Taiwan has done an exemplary job in dealing with the coronavirus. Despite having a population of nearly 24 million people, Taiwan has yet to reach 500 cases, fewer than some US states with a fraction of Taiwan’s population. The island’s success can be attributed to its experience with the 2004 SARS outbreak and the hard lessons it learned from viral pandemics. With a 124 action-item plan, the island imposed strict travel bans and stay at home orders. But how does Taiwan’s coronavirus success affect the US-China relationship?
Two sets of keys to the Forbidden City
During the Chinese Civil War in the early-to-mid 20th century, China’s ruling Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) was expelled by a growing Chinese Communist Party (CCP), ultimately fleeing to the island of Taiwan. From there, the KMT continued to make claims to the Mainland, though the governing body largely retreated into building its own society across the strait. Fast forward half a century, and Taiwan (Republic of China, ROC) and China (People’s Republic of China, PRC) both stake claims as the legitimate ruling body over the Mainland.
This complex relationship has been previously addressed in US foreign policy, namely with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act under President Carter. This Act formally ended diplomatic relations with the island, and recognized “One China” that comprised a unified ROC and PRC. This approach has since been the official stance of US Presidents, but the pandemic has seen unprecedented developments in the US’ diplomatic approach to Taiwan.
Trump throws a wrench in longstanding China policy
Trump’s approach to Taiwan has broken protocol since day one: from calling President Tsai Ing-wen on the phone weeks after being elected, to publicly flip-flopping on the “One China” protocol that was established by Carter. The PRC was quick to respond to the break from precedent, condemning Trump for meddling in what it saw as “internal affairs” and increasing military drills in the Taiwan Strait.
Amid spiraling US-China relations and citing Taiwan’s accomplishment in outbreak containment, the US sent Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to the island to learn from their incredibly effective response to the pandemic. Azar’s three-day trip with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen was also the first time since 1979 that a high-level US government official has visited Taiwan. This diplomatic gesture has high potential to ignite geopolitical tensions between the US and China in an already conflict-filled year.
Washington rewrites the rules to a dangerous game
In sending a Cabinet member to Taiwan, the US has not only in a way recognized the island as semi-independent, but also praised its democratic values. While this particular visit is unlikely to stir trouble, it is symbolic of a dangerous shift in the US-China dynamic that places Taiwan at the center of the chessboard.