Covid-19, 'Mask Diplomacy' and Taiwan sovereignty

Mirco Di Giacomo

China has been sending medical aid to multiple countries in the past weeks. Having, apparently, controlled the Covid-19 crisis, China has since engaged in the so-called 'Mask Diplomacy'; sending foreign (medical) aid to countries affected by Covid-19 in an effort "to boost its image as a responsible global leader." However, China is not the only country engaging in 'Mask Diplomacy.' Taiwan has also been sending medical aid to countries affected by Covid-19, pledging to send 10 million surgical masks to the United States of America (US) and Europe, and to its regional neighbours and all its allies. Taiwan's so-called 'Mask Diplomacy' does not stop to masks. Taiwan is also collaborating with the European Union (EU) in developing a vaccine and making financial donations by Taiwanese non-governmental organisations and private citizens to other countries, including US$4 million donated to Italian medics.


Taiwan's involvement in 'Mask Diplomacy' practices is peculiar and significant in many ways, making it a relevant phenomenon for international politics.


First, as analysists have noted, Taiwanese medical aid is aimed at gaining international diplomatic support. Taiwan' use of 'Mask Diplomacy' has made gains internationally by getting recognition for its efforts to help other countries in coping with Covid-19. Among them, the EU, albeit none of its members recognises Taiwan, openly praised Taiwan for their medical help. Also, Czechia has expressed public appreciations to Taiwan for the medical help, and so has the US and Japan, having received two million masks. Finally, Singapore has expressed gratitude for the masks Taiwan sent. For a country whose sovereignty is recognised by only 15 countries, gaining any form of diplomatic support is of great importance, as illustrated in the next point of this analysis.


Second, Taiwan is not a recognised state by virtually the entire world. Most countries, including the US–arguably Taiwan's closest ally–do not have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Taiwan has consistently had its sovereignty denied and has been expelled from the United Nations and the World Health Organisation (WHO) since 1971. Moreover, China considers Taiwan to be a nothing more than a rebel province which must be reabsorbed, by force, if necessary. Thus, being recognised as an independent and sovereign country (and not a rebellious Chinese province) is, and increasingly will be, a matter of life or death for Taiwan as Beijing pressures for reunification increase. It is indeed unsurprising that Taiwan reserved two million masks exclusively for the only 15 countries which still recognise its sovereignty. By sending medical help as a state to other states (including those who do not recognise it) and having sovereign countries accepting that help, Taiwan is building precedent for its recognition. While far from official, countries accepting Taiwan behaving de facto as a sovereign country–at least for the purposes of foreign aid–contribute to strengthening Taipei's sovereignty narrative's legitimacy and (informal) international support of it.


Taiwan's 'mask diplomacy' is more than merely sending medical help or establishing better diplomatic relations, like China, for instance, is largely doing. For Taiwan, sending medical aid is a way to tackle a much more existential threat. Whether this will work in unclear, predictions in international affairs are notably difficult to make, but some results seem to be emerging. The US and Japan, who received masks from Taiwan, are now seeking international support to lobby the WHO admit Taiwan as a member, something reserved to states. WHO membership is undoubtedly a 'first step' toward Taiwan's international recognition. Whether this American-Japanese initiative is causated by, or merely correlated, to Taiwan's 'Mask Diplomacy' is hard to determine, but it is hard to believe Taiwan's medical aid during this pandemic was irrelevant in Japan's or US' decision to lobby, or the diplomatic support Taipei gathered through medical aid will not strengthen Taiwan's case if this lobbying goes further and WHO members are called to take a stand.


Mirco Di Giacomo is an international relations and history student at the University of Adelaide, Treasurer of the University's Politics and International Relations Association, and Digital Communications Officer for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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