PacNet #31 – Taiwan’s Covid-19 Diplomacy and WHO Participation: Losing the Battle but Winning the War?

Pacnet image.jpg
here

Taiwan’s pragmatic “warm power” diplomacy during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak represents a low-key approach to boosting its international participation while minimizing the burden for its sympathetic international partners and friends. The government of President Tsai Ing-Wen’s successful management of the Covid-19 crisis has also made a strong case for liberal democracies as the superior form of government for public health crisis governance. This, in turn, has translated into more positive international publicity for Taiwan, as well as greater opportunities to network with other states’ relevant agencies and potentials for functional spillover into other forms of cooperation at the governmental level.

China, the alleged origin of the virus, has seemingly kept its official toll relatively low. While officially China has less than 100,000 confirmed cases, several Western liberal democracies—even, some have argued, with more reaction time and insight from the Chinese experience—have suffered greatly, with more than a million confirmed cases in the United States and over a 100,000 each in five populous Western European nations (Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France).

Assuming these official statistics are dependable, this development might have engendered yet another blow to liberal democracies in the ongoing battle over perceived performance legitimacy between authoritarian and liberal democratic regime types, adding fuel to what Larry Diamond has termed the global democratic recession.

It is in this context that Taiwan finds a way into the international collective narrative. Despite Taiwan’s geographic proximity, as well as close economic and demographic linkages with China, it has kept its Covid-19 toll remarkably low—with less than 450 confirmed cases to date and a death toll in the single digits. Together with fellow high performers such as South Korea, Taiwan’s performance provides solid proof that liberal democracies can be just as effective in public health governance as authoritarian polities. In so doing, Taiwan helps prevent the Covid-19 crisis from diminishing the case for democracy in the global marketplace of ideas.

Accordingly, Taiwan’s public diplomacy efforts have focused on presenting itself as a persecuted but nonetheless gracious international good Samaritan. Case in point: in an opinion piece for Time, Tsai says that although Taiwan has been “unfairly excluded” from the World Health Organization (WHO), it remains “willing and able” to contribute to global public health during the crisis using its strength in manufacturing, medicine, and technology.

Taiwan’s “mask diplomacy” represents the first significant initiative in this area. In a campaign titled “Taiwan can help; health for all,” Taipei has so far announced three rounds of international humanitarian assistance in the form of mask donation. These took place on April 1, April 9, and May 5, when it pledged to donate 10 million, 6 million, and 7 million masks to the international community.

The choice of priority recipient countries seems consciously tied-in with Taiwan’s soft power strategy. The aid goes to three broad categories: first, to the so-called “like-minded democracies” in the North Atlantic that share Taiwan’s liberal democratic values—a key theme that Tsai drove home in her June 2018 address at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy; second, to Taiwan’s 15 diplomatic allies that frequently voice support for Taiwan in international forums, as reciprocity for their goodwill; and third, to a select number of worst-hit developing nations, in a show of international good citizenship.

The approach has dove-tailed with both Taiwan’s image projection needs and its coalition-building strategy. First, the initiative instills the image of Taiwan as an altruistic actor that repays slights with kindness. That despite it being it largely shut out of the World Health Organization and the public health expertise and support that participation would have engendered, Taiwan still harbors no grudge, remains gracious and empathetic towards the needs of other societies, and is keen to lend assistance to those in more dire situations.

For its international “good samaritanship,” Taiwan has earned an extraordinary amount of goodwill from numerous Western governments, especially on Twitter, that dual-use messaging platform where official statements come with a cloak of informality and plausible deniability. Often hash-tagged #StrongerTogether, these messages include: from Japan, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s open expression of gratitude and pledge to combat Covid-19 together on Twitter; from Europe, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen became the first EC president to directly address Taiwan in an official communication when she thanked Taiwan for mask donations; from the United States, numerous tweets from the White House National Security Council and various State Department missions’ accounts form an echo chamber that acknowledges the people of Taiwan’s gestures of goodwill, while noting Taiwan’s significance in safeguarding a free and open Indo-Pacific.

