Where should island of Taiwan get COVID-19 vaccines? Amid a surge of COVID-19 infections in the island recently, more voices are emerging calling on Democratic Progressive Party authorities to accept vaccines from the mainland. Over the weekend, Hung Hsiu-chu, a former head of the main opposition party Kuomintang, said Taiwan authorities should allow Chinese vaccines as soon as possible, saying that they are internationally accepted and that Taiwan cannot wait. "At this moment, lives are at stake, and we respectfully tell the Tsai government: the real enemy is the virus, not the mainland," Hung said, according to media reports.
The sad fact is, despite the mainland expressing its willingness to provide anti-virus assistance to Taiwan and the DPP authorities are under intense pressure, it's unlikely they will allow vaccines from the mainland in. For one thing, Tsai Ing-wen authorities have taken hostile policies toward the mainland. For another, Taiwanese "laws" have banned imports of vaccines from the Chinese mainland for human use.
The island has vaccinated just 1 percent of the population with no immediate sign of new shots arriving. If it wants to put the recent outbreak under control, it needs more vaccines. And fundamentally and most importantly, Tsai authorities should stop playing politics and politicizing the public health crisis.
Taiwan island is now pinning its hopes on getting American vaccines. But until now, it hasn't received a single dose from Washington. According to Reuters on Saturday, Taiwan's "health minister" said on Friday he had spoken to the US health secretary to ask for help in obtaining COVID-19 vaccines and the US health secretary would take the matter to President Joe Biden.
Biden said the US would send 80 million vaccine doses abroad by the end of June, and Taiwan is eager to get a share. But the island is unlikely to be a priority or focus of US vaccine diplomacy. The nature of Washington-Taiwan relations is that Washington doesn't care about the island's interests at all, but it has always regarded the island as a card and a pawn. The US uses Taiwan island as a tool. Although the American Institute in Taiwan described Washington-Taiwan relations with the phrase "Real Friends, Real Progress," the fact is the other way around. The US and the Taiwan island are fake friends.
It's still unclear where the US' 80 million doses will go, but Taiwan's position in the US strategy as a chess piece determines the US won't supply Taiwan too much. Many other US allies and partners are suffering a more severe epidemic than the island. They may be the first recipients of US vaccine diplomacy.
If pro-Taiwan lawmakers of the US apply pressure on the Biden administration, Taiwan may eventually get some vaccines from Washington. In this case, Tsai authorities will never miss the chance to brag about the "improvement" in the island's relations with Washington. But it must be noted that if the island obtains vaccines from the US, Taiwan must pay a high price. Washington will very likely pressure Taiwan island to make big concessions in other aspects in exchange for US vaccines. For instance, Tsai authorities lifted a ban on US beef and pork containing ractopamine for a potential bilateral trade agreement with the US. The US may offer symbolic support to Taiwan on some minor issues, but Taiwan will pay a very high price for it.
The US hasn't provided vaccines to Taiwan island, however it has offered support for the island to participate in the World Health Assembly, a move that aims to provoke the mainland. A verbal support didn't cost the US anything. Instead, Washington could make an issue of Taiwan's WHA participation to create trouble for Beijing, vilify Beijing's image and consume our diplomatic resources. But as the vaccine issue involves the substantial interests of the US, the US will make careful calculations.
Will Washington-Taiwan relations be affected if Taiwan cannot get expected assistance from the US in the epidemic fight? Taiwan knows the US won't sincerely help it, but it fools itself into believing the US will support it at any time. There is a dilemma facing the island.
Zhang Hua is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Taiwan Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Yin Maoxiang is a PhD candidate of Renmin University of China.