The local outbreak of COVID-19 infections, which began in May, has been successfully brought under control, with daily new cases in the past week registering in the low 20s. Starting on Tuesday, many areas of the country will begin to lift some of the pandemic restrictions.
This is an outstanding achievement, but there is cause for circumspection. The “vaccine chaos” instigated by China and its proxies has sown an undercurrent of unrest that could have an impact on Taiwan’s political stability and social fabric.
Some have attributed the receding of the COVID-19 outbreak to the arrival and administration of a large quantity of vaccines, but the vaccination program could not have possibly had such a quick result.
The fact is that Taiwan has relied on tried and tested methods applied globally since the pandemic began: widespread wearing of masks, hand hygiene, extensive disinfection, social distancing, home isolation or quarantine for confirmed or suspected cases, meticulous epidemiological investigations, and mass screening.
This has resulted in a second Taiwanese “epidemiological miracle.”
Additionally, Taiwan faced a vaccine shortage only two months ago. Thankfully, the US and Japan came to our aid, donating large quantities of vaccines. At about the same time, shipments of COVID-19 vaccines purchased from abroad began to arrive, allowing the vaccination program to pick up speed and for 20 percent of the population to be inoculated.
The government’s vaccine purchases — combined with assistance from friendly nations, private companies completing contracts, and purchases by the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation — mean that Taiwan has enough doses to provide its population with two shots. Thus, acquiring more vaccines is not the most pressing issue the nation faces.
Despite this, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) continues to instruct KMT-controlled local governments to submit applications to the central government for the purchase of 5 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Why?
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co and the Yonglin Charity Foundation, all of which have worked with health officials to purchase vaccines from abroad, have strictly adhered to the three rules of the government’s vaccine purchase framework: The vaccine must be produced in Germany; the original factory labeling must remain affixed; and it must be shipped directly to Taiwan.
Between the three organizations, they successfully obtained 10 million doses of vaccines, winning the approval and gratitude of their compatriots.
By contrast, it is curious that recent would-be non-governmental buyers of COVID-19 vaccines have, seemingly by coincidence, all requested to purchase the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
To get to the bottom of this, government officials should investigate the issue through the lens of China’s “vaccine diplomacy” to avoid inadvertently falling into a trap laid by Beijing.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is to blame for turning a manageable epidemic into a global pandemic, is strenuously promoting its vaccines to avoid international blame for the crisis. Beijing donates or sells Chinese-made vaccines to poor or weak nations to promote the idea that China is a philanthropic force for good, whitewash the inconvenient truth about the virus’ origin, pull developing nations into China’s orbit and compete against Western nations.
The US, EU, Japan and other countries, understanding China’s intentions, have begun to push back by providing poorer nations with large quantities of their own vaccines. In a clear statement of geopolitical intent, US President Joe Biden said: “America will be the arsenal of vaccines in our global fight against COVID-19, just as America was the arsenal of democracy in World War II.”
From Taiwan’s perspective, China’s vaccine diplomacy is a dangerous proposition.
First, Beijing is trying to enhance China’s relationship with these nations or encourage them to sever ties with Taiwan. Examples of this effort can be seen in Honduras and Paraguay.
However, by interfering in Central and South America, which Washington views as its “backyard,” Beijing stepped on a geopolitical land mine, provoking a strong response from the US.
The second threat is that Beijing is manipulating Taiwan’s internal politics by using the “Greater China region” marketing and distribution rights it purchased from the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s German manufacturer.
There is nothing wrong with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s quality or safety. The problem is that the CCP has weaponized the “Greater China region” marketing and distribution rights to impede Taiwan’s purchase of vaccines.
At the beginning of this year, the government was negotiating with Pfizer-BioNTech to purchase its vaccine, but Beijing interfered behind the scenes, insisting that Pfizer-BioNTech’s media statement announcing the agreement could not include the words “Taiwan” or “country,” forcing the government to step away from the contract. Beijing’s motivation was clear: to erect an insurmountable barrier that would belittle Taiwan’s status and place a divide between the government and the public.
Although the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is demonstrably superior in terms of efficacy to China’s domestically developed vaccines, Chinese authorities have not approved its use in China in a clear case of protectionism.
The Chinese public is reportedly reluctant to use China’s domestically produced vaccines. Therefore, if Beijing were to allow the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be administered, China’s pharmaceutical companies would presumably have the rug pulled from under their feet, which would scupper Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy.
This means that Beijing is in a bind. China’s Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group’s stockpile of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, manufactured under license, will go unused past their expiry dates. This is where Taiwan’s fifth column steps in. If Beijing, through its Taiwan proxies, creates a surge in demand for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the problem would be solved.
The only problem with this scheme is that Taiwan is no longer in a vaccine panic. So why is the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine still being pushed on Taiwan? The reason is that, regardless of the success of the purchase requests, Beijing will have benefited by sowing discord within Taiwanese society and politics.
In reality, Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy is having a limited effect, primarily because China’s domestically developed vaccines are not as effective as others. Many countries that have used China’s vaccines are battling surges in infections.
Furthermore, Europe, the US, Japan and other nations fully understand that China has weaponized vaccines as a new type of commodity under its Belt and Road Initiative, which Beijing is using to dominate world trade. Consequently, democratic nations have united to fight back.
China’s vaccines are also unattractive to most Taiwanese. Although some pan-blue and pan-white camp politicians are vigorously promoting them under the pretext of humanitarianism, such arguments have not gained traction.
However, Beijing’s meddling in Taiwan’s vaccine purchase program has had some utility in terms of its wider “united front” strategy to infiltrate and divide the nation.
This is where the government needs to focus its attention and stay alert. The public must also understand what is going on behind the scenes and regard China’s nefarious vaccine diplomacy for what it is.
Translated by Edward Jones
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