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CvT: Once Again, Taiwan Finds Itself Caught in the Middle Over Vaccine Diplomacy

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A few months ago, Taiwan was in critical condition. COVID-19 infections were rising exponentially and the island was unable to acquire sufficient vaccines for its nearly 24 million citizens. As of August, 32% of Taiwanese had received at least one dose while only approximately 2% of Taiwanese had been fully vaccinated.

Taiwan has become a hot topic recently in US-China relations. Vaccine diplomacy has not spared the island, as China and the US have both promised or delivered vaccines to the new ‘battleground for benevolence.’

Western vaccine donations fall short of need

Through mid-June, the US and Japan were the leading vaccine donors to Taiwan. Both countries had donated around 2.5 million vaccines each, with Washington pledging Moderna and Japan donating AstraZeneca.

American donations came amid a push to establish its vaccine donations program and pledge to distribute more than 80 million doses to countries in need. This initiative, however, has been heavily condemned by Chinese media and has become a new minefield for domestic propaganda.

Failed campaign drives Chinese ire

China has repeatedly offered vaccine donations to the island, but Taiwanese authorities have so far been skeptical about receiving assistance from Beijing. Poignantly, despite the WHO granting the two Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm, emergency use approvals, Taiwan has still expressed concerns regarding the minimal clinical data and safety associated with the offered vaccine, Sinovac. To date, no Chinese vaccine donations have crossed Taiwan’s borders.

China has been further blamed for flexing its economic muscle to block the sale of the Pfizer vaccine to Taiwan, though Beijing has denied the accusation.

China has donated more than 46 million and delivered more than 650 million vaccines across the globe and has played a substantial role in vaccinating a portion of the world’s population. Nonetheless, Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy campaign has failed to take shape in Taiwan.

Global shortcomings unlock challenges and opportunities for Taiwan

Despite US and Japanese donations – as well as China’s attempts to deliver the Sinovac – to the island, these efforts have all fallen short of sufficiently vaccinating Taiwan’s 24 million residents. Taiwan has purchased nearly 20 million vaccines through Moderna, AstraZeneca, and the COVAX initiative. Yet, deliveries have failed to keep pace with rising infections in Taiwan. So far, the island has only received 5.25 million AstraZeneca shots and 3.65 million Moderna vaccines.

In late 2020, Taiwan initiated negotiations to purchase vaccines directly from BioNTech in a deal that ultimately fell apart. Yet, while the Taiwanese government’s efforts to acquire the Pfizer vaccine failed, a second round of negotiations between private enterprises Fosun Pharma – the company with sole rights to sell the Pfizer vaccines in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan –  Foxconn, and TSMC brought forth an agreement for 10 million Pfizer vaccine doses. These vaccines will then be handed over to Taiwanese health authorities for distribution.

While this contribution demonstrates the growing importance of the private sectors’ role in civil governance and society, there are fears that it could be coming too late. Additionally, the government’s inability to solve the island’s vaccine shortage has taken a toll on voters’ image of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

Although Taiwan received assistance from Washington and Tokyo, foreign assistance has fallen short of vaccine demand. In tandem with the decision to reject Beijing’s vaccinations, the island has been presented with both challenges and opportunities.

Taiwan’s challenges: insufficient supply & wavering public confidence

Taiwan has proved the limitations of Beijing and Washington’s vaccine diplomacy efforts. Unable to rely on a foreign power to satisfy its demand for vaccines, Taiwan has had to solve this problem independently. Local company Medigen has stepped up to produce its own COVID-19 vaccine in light of insufficient supply channels through foreign assistance and private sector acquisition. In this, Taiwan has placed its hopes in developing a homegrown vaccine.

President Tsai Ing-wen received her first Medigen injection in late August to boost the public’s confidence in the Taiwanese vaccine. However, as the vaccine must still undergo additional medical trials, the government now faces an uphill battle over shepherding public confidence in the safety and efficacy of the domestically-produced vaccine.

Taiwan’s opportunities: private sector leadership & medical advancements

The shortcomings of China and the US to provide full support to Taiwan has presented an opportunity for the island to expand its dealings outside the traditional umbrella of political channels. The success of private corporations where the government failed in securing a deal for the Pfizer vaccine has sparked an understanding of the potential that exists for domestic private companies to engage in social leadership.

In addition, Taiwan’s launch of the domestically-produced Medigen vaccine has been a boon to the island’s reputation and global status. While critical clinical data is still being collected, Medigen recently submitted its vaccine to the Taiwanese CDC for emergency use authorization. If successful, this will mark the first Taiwanese vaccine candidate to emerge.

What does Taiwan’s success mean for the future?

The US has been far more successful than China in its vaccine diplomacy efforts in Taiwan. However, more telling of the current state of global affairs is the Taiwanese decision to reject Chinese vaccines in spite of growing domestic cases. The unilateral decision of Washington and Tokyo to directly engage with leadership in Taipei – a development that has historically been delicately approached – is demonstrative of Beijing’s failure to use statecraft to secure political influence in the island and exemplifies the growing distance between the two governments.

Still, amid rising criticism of the government’s inability to secure vaccines for its population, the ability to rally domestic giants Foxconn and TSMC to assist in social leadership, as well as deliver a domestically produced vaccine through Medigen, shows the strength of Taiwan’s capabilities in a pinch. These quick advancements in the face of adversity may hold the key to unlocking many more downstream opportunities in the future for the island caught in the middle.

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