As the US’ mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign continues at a record pace, one question under debate is what the administration of US President Joe Biden should do with its extra doses — and especially where to send them.
One country that should be at the top of a donation list is Taiwan, in recognition of the help that it provided to the US at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
After weeks of pressure, the Biden administration announced that it is now “looking at options to share American-made AstraZeneca vaccine doses.”
By summer, it is clear that anyone in the US who wants a vaccine would have received one. The US government has purchased 300 million doses each of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines — enough for 300 million people — plus tens of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that are sitting in storage waiting for approval.
Taiwan — which set a gold standard for its COVID-19 response with fewer than 1,200 cases — has been slow to receive and administer vaccine doses. While Taiwan has ordered about 20 million doses from suppliers, more than 58,000 people, mostly healthcare workers, have received at least one dose.
The slow rate is attributed to doubts over the AstraZeneca vaccine’s safety, potentially leading to their expiration by the end of this month if not used.
Considering the danger of the many virus variants surging around the globe, the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) should work to bolster public receptiveness to whatever vaccines are available. Taiwan has made it this far in the pandemic; it would a shame for a lapse to occur due to vaccine hesitancy.
The slow pace at which Taiwan is receiving COVID-19 vaccines is nothing particularly unique. Countries around the globe are not receiving what they paid for and are having to lower their vaccination goals as a result.
However, Taiwan has faced another, unique set of vaccine issues related to Chinese interference. Taipei has encountered issues in its effort to acquire 5 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and has blamed Beijing for meddling in the process. The doses would be manufactured in Shanghai, so Beijing can exert some influence in this regard.
Taiwan’s unique geopolitical position allows China to pressure companies to spurn it. Beijing has not shied away from using its economic heft to get countries and private corporations to follow its line with regards to Taiwan.
It has worked on clothing companies and airlines, and now that strategy has worked on pharmaceutical companies.
Given Taiwan’s difficulties, the Biden administration should help the nation. When the US had massive personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages at the beginning of the pandemic last year, Taiwan donated millions of masks.
Taiwan has donated more than 30 million surgical masks to countries around the world, including more than 12 million to the US through its “Taiwan can help” campaign. Those donations still continue one year later.
At a time when US healthcare workers were using trash bags and bandanas for protection, Taiwan provided much-needed PPE. Those masks no doubt saved the lives of healthcare workers at a critical juncture.
The US owes Taiwan a debt for these PPE donations. The best way for Washington to repay this debt is to provide Taiwan with something that it could use right now: vaccine doses.
Such a gesture would also reward the proper way to help those in need — a stark contrast to how Beijing carried out a similar donation campaign. As Taipei was quietly donating PPE around the world, Beijing pushed countries to express public praise and thanks for receiving donations from China. Some of those donations proved to be defective.
The difference in approach between Taipei and Beijing has continued into this year with vaccine acquisition. China reportedly pressured Paraguay into switching diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China in exchange for millions of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines.
Taiwan worked with India, which provided Paraguay with 100,000 doses. By working with India to provide Paraguay with vaccines, Taiwan showed that it can work with other partners to help countries in need.
Taiwan has its own vaccines in trials. If approved, they could be ready for mass production by July. A best-case scenario would be for Washington to help Taipei complete its domestic vaccination efforts before a Taiwanese vaccine is ready — thus freeing up another vaccine for use in countries struggling to contain the pandemic.
Instead of working with India — which is facing a terrifying surge in COVID-19 cases and related PPE shortages — to provide doses, Taiwan could become another trusted vaccine provider to other countries finding it difficult to acquire them.
As the pandemic worsens around the globe, having another vaccine ready for distribution would be another example of Taiwan helping countries in need.
While Taipei cannot expect countries to switch diplomatic relations, a strong soft power campaign centered around no-strings-attached PPE and vaccine donations could help strengthen informal ties and potentially create an even better case for participation in international organizations.
Taiwan has proven itself to be a reliable partner for the US, despite its geopolitical limitations.
The Biden administration has expressed strong support for Taiwan in its initial months, most recently by sending an unofficial delegation to Taipei to provide a “personal signal” of Biden’s support. Its initial signals and messages are a great first step as the administration begins to set its policy agenda.
When healthcare workers in the US and around the globe needed PPE, Taiwan stepped up. Now, the US has an abundance of vaccines. The Biden administration should return the favor by providing Taiwan with some of its excess doses.
Thomas Shattuck is a research fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is also a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Foreign Policy Initiative.
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