U.S.-China Spat Over Taiwan Extends to Vaccine Diplomacy

The United States is providing hundreds of thousands of vaccines right in China’s front yard.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Medical personnel receive the Moderna vaccine in Taiwan.
Medical personnel receive the Moderna vaccination against COVID-19 at Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital in New Taipei City, Taiwan, on June 9. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

Military officials have been warning for months that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could be a turning point for the United States and its allies, which could determine the fate of the Asia-Pacific region for decades to come.

But U.S. lawmakers who traveled to the embattled island earlier this week in a further sign of warming—but strictly unofficial—ties between Taipei and the Biden administration said Taiwan has emerged as a front line for the emerging tussle between the United States and China for supremacy in another arena: vaccinating the rest of the world. 

In a trip to Taiwan coordinated closely with the White House, a bipartisan group that included Democratic Sens. Chris Coons and Tammy Duckworth and Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan announced in a meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen that the United States would deliver 750,000 excess Pfizer vaccines to the country.

And as U.S. President Joe Biden has increasingly framed U.S. competition with China as a systemic stress test of Western-style democracy against the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism, lawmakers said the trip was a chance to drive home the point that Washington’s way of doing business can still keep up. 

“The experiences of the last year in the United States give some pause for those of us who want to see democracy embraced [as] the world’s model for how to govern ourselves,” Coons said, who is a close Biden ally who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Senate’s nearly $250 billion bill that invests in scientific research to compete with China and the bipartisan delegation to Asia is a chance to “show that our democracy can function and can address the challenges of this moment,” he added. 

There’s a long-standing track record of Democrats and Republicans playing nice on public health diplomacy, dating back at least to the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program initiated under the George W. Bush administration. The lawmakers showed up just after the State Department announced the United States would provide 1.1 million vaccines to South Korea in a visit to Seoul, a U.S. ally that has a robust trade relationship with China.

But the trip comes as the global vaccination drive has taken a sharper great-power edge in the past few months, with Biden using the first leaders summit with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue grouping of nations that includes Japan, India, and Australia to announce a joint partnership to produce 1 billion vaccines by the end of next year. And the G-7 nations pledged to share another billion shots with developing countries at a gathering in Cornwall, England, on Friday, with the United States to provide half the doses.

There is still tension behind the scenes though. The Biden administration is locked in tense interagency debates about whether to distribute vaccines disproportionately to U.S. allies or to provide them more widely, according to congressional aides and former U.S. officials familiar with the debate. 

“The fundamental question is do they spread it like peanut butter thinly or do they allocate it to a small number of countries to have the greatest impact,” one former U.S. official said. An aide to Coons said Congress is actively talking with the administration about which countries to prioritize, focusing on countries facing severe outbreaks. 

But even as that debate rages in Washington, U.S. officials and lawmakers insist there’s a critical difference in the way the Biden administration and China are handling the global vaccine rollout, with Beijing using doses as a cudgel.

Two congressional aides said China has tried to dangle the promise of Sinopharm vaccines to lower-income countries that recognize Taiwan, such as Paraguay, to try to coerce them into changing their minds. Tsai, the Taiwanese leader, has accused China of interfering with a deal with Pfizer to provide vaccines. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu used a visit to Japan this week to call out China for using vaccines to boost diplomatic pressure on Taiwan. 

“China right now is sending its junk vaccines to some of the least developed countries in the world and Africa and other things, but they have economic ties that they require—economic strings attached just to get their vaccines,” Sullivan said. “We’re not doing that.” 

The delegation first planned its trip to Taiwan independent of the administration before realizing its itinerary aligned with the White House’s plans to provide Pfizer vaccines to the island. And the lawmakers were already awaiting a Chinese reaction to the visit before takeoff, the Coons aide said. The image of three U.S. lawmakers, including a close Biden ally, arriving in Taiwan onboard a military transport aircraft and shaking hands with Tsai prompted a flurry of editorials in Chinese media and a mock People’s Liberation Army amphibious assault near the island.

Lawmakers and staff insisted the trip was a chance for the United States to give back to Taiwan, which provided thousands of masks to Washington last year. But some experts see the effort as another in-road to further the unofficial relationship with Taiwan, which has long been prevented from joining the World Health Organization by China. “All this underscores the important role the United States has to play in helping Taiwan break out of Beijing’s blockade,” said Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a Virginia-​based think tank.

Even as the optics of the trip caused unease in Beijing, lawmakers insisted the trip was fully couched within the 1979 law that established quasi-diplomatic ties between the United States and Taiwan. White House Asia coordinator Kurt Campbell, Biden’s aide-de-camp on the region, insisted in public comments last month that the new administration will honor the “strategic ambiguity” created by the Taiwan Relations Act about whether the U.S. military would defend the nation from a Chinese assault. Sullivan said lawmakers and Tsai did not discuss whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid in a military crisis. 

But the temperature is rising, with near daily Chinese raids into Taiwan’s air defense zones, which are seen as an effort to burn out Taipei’s pilots. Senior defense officials recently said China tends to ramp up its exercises to coincide with unofficial visits, and Washington is carefully watching to see if those exercises get more complex across different People’s Liberation Army services, such as the inclusion of more naval and rocket forces. 

The United States should aim to make Taiwan “the military equivalent of a porcupine,” more costly for China to attack and able to hold out until U.S. reinforcements can arrive, said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

But even those like Bowman, a former Senate Republican staffer, who want closer ties—such as more arms sales, a tighter unofficial diplomatic relationship, and more joint military drills—acknowledge there’s a risk of poking the Chinese bear with aid to Taiwan. 

“We have to be careful; this is not a precise science,” he said. “But Beijing has been pretty clear about their plans for Taiwan.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Tag: Taiwan