On coalition-building, Taiwan is capitalizing on this outpouring of international goodwill to enhance bilateral relations and rally support for regaining participation at the World Health Assembly (WHA). Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not been shy about espousing what it calls “the Taiwan Model for Combating Covid-19,” on which New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the US State Secretary Mike Pompeo had lavished praise and claimed to borrow significantly from for their respective Covid-19 responses. In addition, numerous bilateral functional linkages have sprung up for Taiwan, as Taiwan’s vice president (a renowned epidemiologist), vice premier, and health minister have all joined virtual track 1 or track 1.5 exchanges, often with US cabinet secretary and deputy secretary level dialogue partners—hitherto politically sensitive but now legitimized in the name of global public (health) interests. While these talks may be functional and technical in nature, the establishment of regularized channels of communication at high levels may be expected to have a functional spillover effect facilitating future discussions at more political levels.

By exporting its best practice lessons to the world, Taiwan exploits that intersection where the very interdependence of the global common’s non-traditional security needs (in pandemic mitigation) meets Taiwan’s particularist interests in greater international participation. In the name of enlightened self-interest, where health for one is dependent on health for all, Taiwan has built a multinational coalition to support its bid for meaningful participation in the World Health Assembly (WHA). The Foreign Affairs Committees of both houses of the US Congress wrote a public letter to 55 countries urging them to support Taiwan’s participation at the WHA session and the WHO more broadly. The US State Department’s various missions launched a #TweetForTaiwan initiative over Twitter to marshal media interests. Meanwhile leaders from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and others have openly announced support for Taiwan’s participation as either an observer or a guest.

Ultimately, whether Taiwan’s bid for WHA observer status comes to fruition or not may be secondary. During Covid-19, Taipei has branded itself as a champion of liberal democracies in the ongoing contest of legitimacy between liberal and authoritarian regime types. Moreover, its coalition-building effort over WHA participation has set a politically useful precedent of sympathetic partners’ collective bargaining on behalf of Taiwan, thus further diminishing their cost of supporting Taiwan in the future, especially when they chain-gang. In this sense, even if Taiwan is losing the WHA 2020 battle, it may still be winning the war of greater international space.

Wen-Ti Sung (wentisung@gmail.com) is a visiting fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. His research covers cross-strait relations, Chinese elite politics, and think tank diplomacy in US-China-Taiwan strategic triangle. He tweets at @wentisung.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #26 – Interpreting China’s “Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy”

Pacnet image.jpg
here

DiRecently the Chinese foreign ministry has taken an increasingly strident tone against the United States, Australia, and other countries. Dubbed “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” this new approach seems popular inside China and reinforces a presumed transition of Chinese diplomacy from conservative, passive, and low-key to assertive, proactive, and high-profile.

Wolf Warrior and Wolf Warrior II are Chinese action blockbusters that highlight agents of Chinese special operation forces. They have boosted national pride and patriotism among Chinese viewers.

“Wolf-warrior diplomacy,” named after these movies, describes Chinese diplomats’ offensive to defend China’s national interests, often in confrontational way. China’s foreign ministry spokespersons Hua Chunying and Zhao Lijian have taken to Twitter to hit back against external criticisms of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and the poor quality of exported Chinese medical equipment. Zhao said in a tweet on March 20 that “if someone claims that China’s exports are toxic, then stop wearing China-made masks and protective gowns.” He suggested in another tweet on March 12 that “It might be (the) US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”

Why is China resorting to “wolf-warrior diplomacy?” Has this aggressive style become the new norm?

Soaring Nationalism

First, this change did not occur suddenly. Since 2010, when China’s GDP overtook Japan’s as the world’s second largest, the Chinese have become more confident and China’s foreign policy has become more assertive, gradually departing from Deng Xiaoping’s taoguang yanghui dictum. As the Communist Party continues to promote “four confidences”—in our chosen path, in our political system, in our guiding theories, and in our culture—nationalism has been on the rise. “Wolf-warrior diplomacy” is an extension of soaring nationalism at home.

In recent years, President Xi Jinping has advocated “a fighting spirit” on several occasions, whether speaking to soldiers or party officials. This has apparently raised the morale of Chinese officials and diplomats, and encouraged a more assertive style.

“Wolf-warrior diplomacy” is evidenced not only in combative words but aggressive actions. For example, in early April, a Chinese coastguard ship allegedly sank a Vietnamese fishing trawler near the Paracel Islands. When Vietnam protested, the Chinese foreign ministry responded by saying Vietnam’s claims to the area are “illegal.” Then on April 19, the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Civil Affairs jointly announced the naming of 80 islands, reefs, seamounts, shoals, and ridges in the South China Sea, triggering angry protests from other claimants. The last time China named islands and other geographical features in the South China Sea was in 1983.

