Covid-19: Despite a surge in cases, Taiwan resists China’s vaccine diplomacy

A medical personnel (R) takes a Moderna vaccination against the Covid-19 coronavirus at Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital in New Taipei City on June 9, 2021.
A medical personnel (R) takes a Moderna vaccination against the Covid-19 coronavirus at Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital in New Taipei City on June 9, 2021. © Sam Yeh, AFP

As it grapples with a worsening Covid-19 situation, Taiwan is also facing a critical shortage of vaccines.  And while Beijing, which claims the self-ruled island as one of its territories, has repeatedly offered to send vaccines, Taiwan has steadfastly refused to accept its help.


Until recently Taiwan had averted a Covid-19 catastrophe and was held up as a model over its management of the health crisis. The “Taiwanese model” of early border closures, widespread use of masks and a draconian policy of tracking cases had borne fruit. In 2020, as countries around the world entered a cycle of lockdowns, the people of Taiwan were out in restaurants, shops and cultural venues.

But those days are now gone. By late April, the situation had sharply deteriorated. A sudden surge in cases was traced back to a group of airline pilots who unknowingly brought the Alpha (British) variant of the virus into the country just as the government had eased quarantine measures. 

Since then, Covid-19 has taken off. "Contaminations have increased twelvefold since the end of March. There are about 200 new cases every day, when there were barely 10 or so for months," said Hubert Testard, an economist and author of the book "Pandemic, the tipping point of the world". On June 12, the number of deaths so far had reached 411 after having plateaued at seven for the year 2020. 

Since mid-May and for the first time since the start of the pandemic, the Taiwanese have been under a semi-lockdown. Public places, including schools and universities, are closed and gatherings are prohibited. Initially scheduled to end on May 28, these restrictions have been extended to June 28.

A shortage of vaccines

And the current outbreak reveals another major problem: The country is lagging behind in terms of vaccinations. Officially launched in mid-March, Taiwan’s vaccination programme is moving at a snail's pace. As of June 11, 800,000 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine had been administered to the more than 23 million inhabitants of the densely populated island. In other words, only 3.36 percent of the total population has received a first dose, almost exclusively with the AstraZeneca vaccine, according to data provided by Our World In Data.

"This delay in the start of the vaccination campaign has been observed in most Asian countries, particularly those that have been good at containing the pandemic, such as South Korea and Japan," said Testard. "This can probably be explained by the fact that the population felt safe. Governments wanted to take their time... But, obviously, everything accelerates as soon as the situation deteriorates."

Since mid-May, the island has been trying to speed up vaccinations, notably by making it free for all. However, it faces a major obstacle given the lack of available vaccines. Although the island had ordered about 20 million doses from abroad, it has so far received only 726,600 doses from AstraZeneca and 150,000 doses from Moderna.

Given China views the archipelago as one of its provinces, Taiwan would not have to go far to find more vaccines. Indeed, Beijing has offered its own vaccines to Taiwan and, on June 11, it went so far as to invite the Taiwanese to the mainland where they could get inoculated.

However, the government of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has categorically refused the offer, believing it would come with strings attached and a way of Beijing to establish its predominance over the island-nation.

On several occasions, Taipei has gone further, accusing China of being partly responsible for the archipelago's difficulties in obtaining vaccines. Rather than having to negotiate with Beijing, the Taiwanese government wanted to deal directly with manufacturers, notably the American and German companies behind the Pfizer-BioNTech. But these attempts have systematically failed, even though the negotiations seemed to have been progressing well.

"Pfizer has signed a 'Greater China' distribution contract with Beijing, which includes Taiwan", said Testard of the stymied negotiations between Taiwan and vaccine producers. "So it is very likely that these new negotiations will be blocked by China."

Taipei is at an impasse: Accepting the vaccines included in this "Greater China" contract would mean recognising that Taiwan is part of China.

"Taiwan's access to vaccines continues to be slowed down by Chinese interference," said Taiwanese presidential spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka on Twitter in May, after new negotiations with the German manufacturer BioNTech failed.

Criticism from pro-Beijing opposition

On the island, some voices, carried by the opposition party close to Beijing, the Kuomintang, are becoming increasingly insistent on accepting the Chinese offer. Thus, Hung Hsiu-chu, a major figure in the party, recently challenged the president, reminding her that "the real enemy is the virus, not Beijing". Since June 1, the party has also launched a campaign on social networks, with an unequivocal message: "Taiwan needs vaccines".

"What is your vaccine strategy?" demanded the opposition party’s president Johnny Chiang during an online conference on June 1. He followed up with a blistering attack: "This government's arrogance and bad policies have plunged us into the crisis we are in now."

In addition to political differences, the Taiwanese government has called into question the effectiveness and safety of the Chinese vaccines. In late May, it commissioned a poll that showed 86 percent of Taiwanese would refuse the Chinese vaccines.

A geopolitical issue

The issue has now taken a geopolitical turn, with Taipei's allies coming to the island's aid. On June 4, the symbolic date of the Tiananmen commemorations, Japan announced that it was sending more than a million vaccines to the archipelago. "Taiwan and Tokyo share the values of freedom and democracy," said the Japanese foreign minister, in a move that provoked the ire of Beijing.

On June 6, it was the turn of three American senators, on a diplomatic visit to Taiwan, to announce the distribution of 750,000 vaccines. "We are seeing a situation of increased rivalry between China and the United States. This announcement by Washington is eminently political," said Testard. "More than just providing aid, it is clearly about undermining Beijing's vaccine diplomacy.”

And Taiwan hopes to soon be able to rely on vaccines produced at home. Three are currently completing phase 2 trials and two have already been approved by the government. A licensing procedure should allow for mass distribution of the Taiwan-manufactured vaccines by the end of July.

"Taiwan should be able to continue to do without Chinese vaccines," said Testard. As the government's objective is to have 60 percent of its population vaccinated by the end of October, “the vaccination campaign will certainly continue to gain momentum”.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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