Taipei-Based Policy Expert Explains How Taiwan’s Emergence As A Global Player During The COVID-19 Crisis Has Earned China’s Contempt

Thursday, April 9, 2020
Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Negative perceptions about the People’s Republic of China during the COVID-19 crisis have greatly enhanced Taiwan’s position globally and have set the small island nation on a collision course with Beijing, argued Taipei-based policy analyst J. Michael Cole in a Hoover Institution webinar on Thursday, April 9.

The discussion was part of a series of events within Hoover’s Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific project, chaired by Senior Fellow Larry Diamond and managed by Visiting Fellow Glenn Tiffert.

Cole argued that the pandemic has raised tensions in cross-strait relations that had already been intensified by the 2016 Taiwan election, which swept the independence-oriented Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) into power in the Legislative Yuan, and its leader Tsai Ing-Wen into the presidency.

The DPP’s domination of national politics came in the wake of the 2014 Sunflower Movement, when activist students occupied the Legislative and Executive Yuans to protest a free-trade agreement that was being negotiated with Beijing.

Cole explained that in response to the growing sentiment toward independence, Beijing has stiffened its posture toward Taipei, and has organized and deployed a campaign of coercion against Taiwan’s democratic institutions. 

Cole said this campaign of political warfare against Taiwan takes the form of co-opting elites and political parties, exacerbating political divisions, coercing politicians who have taken an anti–Communist Party position, and creating networks that attempt to bypass Taiwan’s democratic institutions and undermine its electoral system. He noted there is evidence that points to Beijing’s influence in the gains by the Kuomintang (KMT) in the 2018 local elections, since the party favors stronger political and commercial ties to the mainland.

One significant strategy employed by Beijing is the prohibition against mainland tour groups visiting Taiwanese municipalities where leaders have taken stances against the Chinese Communist Party. This action deprives these cities of much-needed tourism revenue.

Cole maintained that these boycotts have turned out to be blessings in disguise for Taiwan. Not only did they force Taiwan to diversify its tourism market and attract visitors from different countries, but more crucially, they limited Taiwan’s exposure to the COVID-19 contagion that originated from the city of Wuhan on the mainland.

Cole explained that Taiwan’s ability to block and contain the virus can be attributed to its effective monitoring of social media in mainland China, and to crucial information from its business community, which has strong commercial ties to Wuhan.

“Taipei knew it could not trust Beijing when it said that the epidemic was not as serious as it turned out to be,” explained Cole.

Taiwan learned from intelligence in December 2019 that COVID-19 was possibly contagious via human-to-human transmission, not just from animals. Taiwan delivered this information to the World Health Organization (WHO) and was ignored. Taiwan was excluded from the WHO’s emergency meeting in January 2020, where representatives addressed containment of the global pandemic.

Cole said that Taiwan followed that notice with restrictions on flights from Wuhan in January, followed by a blanket ban on all flights across the strait in early February. However, Taipei and Beijing cooperated to repatriate Taiwanese nationals living and working in the mainland.

Cole argued that even before the COVID-19 outbreak, President Tsai’s foreign policy restraint was paying dividends. In the past, Taiwan would boast about their diplomatic engagement with other countries, causing their counterparts to lose face with Beijing, on whom they relied for lucrative investments and business relationships.

He said that today, Taiwan engages in more subtle forms of diplomacy that do not embarrass its allies and supporters. Furthermore, Tsai has been careful about yielding to hard-line factions of the DPP who have pushed the government towards a definitive declaration of independence.

Under Tsai’s leadership, Taiwan has adhered to the ambiguous status quo arrangement whereby it maintains commercial and political ties to the mainland under the definition of “one China,” while not submitting to the Communist system. However, Tsai has gradually taken measures that reflect a harder stance against Beijing.

Cole said that the COVID-19 crisis has undermined the Chinese Communist Party’s credibility throughout the world because of its efforts to cover up and spread disinformation about the origins of the coronavirus. Taiwan by contrast has been applauded for its containment efforts and has emerged as a model for political freedom and transparency.

Beijing has taken steps to reverse this trend. It has launched a global propaganda campaign to demonstrate that its model of governance not only has effectively contained the virus on the mainland but also has supplied other countries with much-needed medicine and equipment. Beijing in addition has used its resources and money to exert influence on international bodies to isolate Taiwan, undermine its public image, and peel away support from its allies.

Cole maintained that China’s behavior on the international stage should be assessed on the basis of reciprocity and not upon goodwill, since any aid authorized by the Communist Party is predicated upon conditions from which it derives direct economic and political benefits.

Following Cole’s talk, in the question-and answer-period, one participant asked if the United States should follow through with proposals to withdraw funds from the WHO for becoming a conduit of China’s disinformation. Cole responded by saying that America’s disengagement would allow China to fill leadership vacuums and thus block Taiwan’s attempts at participation in these international organizations.

He instead proposed that the world’s most influential democracies conduct a thorough investigation of the WHO and the United Nations at large, to prevent undue influence from authoritarian regimes and their attempts to rewrite the rules of the international system.

Cole fears that Taiwan’s successful resistance to the Communist Party’s coercive strategies may ultimately lead Beijing to upend the fragile status quo by applying conventional military force. He advocated for an international coalition to support Taiwan with sufficient capability and the threat of serious repercussions to deter a Chinese first strike. 

“The strategic ambiguity that has been in the Taiwan Strait for decades has outlived its purpose, and we need to see a clearer commitment by the community of nations,” Cole said.