There are two major geopolitical lessons to be learned from the ongoing pandemic. Lesson one: China can’t be trusted. Lesson two: A free Taiwan may be our only way of getting through the great firewall of China.
After all, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hasn’t been willing to come clean about the origins of the virus. Instead, it has been peddling fake news and conspiracy theories about frozen food from Norway, of all places, as the source of the deadly virus. When the pandemic first started, Beijing halted internal travel but international flights remained open, as if China didn’t want to be the sole victim of the very disease it knew it had unleashed. On the other hand, Taiwan tried to warn the world about what was coming but was unable to do so because of its political isolation caused by China.
Taiwan has recently experienced the biggest COVID-19 outbreak since the start of the pandemic. In the past month alone, the total number of cases increased by almost 10 times. Does this mean that the situation got out of control? Far from it. Until mid-April 2021, Taiwan had just over 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The politically isolated island-nation managed to fend off the disease to an unmatched degree while the rest of the world failed in containing the spread of the pandemic. Most of our failures can be attributed to the aforementioned political isolation of Taiwan.
Ever since Tsai Ing-Wen was elected president, Taiwan has lost seven—or roughly a third—of its official diplomatic allies. Beijing has been on the offensive, intending to punish the island-nation for its democratic choices and to further isolate Tsai’s administration on the world stage. Everything was going according to the CCP’s plan until the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Wuhan. It appears that close to four long years of Beijing’s hard work has been jeopardized as new facts about the coronavirus and its origins reach the international public. Moreover, scientists are beginning to seriously consider that the virus escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is located roughly a couple hundred meters from where the virus was originally discovered.
Being politically isolated, Taipei tried very hard to maintain the few cases of mutual recognition it still enjoys. With the exception of The Holy See, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have been limited to a handful of generally small countries scattered across Latin America, Oceania, and Africa. The price Taiwan often had to pay for the remnants of diplomatic recognition was measured in dollars, hence, the pejorative term describing Taipei’s dubious diplomatic clout: checkbook diplomacy.
Pundits and experts have been divided on the policy’s assessment. Some argued that it was viable because it preserved Taiwan’s actual diplomatic existence, even if only symbolically. Others debunked it as a waste of money with no substantial return on investment. To some extent, it’s a little bit of both; however, given recent developments, it may turn out that Beijing simply saved Taipei some money. Here is how it may play out and why.
Apart from stealing/bribing/intimidating Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, China has also limited its neighbor’s global space by denying it access to international organizations—most notably the World Health Organization (WHO). The European Parliament and the U.S. Congress have both argued that Taipei should be able to participate in the WHO’s works. They cited the greater good, Taiwan’s experience in dealing with pandemics such as SARS, and the simple fact that viruses and diseases don’t care about borders. The COVID-19 outbreak strengthens their case.
Last year, a group of Members of the European Parliament, including myself, sent a letter to the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, “on the support of Taiwan’s participation in WHO meetings, mechanism and activities in order to contribute to the global fight against the Coronavirus.” Last month, I co-signed another letter on the same subject. This time, it was addressed to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO. For years, the calls fell on deaf ears, as Beijing remained steadfast in its interpretation of the One-China Policy. Is the tide turning? Ironically, the world would have been better off if the WHO had relied on Taiwan to report on the epidemiological situation in China.
Taiwanese health care professionals would have been able to provide more information on the outbreak in Wuhan than Chinese officials have been willing to reveal. This is where the differences in political regimes and freedom of expression (or lack thereof) kick in. Doctors and officials from China surely had more data than their Taiwanese counterparts did. But the problem is that out of fear they couldn’t even send an email without the approval of the top communist officials. Many of these doctors simply vanished while others were forced to lie or withhold information for weeks. All the while, Taiwan was trying to warn the world about the coming epidemic.
Taiwan knew about the outbreak weeks before Chinese authorities even mentioned it publically. It was able to use its experiences with similar situations (such as SARS) and prepare for the coming wave—one expected to become a real tsunami. Taiwan lies just over a hundred kilometers off the coast of China. Four hundred thousand Taiwanese people work in China and many of them planned on going back home to escape the plague. Johns Hopkins University predicted Taiwan would be the second hardest hit place in the world due to its geographic proximity to China and frequent travel between the two neighbors. Soon after the word coronavirus began making headlines, the first infection was diagnosed in Taiwan in late January. By mid-May 2021, Taiwan recorded just over 1,400 cases, just prior to the recent, unprecedented spike.
