Ing-wen and other Taiwanese officials to discuss Taiwan’s laudable response to the coronavirus and US-Taiwan relations. It was the highest-level visit to Taiwan by an American official since 1979, when Washington cut ties with the island in favor of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Just a few days later, President Tsai Ing-wen gave a short speech at an event hosted by the Hudson Institute, in which she discussed Taiwan’s recent successes and present challenges in combatting COVID-19 and deterring conflict with the PRC. Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 is one of the best in the world, with only seven deaths in its entire population of nearly 24 million. If the US had a similar deaths-per-million as Taiwan, it would have around 100 deaths from COVID-19, instead of roughly 190,000. Yet Taiwan isn’t all sunshine and butterflies; tensions between it and China are on the rise. On the same day as Azar’s visit with Tsai, Chinese fighter jets intentionally crossed over the de facto China-Taiwan maritime border, and the PRC later executed military drills at the northern and southern ends of the Taiwan Strait. At the end of the week, Beijing resolutely condemned the US’ landmark sale of 66 F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan. All of these events served as not-so-subtle warnings to anyone who might support Taiwanese independence.
The history of relations between the PRC and Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China (ROC), can be traced to 1927 when the ROC, then the ruling government of mainland China, became engulfed in an intermittent civil war between its ruling party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (CNP), and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The island of Taiwan was not then a part of China, but imperial Japan. However, after Japan’s surrender from World War II in 1945, Taiwan was designated a temporary administration of the ROC. In 1949, the CCP established the PRC and declared it the legitimate government of China. Shortly thereafter, the CNP retreated to Taiwan, and the war tapered off, though the two sides never agreed on any peace treaty or armistice.
Today, both the PRC and the ROC support the idea of “one China” including both Taiwan and the mainland, yet each sees itself as China’s rightful authority. In 1979, the US ended official relations with Taiwan and established them with the PRC. However, it maintains informal relations with Taiwan and does not recognize Beijing’s claims to the island. Often, US administrations have pursued a careful project of dual deterrence in which Washington has simultaneously warned Beijing not to attack Taiwan and told Taipei that it would come to its defense as long as it did not declare independence. This has helped maintain the status quo between the two governments, and Taiwan has enjoyed de facto, though not de jure, independence.
At the Hudson Institute event, Tsai voiced her hope that the PRC and ROC would continue to coexist but expressed concern with the current uptick in Chinese aggression toward Taiwan, as well as other localities like Hong Kong. Many believe the PRC’s recent actions in Hong Kong foreshadow its intentions for Taiwan, though Tsai broadened the threat to include all free and democratic societies. Yet as many have noted, it is not only recently that China has affirmed its claims of sovereignty over Taiwan. Xi Jinping has long drawn a connection between the reunification of Taiwan with mainland China and “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which he wants to achieve by 2049. Nevertheless, China has taken particular advantage of the pandemic to promote its authoritarian regime, further its global agenda, and push the boundaries of international norms, and Tsai is right to illuminate Taiwan as a central concern of the current moment.
Taiwan’s Path Forward
Looking forward, Tsai advocated for liberal democratic states to build alliances with Taiwan and support its inclusion in international institutions. As a small island with little hope of matching China’s ever-growing military and economic might, Taiwan needs international backing. As Tsai said, “We cannot stand alone without support from the community of like-minded democracies.”
Thankfully, though the unfolding of the pandemic seems to have emboldened China, Taiwan can also find opportunities for itself in COVID-19. Specifically, the Taiwanese government can harness its success in curbing the disease as a platform to garner international standing and support. Taiwan’s handling of the disease alone demonstrates effective, viable governance and is a testament to Tsai’s leadership. But Taipei can do more than enjoy acclamation. It can use this moment to interact with other countries, sharing the lessons it has learned and involving itself in global collaboration addressing the coronavirus. In this way, Taiwan can strategically develop substantive relationships with other countries and prove to be a valuable partner and friend in the international system.
Taiwan can also use collaborative engagement to establish an identity distinct from the PRC. As Representative Bi-khim Hsiao, another Taiwanese official at the Hudson Institute event, observed, COVID-19 has demonstrated that liberal and authoritarian governments have significantly different approaches to dealing with such significant challenges. Where China has tightened its domestic control, Taiwan has focused on transparency, openness, and cooperation between government and civil society. Where China has advanced its agenda abroad at the expense of others, Taiwan has offered help and collaboration. Active engagement can only make this difference (and thus an independent Taiwanese identity) starker.
Such would be tremendously useful in helping Taiwan to gain international support for its freedom and democracy. While most other countries recognize the PRC as the legitimate government of mainland China and would not consider backing the ROC’s claim to land it has not controlled for over 70 years, it is not clear how they would react if Taiwan declared official independence or if China tried to forcibly take control of the island. However, developing an identity distinct from the PRC would make Taiwan’s arguments for any degree of independence more robust and more likely to garner international support. While realistic observation must concede that the island has little hope of realizing its claims to the mainland, eventual independence still lies within the realm of possibility. Taiwanese leaders would be wise to work in light of this hope, even if it is suboptimal in their eyes. As Reinhold Niebuhr penned, “God, give us the grace to change with courage what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.”
The Role of the US
The US should also listen carefully to Taiwan’s requests for help. Representative Bi-khim Hsiao stated, “United States support has been crucial for Taiwan, but we do require the endorsement and support of other countries.” In light of this, the US should both continue its partnership with Taiwan and encourage other countries to join a broader coalition of support. However, some countries may see Taiwan as a ship nearing the center of the sucking, downward spiraling whirlpool that is current US-China relations and calculate that it is in their interest to stay as far away as possible. The US needs to demonstrate an active effort toward combatting misunderstandings China could have about US interactions with Taiwan and show others that the island is not simply currency in its games with China. Taiwan should be upheld as a champion of democracy and a partner for regional peace and stability, not just the center of a US-China tug-of-war.
In a time of so much uncertainty, it will be best for Taiwan and the US to carefully uphold the status quo of Taiwan’s de facto independence. Yet both should plan strategically for the future, developing policy for if, and when, the inherent tensions of Taiwan’s current position can no longer stand. For Taiwan, the opportunities of COVID-19 present the perfect time to do so.