When coronavirus began appearing outside China in mid-January, it would have been reasonable to assume that Taiwan, just 130km off China’s coast, would shortly have a major problem. Instead, the island mobilised early and effectively – and all but throttled the virus. By late April, it had confirmed fewer than 500 cases and suffered just six deaths. This was accomplished – as is much of what it accomplishes – with little international assistance. Taiwan’s potential membership of the World Health Organization (who), and of many other multilateral bodies, is blocked by China, which regards Taiwan as a temporarily rogue province of the People’s Republic. We spoke to Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, about how the pandemic might affect Taiwan’s future relations with China and the rest of the world.
How did Taiwan keep its number of coronavirus cases so astonishingly low?
We learned our lesson the hard way in 2003, when Taiwan was hit by Sars. After that we knew that we had to beef up our public-health institutions and mechanisms to deal with an outbreak. So we’ve been working very hard in that regard and were much better prepared.
During Sars, Taiwan’s current vice-president Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist, was health minister. What difference does it make having someone with that expertise at the top of government?
It makes a difference. The vice-president was in charge of our planning and preparation for dealing with coronavirus. He is quite experienced and a well-known expert in this area. But relying on a single person is not enough. We set up our Central Epidemic Command Centre and took a whole-government approach. Every government institution was put under this set-up to fight the war together.
Could what Taiwan did have been done in other places, or does a country need to be like Taiwan: geographically small, an island and with a necessary tradition of self-reliance?
I think that our experience can be shared by other countries: increase stockpiles of critical materials; prepare hospitals for the outbreak; prepare for the economic downturn. All these are exportable. If Taiwan can share its experiences with other countries then I’m sure the world would be a much better place and that is the reason we want to participate in the who.
The reason Taiwan doesn’t participate in the WHO is, of course, that China won’t permit it. Would being a member have helped Taiwan – or are you thinking of it as a forum in which Taiwan could have helped other countries?
If we were able to participate in the who, we would all benefit from the most up-to-date information. What happens right now is that we send information in but the who does not share it with other countries and we are not able to get updated information [in return]. So it has become an impediment.
Once it became clear that coronavirus was going to have a big affect on Taiwan, were you able to communicate at all with Chinese officials?
In the beginning, on 13 and 14 January, we sent two experts to Wuhan to try to understand the situation on the ground. The way in which the Chinese government relayed information to Taiwan was rather limited. They only let us see, or know, what they wanted us to see or know – and it was not sufficient. So we came back with a lot of suspicion that there was something wrong and started to make the right preparations for it.
According to your government, there were online disinformation campaigns targeting Taiwan and originating from China. What did they consist of and how did you push back against them?
They tried to fabricate the sense that Taiwan is in a chaotic state and embroiled in the epidemic. Our public-security officials traced this disinformation – most of it originated in China. The way we dealt with it was to come out early urging the public not to believe it. One of the things that was quite successful was that our Central Epidemic Command Centre held a press conference every day and accepted questions from reporters on anything at all.
You personally have been dealing with Taiwan’s peculiar relationship with China for a long time; in 2005 you were the minister at the Mainland Affairs Council, which oversees cross-strait relations. Has the relationship improved at all since then?
It’s probably not as bad as it was at that time. What we see now is that China is becoming much stronger – in a military and economic sense. And China’s objective remains the same: they want to take Taiwan over; peacefully if possible, by force if necessary. They are gearing up their military activities around Taiwan: there have been several air and surface exercises aimed at intimidating Taiwan’s people. They try to suppress our international participation, they try to take over our diplomatic allies and to impose the one-China principle on the international community. So it’s better than it was but it’s not that good.
In 2005, when asked whether Taiwan most feared a strong and assertive China or a weak and chaotic one, you said that the former wasn’t exactly a blessing but that the latter would be a disaster.
A strong China might not be a blessing: China will continue to threaten Taiwan, militarily and diplomatically. But if China goes into a chaotic situation, it might want to find a scapegoat. Now the Chinese economy is slowing down and international criticism of China is becoming very strong, we are concerned that China might want Taiwan to be the best scapegoat it can have. So I think that the international community should take an interest in helping Taiwan, and helping China, to maintain the status quo.
Is Taiwan trying to score diplomatic points by inviting US reporters thrown out of China to Taipei, welcoming dissidents from Hong Kong and donating masks and equipment around the world?
We try to do things out of goodwill, to countries who are being damaged by the coronavirus outbreak or to individuals who are being persecuted. It’s the right thing for Taiwan to do that; we’re not doing it because of China.
So none of this is aimed at winning back diplomatic partners that Beijing has prised off? Countries have to choose between having full diplomatic relations with China or Taiwan. You’re down to 15 now.
Yes. But we’re not going to engage in a diplomatic tug of war with China. We want to maintain diplomatic relations with our allies and if any other countries want to recognise Taiwan, we would welcome that. But we’re not going to engage in competition with China.
President Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected in January and will be sworn in for her second term in May. What should be your foreign ministry’s priority?
To continue to speak up for Taiwan. Taiwan has many things to share with the international community.
Monocle comment: This shared global crisis lends some perspective to the usual diplomatic squabbles – it now seems less important whether Kiribati or the Solomon Islands recognises Beijing or Taipei. It’s wishful thinking but perhaps governments in both countries will take note.
About the interviewee: Wu, 65, has been Taiwan’s foreign minister since 2018. He has also served as secretary-general, head of Taiwan’s National Security Council, Taiwan’s representative to the US and its minister for cross-strait relations.