Coronavirus outbreak becomes new battleground for China-Taiwan rivalry

A photo taken on March 10, 2020 shows people with face masks at a subway station in Beijing.
A photo taken on March 10, 2020 shows people with face masks at a subway station in Beijing.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - The weeks-long ordeal of more than 1,000 Taiwanese stuck at the centre of China's coronavirus outbreak shows how the global crisis has evolved into another battleground between Beijing and Taipei.

Taiwan on Tuesday (March 10) was set to airlift almost 500 of its residents from Wuhan, the original epicentre of an outbreak that has since spread across the globe and shaken markets more than anything since the financial crisis.

Another 500 Taiwanese will remain stuck in the central Chinese city for now.

While many countries have flown their citizens home from China since early February, officials on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have spent weeks arguing over the details of an evacuation.

Each blames the other for the stand-off, which began just weeks after Taiwan's China-sceptic president, Ms Tsai Ing-wen, secured re-election in a landslide vote.

Because Chinese President Xi Jinping severed direct communications after Ms Tsai ousted a more-Beijing-friendly government in 2016, the two sides were forced to use cross-strait business associations to arrange for several hundred Taiwanese to return home by charter flight in early February.

Disagreements over passenger lists and safety precautions have held up further evacuations until now, when Mr Xi has grown so confident about the outbreak that he visited Wuhan on Tuesday.

The evacuations have become just one more point of contention in the 70-year-old dispute between Taipei and Beijing, which views democratically run Taiwan as part of its territory.

Officials in Taipei argue that China is endangering lives for geopolitical aims, after campaigning to lure away Taiwan's diplomatic allies and block its participation in multilateral groups, including the World Health Organisation.

 
 
 
 

The delayed evacuation is "an example of how Beijing's determination to assert itself against Taiwan to the fullest possible extent really is a top priority", said Dr Shelley Rigger, a political science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina who has written three books on Taiwan.

"At a moment when they have so much else going on, and their institutions are strained to the max, they still have time to focus on making things difficult for Taiwan."

As the virus' global spread worsened last month, Taiwan was forced to scramble jets after China sent warplanes around the island.

The dispute has been getting greater attention in the United States, which has formal relations with Beijing but provides military assistance to Taipei under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

US lawmakers are pushing the Taiwan Assurance Act, which would dub the island a "vital part" of America's Indo-Pacific strategy, encourage more US arms sales and criticise Taipei's exclusion from international organisations as "detrimental to global health".

Taiwan has reported 47 cases of the virus and one death as of Tuesday, a low tally, given its close economic ties and flight links to the mainland, which still represents a majority of the cases.

Taipei has insisted that Taiwanese medical personnel screen passengers returning from Wuhan, accompany them on their trip and monitor and quarantine them, if necessary, after they arrive.

Taiwanese lawmaker Wang Ting-yu, who belongs to Ms Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party and is a member of the Foreign Affairs and National Defence Committee, called the delay in evacuations "unfortunate".

"Whether it's about human rights, or something about economic issues - the Chinese government always puts complicated political thinking inside them," Ms Wang told Bloomberg News.

"But now it's related to citizens' lives. We want our people to come back safely."

'POLITICAL EXTORTION'

The Chinese side pins the blame on the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which asserts that Taiwan is a sovereign nation and supports formally asserting independence.

Ms Tsai was re-elected on a pledge to keep pushing back against Beijing, as historic unrest in the former British colony of Hong Kong made Taiwanese more anxious about increased ties.

Ms Tsai's government "is politicising the epidemic", said Professor Li Zhenguang, who teaches Taiwan studies at Beijing Union University.

"After the first batch of Taiwanese went back, the DPP administration nitpicked and attacked the way the mainland handled it."

 
 

Meanwhile, Taipei has also been battling a steady stream of misinformation about its handling of the coronavirus, including posts claiming Ms Tsai's government has been deliberately suppressing the tally of cases.

The Taiwan FactCheck Centre found there was no evidence to support that claim, one of almost 50 examples of such disinformation.

Still, Dr Rigger, the Davidson College professor, said Taiwan's initial success in handling of the virus could bolster its long-running push for greater inclusion in international organisations coordinating the global response.

"Taiwan's claim was based on the idea that Taiwanese people were vulnerable to public health threats, and deserved to be included in the global response," she said.

"They can add another element to their appeal: We deserve to be included not only because we are human and vulnerable, but also because we have identified policy responses to infectious disease control that, so far, are working."