The Year of Unexpected Successes in Taiwan

The Year of Unexpected Successes in Taiwan
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

While the world waits to see how the Biden administration’s foreign policy team will approach China and Taiwan, President Tsai at least will be in a position to roll into 2021 confident in Taiwan’s firm global standing.

By Lev Nachman

In early 2019, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen hit rock bottom. Taiwan’s 2018 midterm elections made her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a laughing stock as the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Han Kuo-yu rose to prominence and defeated the DPP in a mayoral contest in its stronghold of Kaohsiung. Tsai’s approval rating shot to an all-time low. Yet in 2020, Tsai became a political rock star, spearheading Taiwan’s successful handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In January, Tsai won re-election for Taiwan’s presidency by defeating Han in a landslide. Taiwan then became part of a few jurisdictions globally to virtually eliminate Covid-19 transmission. Tsai was named one of the Financial Timestwelve most influential women of the year. Thanks to her effective leadership, Taiwan ended the year in a uniquely strong position.

Yet her party, the DPP, did not sweep the 2020 legislative elections in the same way. Although the DPP won a majority of legislative districts — giving it a safe lead within Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan — it tied with the KMT for the party vote with both gaining around 33% of votes. Minor parties earned the remaining third of the party votes. This signaled a shift in Taiwanese domestic politics away from predominant two-party competition.

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Incumbent Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and Vice President-elect William Lai attend a rally after their election victory, outside the Democratic Progressive Party headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, January 11, 2020.

After the election, Taiwan acted quickly to stem the spread of Covid-19. Taiwan’s success in managing the pandemic is shown in the statistics. As of December 23, Taiwan had reported 776 cases and only seven deaths. It went for over 250 days between April and December without recording a local infection. Taiwan’s success has not gone unnoticed, with positive media headlines framing the island as a robust democratic success rather than a contentious military flashpoint.

Taiwan’s government has tried to capitalize on the good publicity to further its acceptance internationally. It sent millions of masks abroad, resulting in dozens of countries making formal statements thanking Taiwan for its assistance. Some countries began to see Taiwan in a new light: as a contributing member of the global community.

This year’s intensification of U.S.-Taiwan relations is the result of bipartisan Taiwan policy that passed the U.S. Congress pre-Covid-19 and should not be seen as simply a retaliatory measure taken by U.S. President Donald Trump after both his and China’s mishandling of its pandemic response. The 2019 Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act called for more high-level official dialogue, boosted support for Taiwan’s involvement within international organizations, and pushed for a U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement (FTA). It was the impetus for visits by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith J Krach to Taiwan and the opening of new economic dialogues.

Photo Credit: CNA
U.S. Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Keith Krach arrives at an airport in Taipei, Taiwan, September 17, 2020.

Tsai has spent a large amount of her political capital accumulated from her Covid-19 success on potential future trade deals. She has declared that U.S. pork will be allowed into Taiwan despite it containing ractopamine, a chemical that promotes leanness. Domestically, the issue of U.S. pork has become the biggest (and perhaps only) divisive issue that the opposition KMT has available to push back against Tsai. Even some within the DPP do not support Tsai’s decision. The DPP itself opposed U.S. beef sales when the KMT was in power because of ractopamine. But U.S. pork is seen as a starting point for a potential U.S.-Taiwan FTA.

U.S.-Taiwan relations under the incoming Biden administration are also off to an optimistic start. U.S. president-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken took a phone call with Taiwan’s chief representative to the United States, Hsiao Bi-khim — a sign that high-level dialogue will continue under the Tsai and Biden administrations.

Yet, cross-Strait relations made no improvement this year despite Tsai’s continued attempts to reach out to Xi for dialogue. Despite the DPP’s best attempts to improve relations, China continues to stonewall Taiwan both within the Taiwan Strait and on the international stage. Taiwan was met with a drastic increase in military drills meant to signal that it would not allow Taiwan to increase its global presence without consequence. China is likely to continue attempts to isolate and marginalize Taiwan by blocking it from entering international organizations or punishing countries or corporations that acknowledge Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Despite Taiwan’s success in handling the pandemic there is room for improvement on a number of other key domestic issues in a post-Covid-19 world. Taiwan’s treatment of Southeast Asian migrant workers, for example, continues to be a glaring mark on its human rights record. Taiwan’s inclusion on the U.S. Labor Department’s 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor and the disproportionate punishment imposed on Southeast Asian migrants for breaking quarantine reflect poorly on its status as an established democracy.

Taiwan’s political stability and Covid-19 success underscore its newly found positive international image in 2020. China’s tactics to isolate Taiwan have not stopped it becoming one of East Asia’s strongest democracies. While the world waits to see how the Biden administration’s foreign policy team will approach China and Taiwan, President Tsai at least will be in a position to roll into 2021 confident in Taiwan’s firm global standing.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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