The democratic island of Taiwan has reiterated a ban on imports of COVID-19 vaccines made in China, as repeated incursions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into its air defense zone in recent days stoked simmering regional tensions.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) said in a recent statement to Reuters that the island’s 23 million population should be cautious about accepting offers of vaccination while living and working in China, and “cautiously evaluate the safety and necessity” of doing so.
Taiwan, which has never been governed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), nor formed part of the People’s Republic of China, has repeatedly warned its citizens of health risks associated with Chinese-made vaccines, and requires anyone vaccinated in China to undergo a stringent 14-day quarantine on arriving home.
The PLA has flown dozens of sorties into the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) since the weekend, in a move that politicians and analysts alike have viewed as a test of U.S. resolve to support Taiwan at the start of the Biden administration.
Unlike previous incursions, recent operations have included bombers and fast-moving fighter jets usually used for offensive purposes, linking it to the reported presence of a U.S. aircraft carrier group in the vicinity,
Beijing followed up the incursions on Tuesday with an announcement of further military drills in the disputed South China Sea, after protesting the presence of the U.S. Navy’s Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group in the region since Jan. 23.
At the same time, pro-China media in Taiwan suggested that China was keen to start sending its COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan, a sovereign state under the 1911 Republic of China founded by Sun Yat-sen, despite the import ban.
According to the pro-CCP China Times, the vaccines could be sent as “private donations,” while Taiwanese citizens could be pressed into service to promote the vaccines on the island.
Citing a “person involved in Taiwan affairs,” the paper said that Taiwan “must first remove political and legal obstacles,” for discussions to take place.
The MAC said its policy hadn’t changed, and that the decision about which vaccines to procure rested with the island’s epidemic control and command center.
“This is a medical issue for healthcare professionals to decide, and has nothing to do with politics,” it said in a statement.
“The epidemic command center has said there is incomplete data regarding Chinese-made vaccines … and has decided to tighten requirements during the emergency pandemic situation,” it said. “Chinese vaccines cannot be imported under current laws and regulations.”
“[We] will not be purchasing vaccines from mainland China for the time being,” it said.
Alternatives to invasion
Taiwan Thinktank consultant Tung Li-wen said China is making preparations for a potential invasion of Taiwan, and that the CCP has never renounced the use of military force to annex the island.
But at the same time, they are trying “soft power” alternatives like vaccine diplomacy to boost Beijing’s influence on the island, where the majority of Taiwanese have no wish to be ruled by the CCP, but where many people rely on China as a source of business opportunity, Tung said.
“The CCP has accused the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government of setting up barriers to cross-straits relations, by which it means restrictions linked to the pandemic, and some changes made by Taiwan on national security issues [to counter Chinese influence]. They see those things as obstacles,” Tung said.
“They won’t give up their attempts to use vaccines as a way to achieve foreign policy goals,” he said.
Former Kuomintang (KMT) official Chao Chun-shan, who was at a meeting between CCP general secretary Xi Jinping and former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou, said he thought behind-the-scenes discussions of some kind could well be under way between the two governments.
“Of course there will be [contact], but we won’t know about it,” Chao said. “We haven’t seen any harsh words from either Xi or Tsai so far.”
President Tsai Ing-wen has ruled out government-to-government contact with China unless Taiwan comes to the table with equal status as a sovereign state, a level of recognition unlikely to be accorded by the CCP.
Reported by Hwang Chun-mei for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.