Taiwan has turned this health crisis into a diplomatic opportunity. Its response to Covid-19 domestically and medical outreach to countries worldwide have helped it in expanding its international space.
Taipe: Taiwan began to respond to Covid-19 even before it registered its first Covid-19 case on 21 January 2020. This was in contrast to countries across the world including India, where the number of Covid-19 cases started galloping, leaving the health management system helplessly ineffective. One year into Covid-19, and instead of receding, the third wave of the pandemic has already hit some countries. The struggle to fight the spread of the pandemic while also finding a viable vaccine solution has been an uphill task for the international community. These are tell-tale signs that the fight against the pandemic is far from over. This grave situation demands the pooling of information and experiences from all affected countries that have been able to keep the virus at bay. Shocking as it may seem, Taiwan has been excluded from the high-level discussions, thereby, leading to a disruption in the information flow. Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Assembly also means that affected countries are deprived of an opportunity to find a plausible solution to the ongoing health crisis.
Considering that almost all rising and established major powers including the US, UK, Germany, France and even Japan and South Korea have faltered in terms of dealing with the pandemic, Taiwan is clearly a success in dealing with Covid-19. Global media has appreciated Taiwan for its successful Covid-19 response. This has demonstrated that Taiwan is indispensable to the international community, and its contribution to the stability of the emerging regional order should no more be overlooked.
Despite China’s attempts to poach Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and shrink its international diplomatic space, Taiwan has focused on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, and has not gotten into a counteroffensive policy response. Taiwan has turned this health crisis into a diplomatic opportunity. Its response to Covid-19 domestically and medical outreach to countries worldwide have helped it in expanding its international space. It has strengthened Taiwan’s aspiration to boost its international cooperation. Its attempts to reach out to friends and partners have also been motivated by an inclusive approach. In the fight against the pandemic, Taiwan has been able to help several countries by donating necessary medical supplies including masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). It has donated more than 50 million masks to countries across the world. Tien Chung-kwang, Deputy Foreign Minister of Taiwan and former Taiwan’s Representative to India donated one million masks to the Indian Red Cross Society in May 2020, and donated masks worth Rs 45 lakh (US$61,000) to the Mizoram government in June 2020. Clearly, mask diplomacy is not confined just to China, democratic countries such as Taiwan have sufficiently contributed to its success.
Taiwan’s handling of Covid-19 is a classic example of how democracies could handle the pandemic. The Taiwan model of dealing with the pandemic could be effectively presented as an alternative to the Chinese model, and replicated in fellow democracies. The Taiwan model is characterised by reasonable social distancing, strict quarantine protocols, testing, isolation and treatment. Precautionary measures have been in place since January 2020, and have only become stricter in winters. And yet, the democratic fervour has not been violated in any way. This is particularly significant in the context of growing resentment in Europe against government’s intrusive policies.
In addition to this, Taiwan’s whole-of-government approach, along with taking into consideration other stakeholders while devising the Covid-19 strategy, worked to its advantage. In contrast with the popular model, Taiwan did not resort to mass testing. Yet, effective contact tracing, taking the perspective of the medical front liners, and other stakeholders such as mask manufacturers, distributors and the pharmacists helped in curbing the pandemic at home.
Given several major countries are still struggling to mitigate the threat from Covid-19, engaging Taiwan and including it in regional and global deliberations would lead to greater mutual gains. The Covid-19 pandemic has made it evident that the Indo-Pacific region cannot be strengthened just on the basis of traditional state-centric security; establishing a strong health cooperation dimension must be given due attention in shaping the Indo-Pacific. A regional approach to the pandemic may be devised but it is important not to see Taiwan’s inclusion and participation as a countermeasure to China.
In essence, the idea is not to emulate the Taiwan model as it is. For countries, it is important to choose what is feasible and suited to meet their own requirements. An informed “pick and choose approach” should be adopted.
Common concerns and interests bind countries together. What is more compelling than the Covid-19 challenge for countries to come together and try finding ways to eliminate the threat from the pandemic? Covid-19 is neither close to getting over not is it going to be the last pandemic to have hit the human civilisation. Ensuring Taiwan’s greater participation in fighting the pandemic is a logical and a much-awaited step. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should take the lead here and show his leadership abilities in engaging Taiwan for dealing with the pandemic better.
Sana Hashmi is Visiting Fellow, Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University, and former consultant with India’s Ministry of External Affairs.