“Heaven Is Too Far, China Is Too Close”: China-Taiwan Relations Amid the Spread of the Novel Coronavirus (Global Research Institute on Chinese Issues)

1. The difficulty of containing infectious diseases given the geographic proximity of China and Taiwan

In the Chinese calendar system, 2020 is the Year of the Rat. Over the course of human history, rats have obtained a “criminal record” for triggering a plague called the Black Death and taking many lives. In 2020, the Year of the Rat, that bad fortune seemed to continue. There has been a pandemic of acute respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus (officially named Coronavirus Disease 2019, abbreviated “COVID-19”) that has already spread to and ravaged many countries. As of March 6, 2020, the total number of COVID-19 cases had reached 100,145 worldwide. Of that total, the number of COVID-19 cases in China stood at 80,718, the highest in the world. Outside China, South Korea had the largest number of COVID-19 cases at 6,593, while Japan had 1,094 cases, the fourth largest in the world.

In Taiwan, according to a March 6 announcement by the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (the equivalent of the Novel Coronavirus Response Headquarters in Japan), the number of COVID-19 cases on the island was 45, with one death. Comparing the number of patients with the total population, Taiwan seems to have fewer cases per population than its neighbors South Korea and Japan have. In fact, the foreign news media have reported on the superior effectiveness of the Taiwanese government’s response to COVID-19.[1]

That said, while Taiwan has delivered good results with its epidemic prevention work, this success could make people lose sight of the objective fact that “Taiwan is actually highly susceptible to events in China.” First, geographically, the Taiwan Strait is only 130 km wide at its narrowest stretch. This geographic proximity enables the frequent coming and going of people between China and Taiwan (that is, between both shores of the Taiwan Strait). Despite ongoing political tensions between China and Taiwan at the governmental level, cross-strait private-sector interactions have never let up, with continued exchanges in areas such as long-distance marriages, education, and religion. The number of Chinese spouses living permanently in Taiwan has reached more than 340,000. There are approximately 2 million Taiwanese residents in China, many of whom are working-age. In addition, China and Taiwan are actively engaged in cross-strait trade and investment.[2] Given this tangible and intangible proximity of Taiwan and China, if there is an outbreak of an epidemic, it can follow many transmission routes. For Taiwan, it is actually more difficult to stop the spread of infectious diseases originating in China than it is for other countries.

2. Impact of China’s “One China” principle

(1) Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO

Moreover, Taiwan has diplomatic relations with only 15 countries, and it actively conducts private-sector exchanges with countries with whom it does not have formal diplomatic ties. Accordingly, Taiwan maintains close relationships with the international community as a whole. However, under pressure from China, the World Health Organization (WHO) has refused to grant membership to Taiwan. In addition, Taiwan is not even permitted to participate as an observer in relevant meetings such as the World Health Assembly, nor can it obtain information directly from the WHO. If an infectious disease originates and spreads in Taiwan, the disease could spread to other countries. If that happens, Taiwan will become the missing link in the world’s epidemic prevention network.

In this sense, Taiwan has a legitimate right to participate in discussions on global infectious diseases. Taiwan has continuously made its intent to join the WHO known through both public and private-sector channels. However, the WHO has continued to ignore Taiwan’s requests to join the organization. Even during the current COVID-19 epidemic, Taiwan has had no real access at all to the WHO under the leadership of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is believed to be leanings toward China. Incidentally, at a WHO global research and innovation forum on the novel coronavirus held on February 11 and 12, Taiwanese experts were permitted to “attend” the forum through videoconferencing as representatives of “Taipei,” not “Taiwan.” However, it is doubtful as to how much real significance that superficial change in terminology carries.[3]

