The communist government in Beijing has responded to the coronavirus pandemic with crackdowns, coverups and intimidation. The democratic government in Taipei has taken a starkly different approach, one based on pragmatism, science and generosity. The contrast between the two leads to the inescapable conclusion that Taiwan is a much better partner for the United States than the People’s Republic. It’s long past time we started treating it that way.
Earlier this week, deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger delivered a speech in Mandarin to commemorate the 101st anniversary of the founding of what’s known in China as the May Fourth Movement, when student protests in cities around China in 1919 spawned a generation of scholars and activists who believed in promoting science and democracy above the closed system controlled by Chinese elites at the time.
Today, Pottinger said, that spirit is alive and well in China, represented by the doctors and journalists who bucked the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) system to bring information about the emerging coronavirus threat to the world. That spirit is also alive and well in the Republic of China — also known as Taiwan.
Regarding 1919, Pottinger said, “The cliche that Chinese people can’t be trusted with democracy was . . . the most unpatriotic idea of all. Taiwan today is a living repudiation of that threadbare mistruth.”
Taiwan has given a master class in how a democracy copes with an existential emergency, despite being ignored and mistreated at every stage. The Taiwanese government sent early warnings about the coronavirus to the World Health Organization in December, but the organization ignored them and later accused Taiwan of racism for complaining about its treatment.
Taiwan has fewer than 450 confirmed cases of covid-19 and only six deaths. It achieved this through early government-private partnership, transparency and accountability. Now, Taiwan is trying to export its success and resources but without the intimidation, extortion and bullying that characterizes Beijing’s international aid.
This week, China threatened to halt medical supply shipments to the Netherlands because Dutch officials changed the name of their representative office in Taiwan to “Netherlands Office Taipei,” as a recognition of Taiwan’s help. Meanwhile, China is taking advantage of the world’s distraction to increase its military intimidation of Taiwan.
Taiwan has also donated millions of pieces of medical equipment to the United States, including to Illinois, Louisiana, Georgia, Colorado, New Jersey and Wyoming. When Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) was searching for personal protective equipment for his state, the White House connected him to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington. Within a week, 100,000 surgical-grade masks were on their way — no strings attached.
“Their only questions were how many do you need, and where do we send them,” he said.
After three years of not doing much on Taiwan, the Trump administration is now mildly upping its engagement with the Taiwanese government and pressing the WHO to allow Taiwan to attend (as an observer) the World Health Assembly being held virtually later this month. But there’s so much more that could and should be done.
“At a time when the CCP is increasing pressure against Taiwan on all fronts, particularly because they know Taiwan’s very existence is a repudiation of their heavy-handed rule and a threat to their legitimacy, we need to stand even more strong with Taiwan,” Gallagher said.
In March, President Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, which allows for more support and engagement. The U.S. government must implement it aggressively both as a reward for Taiwan’s friendship and as a response to Beijing’s misbehavior.
The issue of punishing the Chinese government directly for its coronavirus actions has become bitterly politicized in Washington. But Democrats and Republicans alike agree that we should be elevating our partnership with Taiwan.
“I can’t think of a better way of holding the Chinese government accountable and simultaneously indicating that this is a contest between their authoritarian model and democratic values than upgrading our relationship with the China that is democratic,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.).
The United States should increase senior-level visits to Taiwan and senior-level Taiwanese visits to the United States. It should provide Taiwan with the means to deter Beijing’s aggression, both militarily and through malign influence campaigns on the island. We should do more to cooperate with Taiwan on the coronavirus, for the sake of our own public health.
The mantra from Beijing is that any support of Taiwan “will backfire” on the international community. Washington has long been paralyzed on the Taiwan issue for fear of disrupting the delicate sensibilities of the CCP and harming U.S.-China relations. But the pandemic has already disrupted all that for us. Let’s take the opportunity to stand up for our values and our true friends.
The pandemic has underscored that the People’s Republic of China is a deeply unreliable partner. It is time we acknowledged that there is an alternative Chinese model on offer. The values that Taiwan champions give it a huge advantage over Beijing. Those values can become an advantage for us as well, if we live up to them.
Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He previously worked for Bloomberg View, the Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, Congressional Quarterly, Federal Computer Week and Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper.