Early on Sunday morning, Taipei welcomed three US senators on a brief stopover during a tour of the Indo-Pacific region. Although Tammy Duckworth, Dan Sullivan and Chris Coons were only in Taiwan for about three hours, their presence made an outsized impact, as they appeared to personally announce a US donation of 750,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses to help Taiwan reach the other side of the pandemic.
While some, including a reporter at a Central Epidemic Command Center news conference on Sunday, have said the amount was small compared with expectations, it is actually a significant contribution and a resounding gesture of friendship from one of Taiwan’s biggest supporters. The donation is part of the first 25 million doses Washington is distributing around the world, with another 55 million expected by the end of this month. As a world leader in vaccine production and international aid, the US has an obligation to fairly allocate limited supplies to help nations vaccinate their populations to put an end to the pandemic.
About 7 million doses were set aside for Asia in this first tranche, meaning that Taiwan is receiving more than 10 percent — certainly a significant number, especially compared with the populations of other recipient nations. Yet as an even greater gesture, the three US senators chose to fly to Taiwan to personally announce the donation. What other nation can claim the same?
The donations from the US and Japan, which last week generously gave Taiwan 1.24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, are unequivocal gestures of friendship, offering Taiwanese “yet another example of how democracies work together to help one another,” as Duckworth said during her visit.
This kind of tangible assistance from overseas friends is especially important to demonstrate to Taiwanese, as Beijing redoubles efforts to sow division through vaccine deals.
Early in the outbreak, there were attempts to foment discontent around the government’s refusal to import Chinese vaccines. Even the BBC joined the fray with a May 28 headline claiming that “Taiwan must choose between virus and politics,” framing the decision as a choice between public health and China, as though no other vaccines existed.
Imagine if the government had continued to refuse Chinese vaccines, yet also received little to no aid from its purported friends. These weak attempts at division would have gained traction, lending credence to the false narrative that Taiwan’s only choices are between survival and absorption, as its friends would not come to its aid in times of need.
This lends weight to a growing call among US experts to discard Washington’s decades-long policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan in favor of clear commitments. As US Center for Strategic and International Studies senior associate Robert Wang (王曉岷), a former deputy director of the American Institute in Taiwan, says in this month’s Foreign Service Journal, Beijing’s goal is to intimidate and fuel doubts about US commitments to Taiwan to isolate and undermine morale.
“As the people of Taiwan sense a relatively weakened US commitment, many more will succumb to Chinese pressures and seek a cross-strait compromise that does not reflect their own values and interests, but their fears,” Wang wrote.
This puts the onus on Washington to make it clear to Taiwanese that it would “have your backs” through strong moves such as committing to defend Taiwan, inviting Taipei to its planned Summit for Democracy, signing a trade agreement, and donating vaccines. Taiwanese can therefore rest assured that these boldly publicized donations are not just a drop in the bucket, but symbols of its friends’ determination to ensure that Taiwan can decide its fate on its own terms.
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