Even though some countries have severed ties with Taiwan under the influence of China’s aggressive “checkbook diplomacy,” Taiwan has left a mark on the international community, including in countries that do not maintain formal ties with it, by cooperating on medical technology and healthcare issues.
Despite China’s attempts to isolate Taiwan internationally, the latter wields considerable global soft power by pursuing what is described as “medical diplomacy” with many countries that are eager to learn from Taiwan’s experience in the sector and apply it for the welfare of their people.
Medical diplomacy is the key that can unlock doors for Taiwan and put it on a high pedestal in the eyes of the world — even without the recognition of the UN. There is widespread acknowledgement of Taiwan’s technological contribution, particularly the use of artificial intelligence, in the field of medicine and healthcare.
The just-concluded MEDICA trade fair — the world’s biggest trade fair for medical devices — in Dusseldorf, Germany, had a large contingent of Taiwanese companies showcasing a wide range of medical devices and accessories. The huge Taiwan pavilion at the trade show was flooded with visitors from around the world, including, ironically, a few from mainland China, which has, otherwise, campaigned aggressively to isolate Taiwan.
Medical experts in Southeast Asian countries, for example, are impressed by Taiwan’s achievements in medicine and the support technology, and research and development.
Indeed, patients from these countries visit Taiwan to seek good and affordable medical treatment. Many of Taiwan’s hospitals are known to doctors and healthcare experts in Southeast Asia, some of whom even recommend patients to receive specialized treatment in Taiwan. Taiwanese medical experts visiting New York to participate in discussions with American experts at healthcare events say that Taiwan’s aim is to become Asia’s medical hub, pointing out that its hospitals use state-of-the-art medical technology, deploying virtual reality neuronavigation.
A Malaysian businessman at MEDICA, preferring to remain anonymous, told me that he frequently meets Taiwanese medical experts to update himself on advancements in medicine and compare them with the medical advancements in his own country.
He cited the example of Taipei Veterans General Hospital, which seems to have impressed many Southeast Asians with its excellence in treating patients with arrhythmia through a radiofrequency ablation technique. Doctors use a 3D mapping system during the catheter ablation to precisely identify the source of the arrhythmia.
This, he said, was a major breakthrough and a welcome change from the past risky procedure entailing cutting into the heart to map its irregularities. The use of the 3D mapping system — a less invasive procedure — helps the doctors identify the heart’s irregularities.
Taiwan’s medical diplomacy operates in tandem with its New Southbound Policy, which aims to forge closer ties and cooperation with countries in the southern hemisphere of the Indo-Pacific region — particularly, South and Southeast Asian countries, and Australia and New Zealand.
Last year alone, Taiwan received 103,241 foreigners who came to receive medical treatment, with Indonesian patients accounting for 24 percent. In August, the number of Indonesian patients reached 26 percent of the 100,373 international patients for this year.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) said on the sidelines of an informal chat with visiting foreign journalists in his office last year that Taiwan’s goal was to offer “smart medical solutions” to patients at affordable prices.
The soft power that Taiwan wields through its medical diplomacy can withstand the hard power that China asserts through military and economic coercion.
Medical institutions in countries covered by the New Southbound Policy are keen to seek new skills and expertise in Taiwan. Indeed, many Western doctors also come to Taiwan to acquire the latest medical expertise and update themselves on innovations. Taichung-based China Medical University Hospital, for example, attracts visits by foreign doctors keen on updating themselves in advanced reconstructive microsurgery.
According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, about 2,700 foreign doctors sought training in hospitals in Taiwan between 2014 and October last year.
“Medical diplomacy can be an important vehicle for Taiwan to win friends and influence leaders, even in countries with no ties with Taiwan,” the Malaysian businessman said.
The significance of medical diplomacy was also underlined by National Health Insurance Administration Director-General Lee Po-chang (李伯璋) in an interview during a recent visit to New York. Lee, who is a surgeon specializing in kidney transplants and a professor in the Medical College of National Chang-Kung University, is also the chairman of the board of the Taiwan Organ Registry and Sharing Center.
Lee envisioned “huge synergies” emanating from Taiwan’s cooperation in the medical sector with South and Southeast Asia under the New Southbound Policy.
Southeast Asian countries are eager to learn and benefit from the experiences of Taiwan’s “single-payer healthcare” system, an affordable universal healthcare program driven by scientific and technological advancement.
Lee spoke of the healthcare systems in Southeast Asian countries, some of which have a good infrastructure, but still need to upgrade themselves on the latest technological innovations.
“One reason for achieving success in the National Health Insurance Administration is to have a sound public health infrastructure, which should be upgraded by alert healthcare experts,” Lee said in the interview, adding that Taiwan’s healthcare system rested on a partnership between the private sector and the government.
Lee, who is often invited to give lectures in ASEAN members, recalled the meeting of representatives of APEC healthcare administrations in Taipei in August.
“Cooperation with Southeast Asian countries is a key element of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy,” he said.
Taiwan generates considerable international goodwill through its medical diplomacy, which serves as an important vehicle to win friends worldwide, including those that have terminated their relations with the island under pressure from the mainland. Taiwan’s medical diplomacy can help increase the international reservoir of goodwill and enhance its soft power. Soft power has a profound effect on those who benefit from it, unlike those that are cowed by the hard power manifested by brute military and economic might.
Manik Mehta is a New York-based journalist with writing experience on foreign affairs, diplomacy, global economics and international trade.
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