Over the past several months, Taiwan has been a textbook study of COVID-19 vaccination diplomacy in action.
Looking back on the major vaccine-related events of this summer could provide some insight into how the growing divergence between the US and the People’s Republic of China might develop. Evaluating how countries have acted in relation to Taiwan and vaccines also might show what portends for the future as Taiwan’s domestic vaccines are set to be produced.
When the pandemic began and the race to develop a viable vaccine commenced, it was obvious that the countries that developed vaccines first would use them as an influence tool around the globe. Whether through sale or donation, vaccines would (and have) become the currency of the world, likely until the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
The US and China (and Russia to a lesser extent) are the major power players in the ongoing vaccination diplomacy. Whenever these two countries are competing for something, naturally Taiwan, its status and how other countries treat it become elements of the competition.
Throughout the spring and summer, Taiwan has been involved in some of the most high-profile stories regarding vaccination diplomacy: the long and winding saga of signing a contract with BioNTech, which worked with Pfizer to develop one of the leading COVID-19 vaccines; Beijing’s attempt at poaching Paraguay with the promise of vaccines; Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s desire to expand relations with China in the hope of accessing more doses; and millions of doses donated to Taiwan by the US and Japan, as well as thousands more from Lithuania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
With Taiwan’s domestic Medigen vaccine receiving emergency use authorization from the government, there will likely be controversies regarding countries accepting or declining the Taiwan-made vaccine. It is almost a certainty that the already politicized COVID-19 vaccines will receive another controversial element simply because this one comes from Taiwan, and because some governments might be fearful of drawing Beijing’s ire. It is an unfortunate likelihood.
These examples demonstrate how Taiwan — even though it lacks a strong and official international status — has been able to maneuver through the complexities and difficulties of vaccine acquisition, with the added knot of Chinese political interference.
Considering the obstacles that other countries have faced in acquiring vaccines, Taiwan should be considered a relative success. The ways in which Taiwan has acquired vaccines, in addition to it helping other countries obtain their own supplies, are models for others in similar situations — and there are many countries struggling to secure doses.
The BioNTech vaccine acquisition saga, which culminated in the purchase of about 15 million doses by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co and the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, dragged on for months. The administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) hit a roadblock in purchasing the vaccines directly from BioNTech because the German company contracted Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group to handle its sales in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.
The Tsai administration has blamed Beijing for interfering with — and stopping — Taiwan’s purchase. Taipei was set to purchase 5 million doses from BioNTech, but an issue over the language in a media statement halted all progress.
An additional sticking point was whether Shanghai Fosun would serve as just the vaccine distributor, or also as the manufacturer, as Taiwanese law forbids the purchase of Chinese-made vaccines. These issues have prevented Taiwan from gaining access to one of the most sought-after COVID-19 vaccines. The Tsai administration gave its blessing to private entities to negotiate with BioNTech to purchase its vaccines and donate them to the government, theoretically removing political issues from the table.
The “workaround” seems to have been successful, and it could prove to be a way for other countries struggling to purchase vaccines from the leading pharmaceutical companies. As a result of the drama between Taiwan and BioNTech, marginalized or poorer countries’ governments could step aside and allow a wealthy citizen, company or private foundation to negotiate with a vaccine producer.
It is not an ideal solution, as so many countries around the globe are facing the dual threat of COVID-19 surges with a slow trickle of vaccine acquisitions, but if Taiwan was able to come up with a workaround, then it is possible for private individuals to become power players in other countries.
The Chinese political interference in Taiwan’s vaccine acquisition moved into the realm of geopolitical competition when Beijing reportedly offered Paraguay China-made vaccines in exchange for switching its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The story received significant attention, especially after Taiwan worked with India to provide Paraguay with 100,000 doses. The cooperation between Taiwan and India halted Beijing’s offensive in Paraguay, as India proved that it could fill the vaccine gap that China was promising to satisfy.
This controversy erupted as India was facing its own surge and as Taiwan was struggling to acquire vaccines for itself. It showed Taiwan’s friends, partners and allies that it could help them acquire vaccines and that they did not need to rely on the good graces of Beijing.
However, that does not appear to have stopped Hernandez from promising to open a trade office in China as a half-measure to receive China-made vaccines. The move could be the first step in Honduras eventually changing its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
The last piece of the vaccination diplomacy puzzle has come in the form of mass donations by foreign countries. With the US and Japan leading the way by donating millions of Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines, Taiwan has been able to significantly ramp up its vaccination campaign. Before the local COVID-19 surge, Taiwan had a slow vaccination rate, but only a couple of months later, more than 30 percent of the population has received at least one dose.
In the middle of last month, the US tripled its vaccine donation to Taiwan by providing 2.5 million additional doses. Japan, which could use vaccines as it struggles with outbreaks of its own, donated almost 2.5 million doses to Taiwan.
These donations by Washington and Tokyo represent friendship and public stamps of approval for Taipei. At a time when it seems that only big and strong powers can express such public support for Taiwan, these two powers have shown that Taiwan is worthy of receiving vaccines just as much as any other country.
However, larger powers have not been the only ones donating to Taiwan. Lithuania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic jumped into the donation game by providing vaccines as well.
Over the past several months, Lithuania’s relationship with Taiwan has blossomed, with both countries announcing the opening of trade offices in each other’s capitals.
The Taiwan office will also be the first diplomatic office to use “Taiwanese” in its title within a UN-recognized country.
Slovakia announced its donation as a “thank you” after Taipei donated masks to that country. The Czech Republic also promised to donate vaccines to Taiwan. This bilateral relationship has grown over the past two years, with Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil leading a delegation to Taiwan in September last year.
These countries’ actions risk angering Beijing. At a critical time for Taiwan, they decided not to worry about what punitive actions China might take against them. Taiwan stepped up throughout the past year with a massive global campaign of mask donations, and countries are showing that they did not forget.
Taiwan’s experiences with COVID-19 vaccines this year offer a case study in the geopolitics of vaccine diplomacy. Taipei has served as facilitator and receiver, and will likely soon serve as a donor. It has navigated contract disputes and experienced wavering allies, and has seen its relationships with other countries solidify. With a domestic vaccine ready, Taiwan is set to enter into the next stage of vaccine diplomacy.
Thomas Shattuck is a research fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
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