While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced countries to (literally) close their doors, politics continue behind those doors regardless. For Taiwan, vaccines have become a politicized issue after a surge in cases in early summer this year, but with only 3% of the population having been vaccinated, the governments has struggled in their search for sources of the vaccine (Davidson, 2021). Beijing has offered to supply doses, but the Tsai Ing-wen administration has refused, despite assurances by Chinese authorities that there is no hidden agenda behind its offer to supply vaccines (Lee & Blanchard, 2021). Instead, it has relied on other donors. Both Japan and the US sent 1.24m and 750,000 doses respectively to Taiwan, a step that has evoked criticism from Beijing. In addition, Taiwan has started to develop its own Medigen vaccine, which it started to administer in August (BBC, 2021). But the island has also received donations from more unlikely allies, namely Poland and Lithuania (Reuters, 2021a; Reuters, 2021b). This comes after Lithuania moved out of the 17+1 diplomatic framework between the EU and China and decided to set up a representative office for Taiwan, which led Beijing to recall its ambassador from Vilnius (Gramer, 2021). It shows that the vaccine diplomacy is part of a much larger geopolitical strife that has sparked once more. These developments urge a re-evaluation of what the (near) future of Taiwan will be like and whether it is really the “most dangerous place on earth,” as a much-cited article in The Economist pronounced in May 2021.
Historical Mistake (or Not)?
It is always good to go back to history, especially recent history, and revisit the background to gain a better contextual understanding. China has been a witness to the rise and ebb of numerous empires, and the struggle for power continued also in the twentieth century. From the 1920s to the 1940s, the nationalist Kuomintang Party and the Communist Party vied for power until 1949, when Kuomintang (led by Chiang Kai-shek) were pushed further and further back and Chiang fled to what we now know as Taiwan – referring to itself as the Republic of China. The relationship between Taipei and Beijing has since then been dictated by the One China, Two Systems principle, a phrase that can be interpreted differently depending on who is referred to as the “One China” – Taiwan or mainland China.
Nowadays, Taiwan is known as one of the strongest and most progressive democracies in Southeast Asia, perhaps most famously as being the first country in the region to legalise same-sex marriage. However, one should also keep in mind that the island was not always so democratic. Its citizens suffered under a long period of martial law, with harsh censorship which repressed several fundamental freedoms of expression, speech, assembly and so forth. Nevertheless, until 1971, Taiwan enjoyed a seat at the United Nations Security Council. Here, developments on the other half of the globe, particularly the rise of the Soviet Union, turned Western powers to cats on hot bricks and in the heat of the moment, they chose what was then believed to be the “lesser of two evils” – China. Certainly, China was a communist country, but by the 1960s it had fallen out with its closest allies in Moscow. It was thought that China might be able to contain the Soviet Union, and Taiwan was, without having been consulted, replaced by China at the UN.
This decision has, in some ways, shaped the course of geopolitics in the region and the world at large. Until today, the West has maintained a complex and sometimes tense, yet undeniably dependent relation with China. In the 1980s and 1990s, many developed countries relied on China’s cheap exports. Now, countries depend on China not just for exports, but for cash too, with Beijing having become the world’s largest bilateral creditor (Acker, 2021). The world needs China, but China may not any longer need the world. In recent years, China under Xi Jinping has become more assertive in what it wants – the so-called “Chinese Dream,” a vision of greater economic prosperity and military superiority. These new ambitions, combined with more aggressive policies – both internal and external – including the recent dispatchment of warplanes by Beijing into the Taiwanese defence zone have made both politicians and experts question whether the status quo of Taiwan’s situation can be safeguarded much longer (Hille, 2021).
The Future of Taiwan: Alone at Sea?
History always gives us lessons, but lessons often fall on deaf ears. Consider the example of Hong Kong: despite the development of the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement in 2019, evolved from its predecessor the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, Beijing has implemented the so-called National Security Law. Since its implementation, 117 people have been arrested under the new law (Yiu & Katakam, 2021). Concerns about the potential for similar developments in Taiwan have become more pronounced in the past year.
Both the US and individual EU countries have demonstrated greater solidarity with Taiwan. Trump might have been a leader whose populist policies and extreme narratives did not appeal to everyone; however, for Taiwan, he was better news. Under Trump, the Taiwan Assurance Act was passed, which strengthened defence ties between the US and Taiwan (Kutlu & Ul Khaliq, 2020). He was, interestingly, also the first president to accept a direct congratulatory call from Tsai Ing-wen when he assumed presidency. President Biden now appears to continue Trump’s legacy, when in August he approved arms sales to the island and resumed talks to go forward with the Trade and Investment Framework Agreements (TIFA; Grothusen, 2021).
The slow spread of Chinese influence through the Belt-and-Road initiative, a series of infrastructural and development investments in Eastern Europe, Africa, Central Asia, and other parts of the world, has caused several Eastern European countries (who are impacted more directly by the project than other EU countries) to rethink the benefits and disadvantages of closer relations with China. As mentioned above, Lithuania’s action has been badly received by Beijing. China-Taiwan relations are at this point in time, the worst in 40-years. There have been signs that both EU and US have taken more tangible steps to support Taiwan. However, with regards to the EU, it still remains to be seen whether it will stand in solidarity with some of its member states, or whether it will consider China as a more important player for its economic and political future. Equally, the US has not yet retracked its policy of strategic ambiguity, which allows it to maintain amiable relationship with China, while not excluding the possibility of defending Taiwan (Reuters Washington D.C., 2021). Taiwan is not completely alone at sea – but its geopolitical surroundings have become remarkably grey, and future developments will be indicative of the health of more large-scale interstate relations.
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