(2) Taiwan gets caught up in anti-Chinese sentiment and conduct

In relations with the WHO, Taiwan has not only been refused WHO membership, but it has also received unfair treatment from the international community at large. For example, on January 31, 2020, the Italian government banned the entry of travelers from Taiwan as well as China, Hong Kong and Macau, in keeping with the WHO’s “One China” policy. On February 1, the Vietnamese government also announced an entry ban on travelers from Taiwan. On February 10, the Philippine government announced an order to ban the entry of foreign visitors arriving on flights from Taiwan to the Philippines effective February 11 based on the “One China” policy. The ban does not affect Philippine citizens and foreign nationals with permanent resident status in the country.
The negative impact of COVID-19 on the Taiwanese people goes beyond health risks or inconveniences imposed on physical movement, such as travel. The Taiwanese people have had to face a growing tide of anti-China sentiment around the world. In Courrier Picard, a French regional newspaper, the phrase “alerte jaune” (yellow alert), which evokes the historical phrase “yellow peril,” has appeared in headlines.[4] The headline “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” a phrase with discriminatory undertones, was featured prominently in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal.[5] Moreover, discrimination has escalated from sneering in the media to physical attacks. For example, there was an incident in Italy in which Chinese tourists were spat at by locals while sightseeing.[6]

Under these conditions, the Taiwanese people have also been caught up in discrimination against Chinese people overseas. Examples include incidents of verbal abuse or physical assault against Taiwanese students in Russia.[7] In response to these acts of discrimination, some Taiwanese people have started to take precautionary measures when traveling abroad, such as affixing badges or signs with the message “I am from Taiwan.” on their clothing, backpacks or luggage so that people around them know that they are not Chinese citizens.

3. China sees Taiwan through the lens of the “One China” Principle: 以疫謀独(Yǐ yì móu dú, “Conspiring to gain independence through the epidemic”)

As I have described above, Taiwan has faced unreasonable and unfair treatment in the international community amid the worldwide spread of COVID-19. In practice, Taiwan has been unable to avoid further difficulties in epidemic prevention policies that involve China-Taiwan relations.

In the process of devising plans to repatriate Taiwanese people in China, the Taiwanese government experienced difficulties unlike anything encountered by other countries. This was because the Beijing authorities were strictly adhering to the “One China” principle with respect to Taiwan. For example, the Japanese government was permitted to charter an All Nippon Airways passenger plane to repatriate Japanese citizens in China. In contrast, the Beijing authorities refused to allow the Taiwanese government to use a charter flight operated by China Airlines, Taiwan’s flagship carrier, to repatriate Taiwanese people. This was the case even when the Hong Kong government was permitted to charter a Cathay Pacific Airways plane to repatriate Hong Kong residents.

The Chinese government took this approach because it was wary of the repatriation of Taiwanese people by China Airlines being seen—and treated—as an “international affair.” As far as China is concerned, the removal of Taiwanese people had to be treated as a “domestic affair” under the “One China” principle. Because of this complication, the Taiwanese government ultimately had to compromise and charter a flight operated by China Eastern Airlines, a Chinese airline.

Needless to say, the Chinese government has not welcomed actions such as Taiwan’s requests to join the WHO and the proposed dispatch of a China Airlines repatriation flight. In fact, based on the belief that Taiwan is taking advantage of the spread of COVID-19 to expand its international influence, the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council has criticized Taiwan, describing its plans as acts of “以疫謀独(Yǐ yì móu dú)”: “conspiring to gain independence under the pretext of responding to an epidemic.”[8]

Incidentally, on February 9 and 10, the Chinese government sent H-6 bombers and J-11 jet fighters on encirclement flights around Taiwan, crossing a mid-line in the Taiwan Strait on February 10. The flight missions were most likely actions targeting a visit to the U.S. by William Ching-te Lai, Taiwan’s Vice President-elect, from February 2 to 9. It also appears that another purpose of the flights was to deter any attempts by Taiwan to gain independence through the abovementioned acts of “以疫謀独(Yǐ yì móu dú)”.

