by N. Peter Kramer
The Republic of China (ROC), the official name of Taiwan, is more than ever in the global spotlight. It garnered international praise for its (compared with almost the rest of the world) successful approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. With less than 500 confirmed cases and, although every death is one too many, only seven deaths, Taiwan has defied predictions and successfully contained the crisis. It managed this without lockdowns; schools were only closed for two weeks in February (!); baseball games restarted in April. This all came in no small part due to Taiwan’s very quick response measures, including the establishment of a special command center, the implementation of stringent border controls and quarantaine rules.
In a conversation with Taiwan’s new ambassador to the EU, Dr Ming-Yen Tsai, the Ambassador described how his country coped, as the only one in the world which had to survive the pandemic without a relationship with the World Health Organisation (WHO). In 2016, Taiwan, one of the most developed countries in Asia, was stripped of its status of observer in the WHO’s decision-making body which it has held since 2008. This under pressure from the People’s Republic of (Mainland) China. The COVID-19 pandemic made many Taiwanese think of the horrible SARS epidemic in 2003, when the island-state also stood-alone and when the WHO, with a Chinese director-general, did not seem to care about Taiwan’s 23 million inhabitants. Then too Taiwan had to solve by itself the mortal crisis; and they did! Probably the experience and knowledge of solving the horrendous SARS situation in 2003 helped the quick and successful reaction to COVID-19 this year.
Mainland China has for months been stepping up aggression in south-east Asia. Chinese soldiers have clashed with Indian troops on the border. It has escalated efforts to gain more control over the South China Sea. It imposed a controversial security law in Hong Kong. And, Chinese military planes and ships have repeatedly menaced Taiwan’s airspace and waters. After a detente in relations between China and Taiwan during the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016), the Mainland’s aggression increased again at the beginning of 2016, when President Tsai Ing-wen was elected. With a landslide victory she was elected on the basis of a clear and stronger attitude to China than her predecessor had shown.
For Taiwan’s security, the strong relationship between the US and Taiwan is of great importance. The Obama administration stated that the US would uphold the One-China Policy, which means in Beijing’s opinion that Taiwan is a part of China’s territory. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, on the other hand picked up the phone on 2 December 2016 to receive the congratulations from President Tsai after his election. That was the first time in 40 years that a US President(elect) had directly spoken with a ROC president.
The recent visit to Taiwan of the Secretary of Health of the Trump administration, Alex Azar (the highest-level US visitor in four decades to Taiwan) is remarkable. In August, the US also declassified documents that provide more detail on its security assurances to Taiwan. After the 1979 Act of Congress Taiwan Relations Act, the so-called Six Assurances by President Ronald Reagan to Taipei in 1982 made it clear that Taiwan’s security is the major concern of the US. According to Ambassador Tsai, the declassifying of the details of this document, ‘makes very clear to Beijing what the bottom line is of the US security policy with regard to Taiwan. Also the US congress strongly supports my country, because it is a beacon of democracy and freedom in Asia’.
There is also a long-standing relationship between Taiwan and the EU. They are important partners in trade and investment. The EU is Taiwan’s 5th trading partner worldwide after China, ASEAN, US and Japan. But there is more. According to Dr Tsai the EU and Taiwan are of one mind about democracy, human rights, press freedom and the environment; and the European Parliament Taiwan Friendship Group plays an active role.
‘In these days of China’s aggressive and expansive behaviour, Taiwan needs friends all over the world’, concludes the Ambassador to end his introductory talk with EBR.