This week in Cornwall, England, the G-7 countries called for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues,” words the Taiwanese government celebrated as a victory and the Chinese government complained about. But this boilerplate language fails to reflect the grave situation across the Taiwan Strait, which is becoming more tense and dangerous by the day. On Monday, China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force sent 28 fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, the largest such intimidation operation yet. As Oriana Skylar Mastro recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, the conventional wisdom that Xi Jinping would never dare invade the island is looking increasingly naive.
But Beijing needn’t attack physically in order to threaten and even cause the death of Taiwan’s citizens. China is already doing that right now — because it’s blocking Taiwan’s efforts to purchase covid-19 vaccines from anyone other than China. That’s according to Taiwan’s leaders and three U.S. senators who visited Taipei this month, all of whom I interviewed upon their return.
Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and other Taiwanese leaders, who told them China has been preventing Taiwan from getting vaccines through the United Nations’ Covax distribution system and by interfering in Taiwan’s international vaccine deals. At the same time, Beijing has been pressuring Taiwan to accept China’s less effective vaccines, which Taiwanese law doesn’t allow.
“They are the only country that’s being blockaded from getting vaccines,” said Duckworth. “How do you decide to choke off another nation in a pandemic like that? It’s inhumane.”
The senators were there to publicize the United States’ decision to provide 750,000 vaccine shots for Taiwan, as part of a tranche the White House announced June 3. Tsai told the senators the shots were “timely rain for Taiwan” and said, “Your help will be etched on our hearts.” Duckworth said it was the least we could do, considering that early on in the crisis Taiwan donated 51 million masks to countries around the world, including millions to the United States. Now, as cases rise in Taiwan, less than 5 percent of its citizens have been vaccinated, and international vaccines are still only trickling in.
Chinese Communist Party propaganda outlets dubbed the senators’ visit “a treacherous move” aimed at staging “an anti-China political farce.” CCP propaganda outlets also spread rumors in Taiwan, including that the United States is hoarding so many vaccines that we are vaccinating our cats and dogs. The senators say that the United States owes Taiwan much more than vaccines. The island democracy, they say, needs to know that it’s not being abandoned to suffer alone in the face of increasing Chinese bullying and aggression on a range of fronts — economically, politically and through extensive CCP influence and information operations.
“It’s important to rebut a very aggressive information operation from the CCP to the citizens of Taiwan that is meant to convince them the West and the Americans have forgotten you, you are alone, nobody is taking care of you,” said Sullivan. “It’s important that democracies look out for each other and stick together.”
Inside the Biden team, there’s a dispute over whether the large and growing U.S. vaccine surplus should be distributed through international organizations based purely on need or given bilaterally to the United States’ friends, allies and partners. There’s also a dispute among Biden officials about how drastically the situation across the Taiwan Strait is changing and whether U.S.-Taiwan policy should fundamentally change in kind.
Coons told me that there is bipartisan concern in Congress over the future of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Lawmakers increasingly believe, he said, that Beijing is moving toward compelling reunification, perhaps not through military invasion, but through various other coercive and covert means.
“Under Xi Jinping, China has become more assertive and more aggressive in pushing back on democracy and dissent and in exercising control, and the steps they have taken in Hong Kong have raised real concerns about how they intend to pursue their stated goal of reunification with Taiwan,” he said.
If the United States and the West won’t come to Taiwan’s aid by providing vaccines — something completely within our power that does nothing to challenge the status quo — we are signaling to Taipei that we likely won’t come to its aid in the event of a physical invasion. And failing to respond robustly to Xi’s increasing aggression and intimidation toward Taiwan is the surest way to invite more of it, thereby increasing the risk of the very conflict we are trying to avoid.