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‘Mask Diplomacy’ a Boost for Taiwan

With U.S.-China relations showing scant improvement, Taiwan may bolster its global standing.

Chen Chin-fang, the plant manager of Taiwan's Universal Incorporation, one of the country's biggest mask-makers, inspects mask materials at a factory in Tainan on March 6.
Chen Chin-fang, the plant manager of Taiwan's Universal Incorporation, one of the country's biggest mask-makers, inspects mask materials at a factory in Tainan on March 6. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic, which has already infected more than 1.6 million people around the world, has transformed the value of basic medical supplies. In many countries, vital gear such as face masks, swabs, gloves, and gowns has dwindled to dangerous lows. Countries are imposing export bans on personal protective equipment (PPE) precisely as governments are scrambling to import record numbers of the same items. International supply chains for medical supplies have never been so dysfunctional—and the countries that produce them have never been so powerful.

Taiwan—one of the world’s biggest suppliers of medical-grade masks and one of the few places to have successfully battled back COVID-19—is a case in point. It now has a rare opportunity to leverage this moment to make political gains against its long-running antagonist, China. Taipei will have to play its cards carefully, however—especially in Washington.

Taiwan, with a population of just 23 million people, is now the second-largest global producer of face masks after China. It produces 15 million masks each day, according to Taiwan’s economic affairs minister, Shen Jong-chin. As more factories join forces to churn out medical-grade masks, the government expects to raise production to 17 million masks a day by the end of the month. In March, Taipei relaxed an export ban on masks imposed on Jan. 24.

The United States, which now has the most coronavirus cases in the world, stands to benefit. Last month, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu pledged to donate 100,000 surgical face masks per week to the United States. The United States, in return, would agree to send 300,000 hazmat suits to Taiwan.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

On April 1, Taiwan announced it would donate 10 million masks to the world’s neediest countries—this includes an additional 2 million masks to the United States in an expanded collaboration effort. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs this week handed 400,000 masks over to the United States for the month of April.

In recent weeks, Taiwan also shipped masks and PPE to its diplomatic allies, as well as hard-hit European countries such as Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Already Taipei and Washington have mapped out areas of collaboration, including research and development of tests, vaccines, and medicines. They also expect to exchange expertise, cooperate on medical supplies and equipment, work on contact-tracing techniques and technology, and protective and preventative measures, according to a joint statement by the American Institute in Taiwan and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The level of cooperation stands in stark contrast to that of the United States and China, which have traded some aid but made little progress on substantive scientific cooperation.

About $5 billion worth of medical goods were caught up in the trade war initiated by the Trump administration in July 2018, which at the time accounted for over a quarter of U.S. imports of those items. After Washington raised tariffs, the import of such products fell sharply by 16 percent, or nearly $200 million, between 2017 and 2019. U.S. imports of these products from the rest of the world rose by 23 percent. The decrease in imports, in turn, has hampered the United States’ ability to contain the outbreak, according to Chad P. Bown, the Reginald Jones senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Low tariffs in general enable medical facilities and patients access to medical supplies at the highest quality and lowest price, Bown added.

Last month, the Trump administration quietly reduced tariffs on medical supplies from China. But such actions are likely too little too late.

China, criticized for its delayed response to the initial outbreak and lack of transparency to the international community ever since, has been trying to rewrite the narrative. It has been especially keen to demonstrate its ability to be a better ally than the United States to Europe and other virus-stricken countries. As part of the effort, Beijing has been shipping medical equipment, protective gear, and medicine across Europe. Chinese companies are backing their government’s plans. The Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, the co-founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, pledged to send 1.8 million face masks and 100,000 test kits to European countries. And the Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer Huawei also followed with similar relief packages to countries in Europe devastated by the outbreak, donating millions of masks (before halting the program in late March to dispel claims of quid pro quo). Some regional governments and big businesses in China have sent the United States medical supplies, but their efforts seem minimal compared with the mass deployment of aid in Africa and donation packages being shipped to European countries.

“China is using its relatively effective response to the crisis to boost its global soft power, at a time when U.S. leadership is completely absent,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

While China has been on a humanitarian propaganda tour across Europe (albeit with mixed reviews), it hasn’t offered nearly as much largesse to the United States. Indeed, face mask export bans are already being dangled as a stick with which to punish a misbehaving Washington. In one example, China’s state-run mouthpiece Global Times published an article last month warning that if the United States restricted Huawei’s sales, Beijing “may stop supplying much-needed face masks.” In early March, an article published by Xinhua suggested that China would impose strategic control on the export of medical products to the United States in addition to a travel ban if Washington decided to retaliate. If Beijing decided to go down this path, then United States “would be caught in the ocean of coronaviruses.”

If China does indeed cut off its mask supply, it would be in good company. According to Global Trade Alert, 54 governments have implemented curbs on the export of medical supplies and medicines associated with COVID-19 as of March 21. So far, the United States’ main supplier, Mexico, hasn’t placed a ban on exports, but that may change in the future as the outbreak worsens.

If Taiwan can step in and fill the breach, it stands to gain more than an economic boost. Taipei has long sought to strengthen ties with the United States and build its soft power.

And the supply chain gap of medical supplies may be wide. Cracks are starting to show in China’s mask diplomacy. Some countries question the quality of China-made medical equipment and supplies. The Netherlands has recalled tens of thousands of masks imported from China and put on hold the rest of the shipment as they haven’t met quality standards when inspected. Other countries, including Spain and Turkey, complained about defective rapid testing kits ordered from Chinese companies.

With the backing of the United States, Taiwan is presented with a unique opportunity of strengthening its international standing—particularly with regard to its exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO), from which it has been left out due to Chinese pressure. WHO membership is offered only to countries that are members of the United Nations, which does not recognize Taiwan. Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Canada, the European Union, Japan, and the United States have called for WHO to allow Taiwan’s participation but to no avail. The island has been shut out from emergency meetings and important briefings on COVID-19.

WHO, in repeatedly praising China’s outbreak response, also drew the ire of some countries that accuse the organization of bias toward China, a major financial contributor to the organization. In a White House media briefing this week, President Donald Trump lashed out at WHO for being “China-centric” and threatened to pause U.S. funding to the organization. In response, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, urged Trump not to “politicize this virus.” In the same briefing, Tedros accused Taiwan’s leaders of spearheading racist attacks and death threats on him. Taiwan has rejected the claim.

The relationship between the United States and Taiwan was already strong under the Trump administration, which is arguably one of the most pro-Taiwan in U.S. history. But the coronavirus crisis stands to bring the two even closer.

Amid escalating U.S.-China tensions, Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act into law on March 26, which sends a clear message of the United States’ support for Taiwan’s standing in the international arena.

The COVID-19 pandemic demands cooperation between countries. As Beijing and Washington struggle to work with one another, Taipei finds itself in an improved position. No longer simply a pawn between the two countries, Taiwan is becoming a power in its own right.

Nicole Jao is a journalist based in Taiwan. She writes about technology, business, and the environment. Twitter: @nicole_i_jao