4. Taiwan’s Epidemic Prevention Results and Domestic and International Evaluation

Matters of cross-strait agreement, such as the repatriation of citizens, may sometimes require compromises and concessions. In stark contrast to matters of this kind, the Tsai Ing-wen government has demonstrated strong initiative on domestic epidemic prevention efforts within Taiwan. Since the explosive spread of COVID-19 began, the Tsai government has been driven by a strong sense of urgency. Accordingly, the government decided to implement a policy of “advance deployment” (“超前部署 (Chāoqián bùshǔ)” in Chinese). Guided by this policy, the Tsai government carefully assessed the spread of COVID-19 independently, without waiting for announcements from the WHO, and has taken swift and early responses. For example, Taiwan denied and restricted the entry of Chinese citizens at a very early stage. To control the buying and selling of medical masks, the government implemented a steady stream of measures such as a ban on exports, government requisitioning, and managed allocation using national ID cards. These measures allowed Taiwan to successfully avoid turmoil resulting from a shortage in medical masks. On February 25, the Legislative Yuan (equivalent to the National Diet of Japan) passed the Special Act on COVID-19 Prevention, Relief and Restoration and the Act was promulgated on the same day at the Presidential Office Building.[9]

The Taiwanese government’s rapid and highly effective responses to COVID-19 have won admiration not only domestically, but also from the international community at large. In South Korea, the Weekly Chosun presented and praised Taiwan’s epidemic prevention policies in an article titled “Let’s contain China—looking to Taiwan as a model example.” These measures included Taiwan’s order to ban the exports of masks, which was issued one month earlier than South Korea, and Taiwan’s ban on entry of visitors from China. In the article, the Weekly Chosun concluded that “the ability of leaders resulted in the different outcomes seen in Taiwan and South Korea.”[10] In addition, according to reporting by AERAdot., a Japanese online media source, Taiwan designated the novel coronavirus as a “legal infectious disease” at an early stage on January 15 (the Japanese government decided to identify it a “designated infectious disease” on January 28). AERAdot. also highlighted matters such as Taiwan’s announcement of an extension of closures of elementary, junior high and senior high schools at the beginning of February (The Japanese government announced the closure of schools on February 27.). AERAdot. reported that Taiwan has implemented epidemic prevention measures in all of these areas earlier than Japan and praised Taiwan by noting, “Japan has a lot to learn from Taiwan about measures to combat the spread of infectious diseases.”[11]

The Tsai administration has earned tremendous approval and support from Taiwanese society for its epidemic prevention work. Approval ratings for the administration clearly reflect this groundswell of approval and support. The Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, which is believed to lean in favor of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), conducted a survey on February 17 and 18. The survey showed that 94% of respondents said that they “would give passing marks” to the performance of the government’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), and 75% of those respondents gave the CECC a score of 80 points or more. Additionally, the DPP’s approval ratings reached 41.4%, far surpassing the Kuomintang’s approval ratings of 12.5%.[12] The TVBS television station, which is believed to lean toward the Kuomintang, conducted a survey in late February. The survey found that 82% of respondents supported the Tsai administration’s epidemic prevention policies.[13]

Moreover, the Tsai administration’s policies have not only boosted the DPP’s approval ratings, but they have also strengthened “Taiwanese” identity in Taiwanese society. According to public opinion surveys, the percentage of Taiwanese citizens who identify themselves as “Taiwanese” reached 85%. Furthermore, when asked “What do you think Taiwan should be called when it participates in international meetings?,” 46.7% of respondents replied, “Taiwan,” while more than 17.4% replied, “the Republic of China.”[14] It can be said that COVID-19 has brought people together throughout Taiwan. Indeed, the Taiwanese people are rallying under the flag of “Fighting COVID-19.” The encirclement flights by Chinese military aircraft around Taiwan have clearly backfired. Those flights have only helped to push Taiwanese society more in favor of the DPP, which aspires to achieve Taiwan’s independence.

5. Conclusion

COVID-19 has been wreaking even more havoc around the world, and there are still no signs that the end is in sight. While the number of COVID-19 patients in Taiwan is still not large based on an international comparison, the reality is that the number has been increasing. The rush of Taiwanese people living in China to return to the island for the upcoming Qingming Festival (April 4) will surely present a major challenge.

