OPINION – Taiwan’s Rising Soft Power

Objectively speaking, the formal visit of Alex Azar, the US Secretary for Health and Human Services, to Taiwan from August 9 to 12 marked the rapidly rising soft power of Taiwan, whose performance in dealing with Covid-19 has already earned international respect and reputation.

While the US is still struggling domestically to cope with the rapidly spreading Covid-19, Azar’s visit to Taiwan was politically significant.

First, Azar’s visit marked the highest-level US official delegation to Taiwan since Washington shifted its diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979. Azar’s delegation included his subordinates Robert Kadlec, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, and Brian Harrison, the Chief of Staff. Accompanying the US delegation were James Moriarty, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), and Taiwan-based AIT Director Brent Christensen. After having one Covid-19 test in the US, the delegation members led by Azar also underwent Covid-19 test in Taipei airport’s guest room. The last US cabinet-level visit to Taiwan could be traced back to 2014, when the Obama administration sent Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy to Taipei. The most glaring difference between the 2014 visit and the 2020 delegation is that the US-China relations are now at a nadir, although the US government under Donald Trump, according to Douglas Paal, the former AIT Director in Taiwan from 2002 to 2006, “did not ignore the ‘red line’ of Beijing” because no national security official from the US was sent to Taipei during Azar’s visit.

However, Azar’s visit aroused the immediate and strong reaction from China’s Foreign Ministry. A spokesman of the PRC Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, said on August 10 that the US action “seriously violated its promise on the question of Taiwan.” Zhao added that the PRC government urged the US counterpart to “carefully manage the Taiwan question to avoid incurring serious harm to the important areas of cooperation between China and the US and to the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” 

Second, the remarks of Azar showed that the US is keen to enhance public health cooperation with Taiwan, which is widely regarded as a place effectively containing the spread of Covid-19. On August 10, Azar met the Taiwan President, Tsai Ing-wen, and he first congratulated her success in being re-elected as the president. Azar also pointed out that the US is eager to enhance cooperation with Taiwan in public health, the control of infectious diseases, the study of disease prevention, mutual medical research, pharmaceutical invention and production, and vaccine research and production. Azar and the Taiwan side signed a Memorandum of Understanding on various areas of public health collaboration. He added that the US government would consider taking the lead to set up a new worldwide health organization and would discuss with Taiwan on the possibility of its willingness to participate. 

At a time when US-China relations are at their nadir since their diplomatic normalization in 1979, Azar’s visit and remarks characterized not only the closer Washington-Taipei relations but also the US recognition of Taiwan’s achievement and performance in containing Covid-19. Azar used the term president to address Tsai in his visit, demonstrating that,ideologically, the US fully respects and recognizes the democratic system in Taiwan.

In response to Azar’s remarks and action, the PRC Foreign Ministry official Zhao Lijian on August 12 added that Azar “put up a political show” in Taiwan at a time when the US witnessed the death of many American citizens due to the outbreak of Covid-19, and that some people in the US “played with fire” over the question of “China’s core interest.” Zhao remarked that the Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party should not be preoccupied with its role of being “a puppet” and its intention of“utilizing Covid-19 as a plot to seek independence,” a plot thatwould lead to “an impasse.”

Third, ideologically, Azar’s visit was a testimony to the US staunch support of Taiwan. On August 12, Azar paid tribute tothe late Lee Teng-hui, saying that Lee’s legacies were to leave a “democratic asset” and to “propel the further development of US-Taiwan relations.” Azar also visited a mask factory in Taiwan. It was reported that the US would place its orders for Taiwan-made masks. If so, the US has been shifting its supply chain of masks from the PRC to Taiwan.

Politically, the social media in the mainland heavily criticized the late Taiwan President, Lee Teng-hui, as a “traitor” confronting the PRC. From the mainland perspective, Lee remains a controversial political figure, for he changed from his affiliation with the pro-reunification Kuomintang to a more pro-independence Taiwan position in his later years. Yet, from the perspective of many Taiwanese, Lee laid the foundation of Taiwan’s democratization and the development of a very strong local Taiwan identity.

Amid Azar’s visit to Taiwan, the mainland’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was conducting military exercises – a gesture flexing its muscle and warning Taiwan of any dangerous move that might exceed Beijing’s bottom line. On the other hand, US military planes were reportedly flying near Taiwan and the PRC’s coastal regions, triggering concerns about whether the military relations between Beijing, Washington and Taipei may suddenly run out of control. 

On August 12, a pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong reported that Taiwan is still relying heavily on the mainland Chinese market for its exports. In the first half of 2020, 42.3 percent of Taiwan’s exports went to mainland China and Hong Kong, while only 15.8 percent went to Southeast Asian states and 14.5 percent went to the US. Moreover, Taiwan’s direct investment in mainland China increased by 9.8 percent in the first half of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. 

This phenomenon is perhaps understandable given the recent united front efforts by the PRC government to target Taiwan businesspeople. The Greater Bay Area development and the mainland’s preferential policies toward Taiwan investors and business elites have brought about early fruits of success.

However, some mainland nationalists may have neglected the fact that Taiwan’s soft power – its culture, values, ideology and policies – have earned the respect of not only the US but also many other countries in the world. Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy initiated by the Tsai government since 2016 has attracted many tourists from Southeast Asia and Australasia to visit the island republic. Moreover, the total exports of Taiwan to the 18 countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Australasia increased from US$59.4 billion in 2016 to US$63.1 billion in 2019, a steady improvement within three years. Taiwan’s exports to mainland China accounted for US$173 billion in 2019– almost threefold of its exports to the 18 countries under the New Southbound Policy. At the same time, Taiwan’s exports to the PRC decreased by US$4.6 billion from 2018 to 2019 – a figure likely to decrease further in 2020. On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether closer Washington-Taipei relations will bring about more Taiwanese exports to the US in the coming years. In other words, the trend of Taiwan’s economic dependence on the mainland has appeared to gradually decrease.

Recently, the PRC’s policy toward Hong Kong has plunged Beijing’s political relations with many Western nations to an all-time low since 1979. The beneficiary of Beijing’s policy toward Hong Kong is Taiwan, whose soft power has been increasingly rapidly since the summer of 2019, and especially after the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020.

If Taiwan’s soft power is increasing internationally, then it remains a huge challenge for the mainland policy-makers to ponder how the hearts and minds of most Taiwan people can be convinced to support a closer and more cordial Beijing-Taipei relationship in the coming years, especially amid the rapidly deteriorating Beijing-Washington relations.