Friday, April 17, 2020

Left Coast Correspondent: Taiwan and the Coronavirus. With Enemies Like China, Who Needs Friends?

Click here to read the original Cautious Optimism Facebook post with comments

3 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Left Coast Affairs and Other Inexplicable Phenomena goes back to an August 2019 story and reveals how Taiwan’s acrimonious relationship with communist China spared the island the worst ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.

Taiwan has received global acclaim for its rapid response to the coronavirus crisis and keeping the spread far better contained than most other countries.

Although Taiwan sits only 81 miles off China’s coast and shares many cultural ties to the mainland, it benefits from being an island and a relatively small nation.

(I call Taiwan a “nation” although its sovereign status is disputed by China, the United Nations, most world governments, and even the KMT opposition party within Taiwan itself)

Taiwan also has few ports of entry from outside. Similar geographic and size advantages can be said for other small Asian nations/regions that have so far fared relatively well: South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Those countries also gained from being victims of the 2002 SARS epidemic, learning valuable lessons from the difficulty of being at the epicenter of that earlier coronavirus crisis.

But what’s less well known is that Taiwan secured a huge safety advantage by virtue of its longstanding acrimonious relationship with mainland China.

Taiwan and China have been at odds since 1949 when Chiang Kai-Shek’s Guomingdang Party (KMT) government retreated to the island after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists. For over half a century few ties existed between the two antagonists, and only a slight thawing appeared in the late 2000’s decade under Taiwan’s KMT President Ma Ying-Jeou.

Over time the KMT sought a modestly reconciliatory stance with Beijing, the two sides agreeing with the “One country, two systems” framework and joint declaration that “There is only one China, and Taiwan is part of China.”

A handful of direct flights between Taiwan and China were approved for the first time and Chinese tourists were allowed to visit the island. The KMT government welcomed tourism dollars brought from its increasingly rich neighbor.

However everything changed with the 2016 election of Taiwan’s current president Tsai Ing-Wen. Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has long considered Taiwan an independent country and opposed the KMT’s overtures, felt that her predecessor was getting too close to Beijing.

The moment Tsai was elected, Beijing predictably ratcheted up pressure on Taiwan attempting to isolate it. War games were conducted near Taiwanese waters, and China has tried to impose economic pressures on the island in a bid to depose Tsai in the next election.

Famously the world now knows the same isolation strategy included severing all direct communication between The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Taiwanese government.

And in what wasn’t understood at the time to be a critical development, Taiwan itself further stoked tensions by voicing support for the 2019 Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. In what would prove to be a bizarre twist of fate China responded by “punishing” Taiwan with new restrictions.

On August 1st the communist government ended permits for most Chinese tourists wishing to visit Taiwan and banned many flights between the two countries. The idea was to cut off tourist revenue from Taiwan's economy and further hurt Tsai Ing-Wen's re-election chances. And the Taiwanese public’s initial response was alarm: hotels and tour companies braced for economic pain.

Read detailed CNN story at:

As 2019 progressed, Beijing cut off more and more travel to the island in an attempt to ratchet up the pressure.

But now in early 2020 it's clear in hindsight that China’s “punishment” turned out to be an epic blessing.

Before the travel ban, approximately 82,000 Chinese tourists visited Taiwan every month. But with most cross-strait visitor traffic already cut off—even before the Wuhan outbreak— Taiwan was spared a late 2019/early 2020 mass influx of Chinese tourists who would have brought the coronavirus with them.

Taiwan’s initial view of the 2019 travel ban was negative, but today Taiwanese thank Beijing for punishing them. If China were to offer to lift the travel ban now, Taiwanese would surely respond “No thank you, we like our punishment just the way it is."

The strained relationship with China helped Taiwan in other ways.

When the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak started in late 2019, Taiwan’s requests for information from the WHO were met with silence. What little word it received was channeled through Beijing since the WHO officially considers the Chinese Communist Party to be the legitimate government of Taiwan which, also consistent with China’s position, it views as a Chinese province.

Taiwan’s DPP government, which has never trusted China, didn’t believe what few propagandized and flowery outbreak reports it received from the communists and assumed the worst. It quickly moved to quarantine the island and place strict restrictions and health inspection measures on what few entry conduits remained for Chinese nationals to visit and Taiwanese nationals to return to the island.

And of course recent reports confirm that Taiwan warned the WHO in late 2019 of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus, but the international body ignored them and chose to adopt Beijing’s official narrative that the outbreak was under control and posed no threat to global health.

In retrospect, Taiwan’s strained relationship with China gave it the edge it needed to manage the spread of the virus to its shores.

1) Taiwan adopted a stance of great caution in light of the information blackout from the WHO.

2) Taiwan’s DPP government, which has never trusted any “information” coming out of Beijing, assumed the rosy reports of a small, nonthreatening Wuhan outbreak to be baseless propaganda.

3) Taiwan, isolated from China by Beijing’s travel ban, was spared the influx of hundreds of thousands of potentially disease-spreading visitors from the mainland.

So with enemies like China, who needs friends?

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