In the shadow of the ‘wolf warriors’
Published by The Mail on Sunday (17th April, 2020)
Life goes on almost as normal in Taiwan. The schools are full of children, the streets thronged with shoppers, the bars busy. Even the national sport of baseball has resumed – albeit with no more than 1,000 fans in the stadium.
This makes the island nation of 23million people almost unique among locked down developed countries, a tribute to its success in containing the coronavirus pandemic with just seven deaths and 440 confirmed cases.
These figures are even more remarkable when you consider that Taiwan hangs just off the coast of China. Its busy capital Taipei is closer to Wuhan, birthplace of this hideous pandemic, than any other major foreign city.
Taiwan was so quick off the mark that it told the World Health Organisation (WHO) about a strange new virus on the same day last year as China’s authorities − although its warnings were ignored.
Since then its public health strategy, informed by experience of the 2003 SARS epidemic, has won plaudits for its rapid imposition of border controls, boosting of face mask production, use of mass testing and extensive contact tracing.
‘Taiwan is a shining democracy that has demonstrated how to fight this virus and offers an important voice in the debate,’ says Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs select committee.
Yet tomorrow Taiwan will almost certainly be barred by the WHO from joining its influential annual assembly of global health experts, which will largely focus on coronavirus over two days of online meetings.
Taiwan is shunned by global bodies because China refuses to recognise the legitimacy of a neighbouring nation that its dictatorial Communist Party chiefs openly admit they want to grab.
‘We want to share with other countries what we 26 have learned in dealing with coronavirus,’ said David Lin, Taiwan’s ambassador to Britain and a former foreign minister.
‘We tried to warn WHO about human-to-human transmission. If all countries had taken early action, this pandemic might now be different.’
Britain has joined 12 other nations including Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United States in demanding a vote to reinstate Taiwan’s observer status at the WHO’s assembly.
‘They have got something to teach the rest of the world – every country, including China, must surely want to know the secret of their success,’ said Winston Peters, New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister. ‘It’s just logic.’
British support is more muted. But Foreign Office Minister Lord Ahmad has said the UK backs Taiwan’s participation in bodies such as WHO ‘where statehood is not a prerequisite and it can contribute to the global good’.
Taiwan is likely to fall victim to China’s aggressive ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy, which uses its growing economic clout to force global bodies, other countries and businesses to accept its worldview.
Only 14 nations retain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan – the UK isn’t one. Eight more countries have bowed to Beijing’s bullying over the past four years.
China’s Communist leaders openly talk about ‘reunification’ with Taiwan, an island that lies 81 miles off their coast.
They view it as a wayward province of their country. ‘We make no promise to renounce use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means,’ said President Xi Jinping last year.
Taiwan, a Japanese colony for the first half of last century, became a refuge for former Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek’s forces after defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in 1949.
Ironically, Chiang’s government in Taiwan represented China on United Nations bodies such as the WHO until 1971. But now the WHO lists epidemic data reported by Taiwan under the label of ‘Taipei and environs’.
‘There is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China,’ responded a Beijing diplomat to New Zealand’s Deputy PM.
The WHO, which has been criticised for a sluggish pandemic response amid concerns its director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is too close to Beijing, insists attendance of its assembly is determined by member states.
China allowed Taiwan to attend as ‘Chinese Taipei’ for seven years until 2017 – coincidentally, the year that Dr Tedros, a former minister in Ethiopia, was elected to his post at the assembly.
Taiwan stands at the heart of tensions between China and the West, which have escalated during this pandemic.
First came a trade conflict between China and the United States. Then a war of words over the origins of Covid-19.
Now the world’s two mightiest powers are flexing their military muscles amid suggestions China might try to seize Taiwan, which has crucial strategic importance blocking Beijing’s control of the Pacific.
Chinese nationalists on social media are demanding President Xi puts his tough talk into action by taking Taiwan while the world is preoccupied with pandemic. They point out US navy forces in the Pacific have been hit hard by the virus.
Last month, the People’s Liberation Army Navy sent its first aircraft carrier through the sensitive Taiwan Strait in a show of strength. Then a Chinese fighter jet crossed into Taiwanese air space until rival aircraft forced it out.
Now it has emerged Beijing’s armed forces plan a landing exercise on an island in the South China Sea – possibly a practice for the seizure of nearby Taiwanese terrain on the disputed Pratas Islands.
‘We have got used to China’s sabre-rattling as it’s been going on for decades,’ said one Taipei political source. ‘We have to manage the pressure. No one wants military confrontation. It would be bad for everyone.’
The US, a major arms supplier to Taiwan, sent bomber squadrons over Asia in response to China’s threat and last week sailed a destroyer through the Taiwan Strait.
So-called ‘freedom of navigation’ operations ‘send a clear message to Beijing’, said US Defence Secretary Mark Esper.
‘There is concern that because everyone is so focused on Covid-19, it gives China a chance to invade − but it would take an awful lot of preparation, and even if heavily disguised there is no sign of this happening,’ said Rod Wye, an expert with Chatham House think-tank.
China’s leadership hoped that backing for ‘peaceful unification’ would strengthen in Taiwan as the countries grew closer economically.
But even as trade between the pair rose fivefold this century, Taiwanese patriotism has surged. Surveys suggest that only one in ten Taiwanese people wish to join Communist China.
The brutal crackdown on prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong has corroded any lingering faith that Taiwan could adopt the ‘one country, two systems’ concept of government agreed under the territory’s 1997 handover deal with Britain.
These concerns led to the election triumph of Tsai Ing-wen for a second term as president in Taiwan after she vowed to stand up to China’s intimidation.
Her inauguration is on Wednesday – in a free country that offers such glowing contrast to its giant neighbour.