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Xi's Taiwan problem isn't going away

May 19. 2020
Ishaan Tharoor
Ishaan Tharoor
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By The Washington Post · Ishaan Tharoor · WORLD, ASIA-PACIFIC 

Chinese President Xi Jinping took center stage Monday. Over a video feed, he delivered the opening speech at an annual meeting held by the World Health Organization, casting his nation as an exemplar of "transparency" during the pandemic and a champion of the developing world. Xi announced a $2 billion commitment to the international fight against the novel coronavirus, including funding to help reinforce health infrastructure in Africa.

That move drew an immediate contrast to President Trump, whose administration has frozen funding to the WHO amid its ongoing squabbles with the U.N. agency over its initial handling of the outbreak and supposed acquiescence to China.

Xi had other reasons to pat himself on the back. Ahead of the meeting, there were mounting calls from various countries, including the United States, for an investigation into the origins of the outbreak, centered on the Chinese city of Wuhan. But as global support for an inquiry grew, its focus shifted in Xi's favor. "Drafts of the proposed resolution showed a focus on international collaboration to manage the pandemic, with relatively limited emphasis on questioning its source," my colleagues Gerry Shih, Emily Rauhala and Josh Dawsey reported.

The Chinese president placed himself at the forefront of global efforts to produce a vaccine, extolled the necessity of "information-sharing" and the virtues of "openness," and sidestepped the many grievances over China's conduct during the pandemic.

Then, there was Taiwan. Ahead of the meeting, the United States and 28 other countries called for Taiwan to be admitted to the meeting as an observer, given its success in recognizing the coronavirus threat early and warding it off at home. Beijing, though, views the island as a part of China and has spent decades trying to make its government an international pariah. Ultimately, the WHO did not extend an invitation to Taiwan, which withdrew its bid for observer status.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the occasion to castigate WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who critics say has been too conciliatory to Beijing. "The Director-General's lack of independence deprives the Assembly of Taiwan's renowned scientific expertise on pandemic disease, and further damages the WHO's credibility and effectiveness at a time when the world needs it the most," Pompeo said in a statement.

He has hinted at the prospect of the United States forging an alternate body to supplant the WHO. But for now, the Trump administration's histrionics have seen its influence in multilateral organizations wane - not least in the failed standoff over Taiwan's observer status.

But even if it's not present in this week's major meetings, Taiwan is having a global moment. Its deft management of the crisis - with only seven reported coronavirus-related deaths - was a mark of efficient, transparent governance and a society with recent experience handling deadly outbreaks. Like China, Taiwan launched its own soft-power initiative to send medical aid and relief around the world, efforts that won widespread plaudits, especially in countries where public attitudes are souring on Beijing.

"Taiwan has provided supplies and health assistance not only to friendly states, but also to countries in Asia, Africa and South America that have close ties with China," my colleagues reported. "It has routed face-mask donations to China-friendly African countries through the Vatican, one of Taipei's few diplomatic allies, and held an online medical seminar with doctors from countries that have recently switched ties from Taipei to Beijing, including the Dominican Republic and El Salvador. A recent Twitter campaign for Taiwan's participation in the assembly gained a push from Twitter users in India, Thailand and Hong Kong."

"The 23 million people of Taiwan want greater international participation, and the government will take full advantage of the growing momentum in world support to get it," Jaushieh Joseph Wu, Taiwan's foreign affairs minister, said in a statement Monday.

Despite not being officially recognized by the United States, Taiwan has also stepped up cooperation with Washington, including a flurry of Cabinet-level meetings. "In a way this relationship makes a lot of sense," Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said during a webinar on Monday. "Taiwan does have shared interests. It's an example of a successful, open-market democracy in Asia."

There's a limit to what this soft power can achieve. Unable to compete with China's economic and political clout, Taiwan has seen its already small list of diplomatic backers diminish. Like its predecessors, the Trump administration maintains the delicate status quo of not officially recognizing Taiwan's de facto sovereignty, while warning against any potential unilateral Chinese efforts to reclaim the island.

Rising anti-Taiwan jingoism in China has also been accompanied by more aggressive military posturing, with Beijing sailing a battle group, including an aircraft carrier, twice around the island in April. In Taiwan, meanwhile, attitudes toward China are hardening. A number of recent polls have found that considerable majorities of Taiwanese view the United States more favorably than China and see their national identity as "Taiwanese" - not "Chinese," as would be hoped for adherents of the one-China policy.

That's troubling for Xi, who earlier in his tenure staked a degree of his political legitimacy on plans to "reunite" the island with the mainland. With many of China's neighbors growing increasingly wary of Beijing, and a liberal, pro-independence government firmly in command in Taipei, Xi's vision of peaceful reunification looks all the more improbable.

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Ishaan Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he authors the Today's WorldView newsletter and column. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

 

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