Telling the China Story

Second, as China becomes more powerful, some other countries increasingly view its development as a threat to their national interests. These countries are generally unprepared or unwilling to accept China’s rise. Many Chinese believe the Western media portrayal of China is highly biased, often with ideological and racist tinges. Wolf-warrior diplomacy is part of the Chinese government’s endeavor to “tell the China story.” The latest diplomatic offensive is also part of the official effort to project China as a great power leading the global fight against the Covid-19.

China’s image suffered during the crisis due to its bungled handling of the outbreak at the early stage. Many blame China for initially covering up the human-to-human transmission of the virus and not sharing complete information with the international community.

From China’s perspective, wolf-warrior diplomacy is a direct response to “unfair” approaches by other countries, especially the US, toward China and the Chinese people. For example, earlier this year, the United States and China were engaged in a race to expel journalists, starting after the publication of an op-ed entitled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” in The Wall Street Journal. When the WSJ refused to apologize, China expelled three of its journalists. Shortly afterwards, the US State Department declared five Chinese media outlets “foreign missions,” requiring them to register personnel and property with the US government and cut the number of Chinese nationals working there. In retaliation, China expelled more American journalists.

Zhao’s claim that the coronavirus might have been brought to Wuhan by the US military was a response to US politicians’ calling it “Chinese virus.” Hawks in the Trump administration, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, continue to use the term “Wuhan virus,” in defiance of the World Health Organization guidelines, to shift all responsibility to China.

Fizzling Out?

Third, just as Chinese society has become more diverse, Chinese diplomats are not monolithic. There is no consensus within the Chinese foreign policy establishment on whether confrontational diplomacy is desirable, and not all Chinese diplomats are wolf-warriors.

Traditionally minded Chinese diplomats, including the long-serving ambassador to Washington Cui Tiankai, have sought to tamp down the combative impulse and dismissed Zhao’s theory about the US military as “crazy.” Another veteran diplomat, Fu Ying, said Chinese diplomats should uphold “the spirit of humility and tolerance, and adhere to communication, learning, and openness.”

It is too early to tell whether “wolf-warrior diplomacy” represents the culmination of Chinese diplomacy’s transition. As China faces growing external criticisms and demands for reparations over the coronavirus, it is not inconceivable that Chinese leaders may rein in confrontational diplomacy to create an environment conducive to domestic reconstruction.

In fact, wolf-warrior diplomacy is already hurting China’s foreign policy, since it has generated pushback, such as Australia’s calls for an independent probe into the coronavirus’ origins. China’s soft power is weak globally; a belligerent approach will further damage China’s global image. According Pew polls released on April 21, 66% of Americans say they have an unfavorable view of China, its most negative rating since Pew began asking the question in 2005.

As the American public opinion of China and Xi turns more negative, so does Chinese public opinion on America. Professor Wang Jisi of Peking University noted in a recent speech that attitudes in the Chinese government, think tanks, media, and public opinion toward the US have greatly changed during the Covid-19 period. Yet, one sees no end in the information war and diplomatic battle. America’s naming and shaming of China, and China’s tit-for-tat response have made much-needed cooperation in combating the coronavirus very difficult.

Balancing National Interests and Soft Power

It is truly unfortunate that China and the United States are engaged in a diplomatic tussle and blame each other when they should work together. It’s imperative that they play down their differences and focus on containing the coronavirus.

As a nation proud of its glorious ancient civilization, China should remain humble, benevolent, and magnanimous. It should also admit its botched handling of the coronavirus at the outset and hold relevant officials accountable. The Chinese government should improve the mechanism that encourages, not impedes, local officials to report such public health alerts.

Due to political, ideological, and cultural differences, Western suspicions about the Chinese government and anxiety about China’s rise will not disappear anytime soon, and the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated such distrust and apprehension. A more powerful China should be more confident and receptive to constructive criticism. Striking a balance between firmly defending national interests and enhancing soft power is a great challenge in Chinese diplomacy today.

Zhiqun Zhu, PhD, (zz004@bucknell.edu)  is professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University. He has written extensively on Chinese foreign policy and US-China relations. 

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.