Taiwan, widely watched from abroad for controlling the spread of COVID-19, started this week spreading medical aid to much harder-hit countries in a campaign that could help it stand up politically against its powerful rival China.
The island’s foreign ministry said Wednesday it would donate 10 million face masks to medical personnel in Europe, the United States and 15 small diplomatic allies. The ministry says it wants to share Taiwan's successes to date.
“My country’s donation of 10 million face masks to help medical staff people in countries with severe outbreaks shows an enduring ‘Taiwan can help’ spirit and urges a strengthening of international cooperation,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said.
“We’ve noticed that Taiwan’s disease prevention deployments and experience have already received approval from the international community," Ou added.
The donation marks Taiwan’s first “large-scale humanitarian assistance initiative,” she said, following the virus outbreak that has hit 170 countries since being discovered more than three months ago in central China.
A longer-term flow of aid following efforts by China would make Taiwan look benevolent in multiple countries as long as officials in Taipei don’t intentionally politicize it, analysts said. They cautioned, though, that the campaign probably won't earn Taiwan any new formal diplomatic recognition or get it into international agencies dominated by China's allies.
Taiwan's coronavirus caseload reached 348 on Friday. Unlike much of the world, the island government has ordered no lockdowns or forced closures. China has tamed a much larger caseload but is seen as the virus’s source. Some suspect China of under-reporting its caseload, which officially stands at around 81,000.
“If we’re interpreting [Taiwan’s] message in an innocent way, then it should be applauded,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
Taiwan, however, vies with the militarily and economically mightier China for international recognition. China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and uses its clout to make international bodies such as the World Health Organization block the island's participation.
Donors in China have sent hundreds of thousands of masks and virus test kits abroad. Its aid is at work now Italy, Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia and South Korea, to name just a few recipients. In a recent example, on Monday, the Chinese province of Heilongjiang donated 50,000 surgical masks to a prefecture in Japan, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
China has the capacity to make about 116 million face masks daily compared to Taiwan’s 10 million per day.
“If you just look at capacity, I think just for Taiwan to compete with mainland [China] it’s not going to get there,” Sun said. “But then again, does it mean that Taiwan should not even try? I think Taiwan should try and Taiwan should make a contribution.”
Taiwan could shine as a nonpolitical donor as China bickers with the United States, the world’s most heavily infected country, Sun said. Washington says China covered up the extent of its outbreak, while Beijing resents U.S. President Donald Trump for using the term "Chinese virus."
Taiwan has stepped up calls to let it into WHO since COVID-19 erupted but hasn’t linked that ambition to mask donations. China normally blocks Taiwan's bids to get in.
Of those donations, the ministry says the United States will get 100,000 per week plus another 2 million for front line medical workers. Its diplomatic allies, mostly small and poor countries, will get another 1 million masks plus 84 thermal imaging devices such as forehead thermometers. Seven million masks will go to Europe.
“Most Americans probably haven't thought all that much about Taiwan's extraordinary achievements against COVID-19 to date,” said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.
“But the World Health Organization's refusal to constructively engage Taiwan, presumably at Beijing's behest, has garnered the island tremendous public sympathy in the United States,” King said. “I'm sure Taipei's sending us these masks, in our time of need, will only further enhance Americans' already overwhelmingly positive views of Taiwan.”
More medical diplomacy is taking shape.
U.S. and Taiwanese officials had agreed last month to work together on research and development of a vaccine. The Taiwanese university Academia Sinica is separately discussing with European Union officials ways they might cooperate on fighting COVID-19, the island’s Central News Agency reported.