Since taking office in 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has spearheaded and been a vocal proponent of the government’s New Southbound Policy. As Tsai told the Yushan Forum last year, the policy’s central tenet is that “Taiwan assists Asia and Asia assists Taiwan.”
While many have dismissed this sentiment as idealistic, given that most countries have yet to officially recognize Taiwan, a new development is occurring that could provide increased visibility to Taiwan and even earn it a well-deserved seat at the World Health Assembly.
The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp’s COVID-19 vaccine on July 19. The government has made the vaccine’s development a priority. On Aug. 14, the Central Epidemic Command Center said that 600,000 doses of the domestically developed vaccine were to be administered between Monday and Sunday. [Editor’s note: President Tsai Ing-wen received a dose of the Medigen vaccine at National Taiwan University’s College of Medicine in Taipei on Monday.]
In a world still recovering from a deadly pandemic, vaccine diplomacy has become central to the foreign policy of several states. Vaccines are required on a global scale, but access is limited.
Taiwan has been generating goodwill in the health sector, such as by donating more than 51 million masks to frontline workers in other countries. When India was struck by a second wave of COVID-19, Indian media focused on hospital oxygen shortages, and Taiwan provided India with 150 oxygen concentrators and 500 oxygen cylinders.
Taiwan could use vaccine diplomacy to elevate its role as a provider of health assistance to other countries to a new level.
One of the New Southbound Policy’s critical components is the strengthening of Taiwan’s ties with South Asia, ASEAN members, Australia and New Zealand. The development of the Medigen vaccine has the potential to advance this policy, especially with ASEAN members. Most ASEAN states urgently need vaccines and are relying on agreements with states on other continents. For example, Cambodia, Indonesia and Laos have imported vaccines from China. Concerns about the “great efficiency” of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine might soon require them to obtain other vaccine brands.
Taiwan can learn from India’s vaccine diplomacy and the international goodwill it has generated. Despite its shortcomings, India has emerged as a normative power during the COVID-19 pandemic through its Vaccine Maitri, or Vaccine Friendship, initiative. Moreover, India’s decision to provide low-income countries, unable to compete with wealthy nations in procuring life-saving vaccines for their citizens, with large-scale access to low-cost, high-quality vaccines constitutes a significant act beyond vaccine diplomacy.
It demonstrates that the ascension of a leading power does not have to be malevolent. This message is more critical than ever as Beijing seeks global pre-eminence by tearing down the existing power structure and establishing a Sinocentric world order.
The critical nature of vaccine diplomacy is emphasized even more when the Global North is busy hoarding vaccines and striking exclusive deals with manufacturers to acquire inventories many times their requirements at the expense of impoverishment in the Global South. India has been lauded at the WTO and by numerous state leaders for Vaccine Maitri.
India might have accrued “brownie points” in international affairs that can be redeemed later. Its policy was corroborated by countries rushing to assist India during its second wave. By learning from India’s experiences, Taiwan can formulate a similar strategy. A vaccine diplomacy approach could result in more than just brownie points — it could increase economic deals.
The pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on the world, and vaccines have become a luxury item. Inequality in vaccine access has emerged as a significant issue, and COVID-19 vaccines are not widely available in developing countries. Although a handful of wealthy countries account for only 16 percent of the world’s population, they control 60 percent of vaccine sales internationally.
Taiwan’s domestically developed vaccine can be used effectively to assist its diplomatic allies, and pave the way for multiple trade and economic agreements. The nub of the New Southbound Policy appears to fit this scenario perfectly. Combining the policy and vaccine diplomacy would create an ideal environment in which Taiwanese foreign relations with Asian states could flourish.
While the policy alone might not be capable of persuading countries to recognize Taiwan, the addition of vaccine diplomacy would help. Taiwan’s road to recognition is a long one, but this would undoubtedly propel the nation forward.
Manoj Kumar Panigrahi is an assistant professor at O.P. Jindal Global University’s Jindal School of International Affairs in India. Ahan Gadkari is a law student at O.P. Jindal Global University.
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