To put this in perspective, Taiwan has a population of approximately 24 million and is slightly smaller than the Netherlands. Most of its territory is uninhabited due the island’s topography and the fact that high mountains account for 30 percent. Traffic in Taiwan is rough. Both on the streets and on sidewalks. Millions of people spend a good part of their day taking public transportation, mostly the metro, which is a city underneath a city. On top of that, thousands of Taiwanese professionals did go back home from China within a short period of time. Considering all this, it seems that Taiwan was bound to be hit hard by the pandemic. Why is this not the case? Because Taiwan knows the PRC better than anyone else.
Australia, on the other hand, is a country that has all the geographical and natural advantages Taiwan lacks and roughly the same population. Its territory is 215 times the size of Taiwan’s. Australia is much less densely populated and much more geographically isolated. Still, mid-May 2021 Australia was approaching 30,000 diagnosed cases. And it’s being applauded by most of the democratic world for the relatively low numbers. But Australia was not prepared for what was coming, the CCP was not willing to be transparent, and Taiwan was not able to share its findings at the WHO table. In retrospect, Taiwan did better than Australia, because it knew what was going on in China.
The CCP might have been winning minor battles through campaigns of pressure, influence, and intimidation, but now it’s losing the PR war due to its own stubbornness and its outdated political system. The UK’s decision to forgo the Chinese built 5G infrastructure may be just the beginning of Beijing’s international troubles. Forced deportations of foreign journalists daring to write about “the real sick man of Asia” will not solve any underlying problems.
The world is finally beginning to see China for what it is—a secretive, authoritarian state that would rather cause a global catastrophe than be transparent and take responsibility for its mistakes. This pandemic clearly illustrates that the CCP cannot be trusted and we cannot afford to be blindsided again. There needs to be accountability and we should to be able to see what takes place behind the great firewall of China. So far, Taiwan has proven to be our best early warning system. We need more engagement and information sharing with Taiwan to be able to benefit from its insight.
What Can We Do?
If granting Taipei a seat at the WHO and the World Health Assembly (WHA) is not an option, perhaps the free world should consider other forms of cooperation, free from China’s participation and obstruction. After all, we should not expect to get the truth from Beijing.
So far, President Joe Biden’s initiative of a world democracy summit has received mixed responses from public opinion leaders. Until more details are revealed, it’s hard to take an informed and unbiased position on it. One thing is certain, this type of summit will not be complete without Taiwan’s participation. These types of high-level meetings, especially when held periodically, could also help override China’s veto in the WHO and the WHA.
From my perspective, as a Polish politician, I notice a number of parallels between my homeland’s geopolitical situation and that of Taiwan’s. We are both rather small nations facing a huge, increasingly revanchist neighbor. Therefore, we both depend on the United States for our national security. Poland has proven to be a reliable ally by, among other things, participating in U.S.-led military operations. We are also a bulwark against Russia on NATO’s eastern flank and one of the few countries in Europe meeting its military spending obligations.
Obviously, Taiwan is not part of a formal military alliance, but its geopolitical importance cannot be overstated. Without a free Taiwan, there will be no free maritime transport in the Indo-Pacific and there will be no stopping China from further bullying its neighbors and expanding control over the waters in the region.
Finally, although it’s nearly impossible to determine how many lives could have been saved had Taiwan’s early warnings been heard across the globe and taken seriously (in the United States alone, close to 600,000 people are reported to have died of COVID-19), it’s safe to state, though, that Taipei’s debt to Washington as a security guarantor would have been paid back with dividends. Such relationships are what Taiwan should be aiming for, instead of engaging in checkbook diplomacy.
I would like to thank my assistant Jakub Piasecki for his research and contribution.
Witold Waszczykowski is a Law and Justice (PiS) Member of the European Parliament and a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland. You can follow him on Twitter @WaszczykowskiW.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.