Additionally, as COVID-19 spreads rapidly in neighboring countries such as Japan and South Korea, how should Taiwan address domestic epidemic prevention and international relations based on a comprehensive assessment of these priorities? At present, border control measures are essential to domestic epidemic prevention. Going forward, assuming that domestic demand is satisfied, donations of anti-epidemic medical supplies such as masks are bound to work in favor of Taiwan’s international relations. I believe now is a good time for the Tsai Ing-wen government to start considering how it can best contribute to the international community.

In some respects, COVID-19 might turn out to be “a tragedy that turns into a blessing” (因禍得福 (Yīnhuòdéfú) in Chinese) for the Tsai government. On the international stage, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made the international community aware of the fact that “Taiwan is a different country from China.”
Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are all neighboring countries located in close geographic proximity to China. For this reason, these countries cannot completely shield themselves from the impact of China, not only in international political affairs, but also in terms of events such as infectious diseases. While meetings of the health ministers of Japan, South Korea and China have been held, that has not changed the fact that COVID-19, which originated in China, knows no borders. I suspect that these neighboring countries of China now feel a strong affinity with the significance of the Vietnamese proverb, “Heaven Is Too Far, China Is Too Close.”

[1] Kazufumi Nishioka, “Taiwan Sees a Surge in Approval Ratings with a Steady Stream of Incredible Responses to COVID-19; The World’s Eyes are Focused on the Policies of a 38-year-old Genius Minister with an IQ of 180,” AERAdot., February 29, 2020. https://dot.asahi.com/dot/2020022800078.html
Juta Fuji, “Here’s Why Taiwan’s Responses to COVID-19 Are Lightning Fast and Far Unlike Anything Japan Has Done,” President Online, https://president.jp/articles/-/33332

[2] Taiwan’s exports account for around 60% of GDP. Exports to China account for around 40% of all Taiwan’s exports.

[3] “WHO會議 我以Taipei名義參加,” The Liberty Times, February 11, 2020, https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/politics/paper/1351168

[4] “Coronavirus: French Asians hit back at racism with ‘I’m not a virus’,” BBC, January 29, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51294305

[5] “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-is-the-real-sick-man-of-asia-11580773677

[6] “義大利疫情引仇華暴力 台僑領建議小心少出門,” Yashih Huang, The Central News Agency, February 26, 2020, https://www.cna.com.tw/news/aopl/202002260409.aspx

[7] Ching-Tse Cheng, “Taiwanese attacked in Russia as Asian-phobia ramps up,” Taiwan News, February 7, 2020, https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3872976

[8] “台灣參與世衛 國台辦:以疫謀獨絕不會得逞,” The Central News Agency, February 6, 2020, https://www.cna.com.tw/news/acn/202002060167.aspx

[9] “《武漢肺炎》蔡英文公開簽署特別條例 展現朝野一致抗疫決心,” The Liberty Times, February 25, 2020, https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/politics/breakingnews/3079623

[10] “武漢肺炎/韓媒以蔡總統為封面 讚陳時中能力造就台韓不同,” The Central News Agency, March 4, 2020, https://www.cna.com.tw/news/firstnews/202003040422.aspx

[11] Kazufumi Nishioka, “Taiwan Sees a Surge in Approval Ratings with a Steady Stream of Incredible Responses to COVID-19; The World’s Eyes are Focused on the Policies of a 38-year-old Genius Minister with an IQ of 180,” AERAdot., February 29, 2020, https://dot.asahi.com/dot/2020022800078.html?page=1

[12] Lu Yi-hsuan, “民進黨支持度創新高41.1% 國民黨跌至12.5%比2016還慘,” The Liberty Times, February 24, 2020, https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/politics/breakingnews/3078042.

[13] Ding-Chiang Lee, Francis Lan, “TVBS民調!政府防疫滿意度達82% 提升11%,” TVBS, February 27, 2020, https://news.tvbs.com.tw/life/1283673

[14] Lin Chau-yi, “民調:武漢肺炎重創 國民黨支持度崩盤僅12.5%,” New Talk, February 24, 2020, https://newtalk.tw/news/view/2020-02-24/371439

助理研究員 / 国防安全研究院非伝統的安全および軍事任務研究所