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Taiwan celebrates COVID-19 success as tensions rise with China

People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walk in Taipei, Taiwan, on May 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)
Fans cheer from the stands during a professional baseball game in New Taipei City, Taiwan, on May 8, 2020, amid signs of improvement in the coronavirus situation. (Kyodo)

TAIPEI (Kyodo) -- Speaking at her inauguration on May 20, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen praised the island's success in combating COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus which continues to ravage much of the world.

Defying early predictions that the island, based on its proximity to China, would quickly be overrun by the disease, Taiwan has seen just 441 infections and seven deaths, thanks in large part to its early containment measures such as border controls and effective testing.

As Tsai begins her second term, no new local transmissions have been reported for five weeks. Containment also made a general lockdown unnecessary, reducing economic pain and allowing most Taiwanese to go about their lives with minimal disruption.

Brookings Institution fellow Ryan Hass commented recently that the Tsai administration's response to COVID-19 only strengthens her already formidable mandate following her January election victory.

But not everyone has been pleased by Tsai's success.

Along with the dangers of COVID-19, Taiwan has also faced a marked rise in Chinese hostility, including military provocations and actions to impede the island's response to the novel virus. Although the rivals previously suffered hundreds of SARS fatalities between them in 2003, the novel coronavirus has not provided common cause as tensions continue to escalate.

Cross-strait relations have deteriorated steadily since 2016, when Tsai's independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party first took power, a development that angered China as it regards the island as Chinese territory.

Despite carefully avoiding the topic, Tsai's refusal to affirm formulas like "one country, two systems" that imply submission to mainland rule caused Beijing to suspend official contact with her government.

Writing in November before the emergence of COVID-19, Richard Bush, another Brookings fellow, argued that Beijing shifted its emphasis from wooing Taiwan through various incentives, as it had tried during the two previous administrations of China-friendly Nationalist Party (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou, to a "long-term campaign of intimidation, pressure, and cooptation of constituencies within Taiwan" to persuade island residents "that the status quo is no longer in Taiwan's interest."

In response, Tsai spent her first term cultivating closer ties with the United States. While the efforts have been successful, Bush warned that Taiwan risks being drawn "into U.S.-China strategic competition beyond what is wise or necessary."

Developments in recent months appear to confirm Bush's analysis, with China boosting its military operations around the island. U.S. forces have also increased their activities in the region, while helping Taiwan to upgrade its military capability.

Given China's own rapid containment of COVID-19 infections, it is not surprising that Beijing wishes to assert an image of strength, said John Dotson of the Jamestown Foundation, and flexing its military muscle is an obvious way to do that.

Yet Beijing's efforts to obstruct Taiwan's pandemic response have been widely perceived as malicious and counterproductive.

When Taiwan advised the World Health Organization of the threat posed by the virus, China blocked its access to WHO resources and insisted the agency ignore its warnings.

Soon after, Chinese officials became furious when Taipei closed its borders to the mainland, then refused Taiwan permission to evacuate its citizens left stranded in Wuhan when they locked the city down. As the virus spread, Beijing also threatened retaliation against countries like Australia and India that praised Taiwan for providing aid to hard-hit parts of the world.

Ironically, China's efforts to do the same fell flat, partly because equipment it shipped to hotspots like Italy proved defective, and partly because its largess appeared to have been calculated to score political points as Beijing tried to deflect criticism over its pandemic response.

Going forward, Tsai is widely expected to maintain her low-key approach to preserving the cross-strait status quo by avoiding moves likely to provoke Beijing, while defending Taiwan's right of self-determination.

Pandemic triumph aside, Tsai pledged in her inaugural address that four words would inform her relations with China: "peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue."

Yet the risk of being drawn into the China-U.S. rivalry will remain an ongoing difficulty for Tsai, especially as the coronavirus crisis has weakened the leaders of both countries politically, priming them to lash out so as to rally their respective supporters.

With elections looming, U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to deflect criticism over his government's pandemic response by accusing China of negligence and conspiracy. While there is little evidence to support these claims, even Trump's opponents see political advantage in taking aim at Beijing.

Provoked by these attacks, Chinese officials and media have countered U.S. criticism with their own conspiracy theories, threatening anyone who questions them.

Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Nanjing University, explained that Trump is attempting "to delegitimize Communist Party rule, and stigmatize not just China but also China's top leaders."

Like Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping is facing an economic downturn that will threaten him in the run-up to 2022 and a possible third term in office.

"China is also highly polarized," Zhu added.

A diminished Xi might be forced to make a bolder statement than he might prefer, possibly against Taiwan as a U.S. proxy.

Other than the growing possibility of an accident as the armed forces of two superpowers jockey for position, few expect a military conflict. Even hawks like retired PLA Air Force Gen. Qiao Liang cautioned Beijing that attacking Taiwan would be "too costly."

Beijing has plenty of other options, however, including restricting cross-strait trade, on which Taiwan is heavily dependent.

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