Since its discovery in December in the Chinese city of Wuhan, COVID-19 has spread like wildfire around the world, and its impact on the global economy appears to be more serious than many have thought.
However, there is an important fact that has escaped the attention of most observers: The route of the virus’ spread corresponds with China’s geopolitical interests around the globe.
Taiwan is an exception. Despite its geographical proximity, large volume of trade and other dealings with China, Taiwan has, to date, been able to effectively slow down the virus’ advance due to a combination of good fortune and prudent decisionmaking.
South Korea and Japan in East Asia, Italy in Europe and Iran in the Middle East: Outside of China, it is in these countries that the virus has strongly taken hold. Similar to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea possess advanced healthcare systems capable of providing a high standard of medical care. Online database Numbeo’s “Health Care Index by Country 2020” ranked Taiwan first, followed by South Korea and Japan.
An unintended but happy consequence of the Japanese colonial era is that a large number of Taiwanese elite opted to study medicine, as during that time Taiwanese were banned from reading law or politics. Health insurance is another key inheritance of this era.
However, in the global battle to combat the virus, the Japanese government’s response sticks out like a sore thumb. Setting aside its calamitous quarantine of the Diamond Princess cruise ship and the cases related to it, Japan had, as of yesterday, 479 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and instances of community transmission.
The primary reason behind the surge is Japanese politicians and officials have been constrained by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy of improving relations between Tokyo and Beijing, causing officials to misjudge the situation.
Japanese officials have long been planning a series of major events for the next few years, including an official visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) next month, the Tokyo Summer Olympics in July and the anniversary of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and China in September.
The meeting between Abe and Xi would be the first of its kind in 12 years. The groundwork for the meeting started long ago and Japanese officials want to ensure that nothing gets in the way. When news of the virus first broke, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅), under orders from Xi, asked the Japanese government not to overreact to the epidemic.
From the get-go, the Abe administration responded to the unfolding epidemic as if it were nothing more than a winter flu virus. Abe even offered to donate supplies to China. All of his administration’s actions were motivated by one overriding concern: keeping Beijing onside.
Unfortunately for Abe, coronaviruses do not respect diplomatic niceties and the COVID-19 epidemic rapidly spread throughout Japan. Japanese are panicking and the Tokyo Summer Olympics has been thrown into doubt.
A national survey conducted last month by Asahi Shimbun found that 85 percent of Japanese were concerned about the outbreak in their country.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in — whose administration has proved to be staunchly pro-China — is facing the wrath of the South Korean public due to his mishandling of the outbreak, and his decision to donate masks to China has been strongly criticized when there was a domestic shortage of masks.
Moreover, as South Korea’s borders remain open to Chinese tourists, epidemic-prevention measures are ineffective and, as of yesterday, the number of confirmed cases had reached 7,382, making it the highest concentration of confirmed cases outside of China.
A petition calling for Moon to be impeached has, at the time of writing, garnered 1.4 million signatures. With the petition mocking him as “Chinese Chairman Moon,” he is facing the greatest crisis of his presidency.
However, the most dramatic of all outbreaks is taking place in Italy. Why Italy?
One reason is the relatively high number of Chinese who have immigrated to the country, in particular from Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. Another reason is Italy is the first G7 nation to sign up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which Beijing is using as a strategic bridgehead to gain access to the rest of Europe.
In March last year, Xi traveled to Rome to sign a series of cooperation agreements with the Italian government. Italy agreed to open up four of its ports to Chinese investment and trade to facilitate its infrastructure upgrade. The combined deals are reportedly worth up to 7 billion euros (US$7.97 billion).
By breaking ranks as the first G7 nation to embrace the Belt and Road Initiative, the Italian government hoped it would be able to drink its fill from the fountain of Chinese “easy money.” Instead, Rome’s love affair with Beijing has exposed the country to the virus and forced its people to drink from a poisoned well.
In Iran, Beijing has been pushing its Belt and Road Initiative since the beginning of 2013. This is because Tehran occupies a pivotal position as a bridge between three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. China is now Iran’s biggest trading partner.
Boxed in by Western sanctions, Iran has for many years been exporting crude oil to China, and vast Chinese investments in the country have brought new railways, roads and other large-scale infrastructure projects.
One of the largest projects, a new railway that would connect Tehran to Urumqi, the administrative capital of China’s Xinjiang region, is expected to be completed next year.
All these investments necessitate a large number of Chinese workers shuttling back and forth between the two countries and they have brought the virus with them. The number of Iranian fatalities from the virus is second only to China, and it has now spread from Iran to neighboring countries in the Middle East.
Like Italy, Iran has become a regional super vector, transmitting the virus to neighboring countries.
As for Taiwan, the government is still fighting for time. The nation’s advanced and extensive healthcare system is the main reason for its largely successful prevention efforts — but there is also another factor: Since assuming office in 2016, the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been out of favor with the court of Beijing. At the end of July last year, China sought to inflict additional economic punishment by banning individual Chinese tourists from visiting Taiwan, having previously placed an embargo on Chinese tour groups. It was a blessing in disguise.
From the get-go, the Tsai administration made a conscious decision to maintain a healthy distance from China and sought to extricate the nation from the pro-China polices of the previous administration under former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
If Ma were still running the show, it is highly likely that his administration would have made serious missteps in its epidemic-prevention efforts, due to a misplaced feeling of camaraderie and solidarity with their Chinese “brethren.”
That Taiwan has so far been able to avoid calamity is not simply down to good fortune. The government cannot afford to let its guard down.
Tzou Jiing-wen is editor-in-chief of the Liberty Times (the sister newspaper of the Taipei Times).
Translated by Edward Jones
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