Taiwan’s refusal of Chinese vaccines: existential dimensions and strategic challenges

Mirco Di Giacomo | Pacific Fellow


Taiwan, until early May hailed as “the island that COVID forgot” as it successfully contained the pandemic, has experienced a two months long surge in cases of truly unprecedented proportions.


Until May, daily peaks rarely exceeded more than 20 cases. But by the end of the month, Taiwan witnessed surges nearing 600 per day. This surge proved concerning especially in light of vaccines scarcity; at the start of the second COVID wave not only being less than 0.15 per cent of the population vaccinated, but also Taiwan experiencing what appeared to be, in their own words, active Chinese efforts to halt vaccine delivery from companies including BioNTech.


At the same time, China, an otherwise improbable helping hand, emerged to offer doses to ensure “Taiwan compatriots will have mainland vaccines” promptly. Taipei, despite the surge in cases, refused the offer.


The refusal has highlighted not just the obvious Taiwan-China tensions, which have always existed since the People’s Republic of China won the mainland and the Republic of China fled to Taiwan; the refusal of China’s offer by Taipei has highlighted the island’s Taiwanese identity—markedly contrasting from the ‘Chinese in exile’ identity previously held by its people and government. In fact, the Taiwanese nation, despite being officially called the Republic of China, speaking Mandarin and being populated virtually entirely by Han Chinese—whose origins trace to mainland China—is increasingly feeling uniquely Taiwanese, not Chinese. Numbers best explain this: today two thirds of Taiwan’s population identify as ‘Taiwanese and not Chinese’ while only 4 per cent identify as ‘exclusively Chinese’.


This emerging identity is incredibly problematic to China, since it means Taiwan will never re-embrace the ‘1992 consensus’—an informal agreement between Taiwan and China in which they stated to both belong to ‘One China’, a single sovereign entity, while agreeing to disagree on which government should run this ‘China’. If Taiwan, as it is doing, identifies no more as ‘China/Chinese’ but as a new nation, unique and rooted in Taiwan’s island, China’s ‘1992 consensus’ falls and its claims over Taiwan become harder to justify. It is for this reason that John Cena, earlier this year, had to apologise for calling Taiwan a country: by using the word ‘country’ he too, inadvertently, rejected the ‘1992 Consensus’ and this, unsurprisingly, angered China and its very active netizens.


Taiwan’s refusal of China’s vaccines derives from this identity dispute: refusing the vaccines means, for Taiwan, stating its independence. It is a statement of rejection of China and prevents China from constructing the acceptance of the vaccine as help from ‘a central government to a province’ or help to fellow Chinese ‘compatriots in Taiwan’ (the latter a term China adamantly uses to refer to Taiwanese people). For Taiwan, making a strong statement of independence as a standalone nation, which it upholds in refusing China’s vaccines, is thus an existential matter; it is about constructing its sovereignty beyond ‘China’ and at the same time suffocating territorial claims by the mainland.


Meanwhile, the West seems to have largely failed to realise how existentially critical it is to Taiwan to be in a position to afford the refusal, a position which proved increasingly harder to maintain as COVID-19 cases and domestic pressure (including from pro-‘One China’ opposition party Kuomintang) on President Tsai to accept Chinese vaccines surged. Absurdly, Germany’s BioNTech refused to export previously promised vaccines to Taiwan. Australia seemed able to see Taiwan only as a reminder it needs to vaccinate Australians, lacking strategic insight. A Taiwan-UK AstraZeneca deal merely delivered 700,000 doses, blatantly insufficient for 23 million Taiwanese. Further, at the beginning of the pandemic Taiwan tried desperately to join the World Health Assembly to have a voice in a moment of health crisis like this one, yet, at the same time, the United States left the World Health Organisation altogether, losing any leverage to help Taiwan.


The contradiction though is that the West needs Taiwan: a strategic asset at the doors China and the South China Sea–not to mention one of Asia’s most progressive, and perhaps thriving, liberal democracies. Yet, so far, the same West needing Taiwan has failed the island nation throughout the pandemic.


A change in approach finally materialised in June, long after COVID-19 broke out in Taiwan, with Japan and the US sending vaccines to the island. The doses, however, did not exceed 3.75 million, hardly enough to fully vaccinate a population of 23 and half million people. China’s vaccine offer pressure eventually came to an end only after two major Taiwanese tech manufactures struck a deal in early July with BioNTech to supply 10 million doses — while simultaneously Taiwan halted community spread largely on its own. This crisis glaringly displayed that diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific and Taiwan is not limited to gunboats, despite what recent naval exercises by both China and the West+Quad seemed to imply. There is a much wider front involving vaccines and their implications for sovereignty, and, especially in view of its shortcomings and idleness in supporting promptly Taiwan, the West cannot afford to ignore this.

Mirco Di Giacomo is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.