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Taiwan-EU Disagreement Reflects 'Mess' in Reopening Borders after COVID-19 

FILE - People who want to leave the island, but cannot due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, take part in a 'fake' travel experience for tourists simulating the experience of using an international airport at Songshan airport in Taipei, July 2, 2020.
FILE - People who want to leave the island, but cannot due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, take part in a 'fake' travel experience for tourists simulating the experience of using an international airport at Songshan airport in Taipei, July 2, 2020.

Analysts say a dispute between Taiwan and the European Union for its ban on Taiwanese travelers may typify future diplomatic squabbles among governments around the world as they seek consensus on allowing international travel amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Foreign Ministry in Taipei said this week it hoped the EU would put Taiwan on a safe list of places from which citizens can travel in Europe. Taiwan has nearly zero active disease cases but won’t reciprocate by allowing in EU citizens, a problem for the European side. Taiwan says the EU isn’t safe from disease yet. Taiwan’s political rival, China, may have asked the European Union to shun Taiwan too, some analysts say.

The Taiwan case exposes a lack of standard, internationally accepted consular practices on how governments should reopen to foreign travelers — the source of economically crucial trade and tourism — in a world where successful disease control varies widely.

Some countries want reciprocity in the same spirit they decide the price of visas, experts believe. Others show signs of letting in just business travelers in the short term, they say, and a lot in Asia are expected to stay shut completely until a vaccine comes out.

“Deglobalization is continuing in the face of COVID-19 with the collapse of many of the systems that underpin global economic development,” said Stuart Orr, professor of management at Deakin University in Australia. “This will continue to highlight the cultural distances between sovereign states and lead to increasing differences in expectations about border reopening.

“In the face of deglobalization, shared understandings between sovereign states is decreasing rather than increasing,” Orr added.

Japan plans to ease travel restrictions by letting in some 250 business travelers per day from Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam, Tokyo-based Kyodo News reported in June. The target countries all have low COVID-19 caseloads.

Singapore and six Chinese cities and provinces have agreed to open an immigration “fast lane” for business travelers, the Singaporean Foreign Ministry says on its website. The often-deadly disease first surfaced in China, which is also a key source of travel revenue for Singapore.

Australian media quoted their country’s tourism minister last month saying the border would stay sealed until 2021. The European Union, by contrast, opened its borders to all 27 member nations on June 15 despite lingering outbreaks in some spots.

Hopeful travelers are braced now even for bans on leaving their own countries and on returning to countries where they hold long-term residence permits. The Philippines won’t let most citizens out, for example, while China has banned foreign permit holders from reentry.

“It’s a real mess all over the world and the list of rules is so long it’s really a nightmare trying to figure out what’s going on,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist with the market research firm IHS Markit in Singapore. “There’s no standard. Every country makes its own decision about how they want to go about this.”

Most Asian governments will hold out for a vaccine before any mass reopening moves, Biswas forecast.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said it plans to keep talking with EU officials about letting Taiwanese travelers enter. The European bloc has opened to citizens of 15 outside countries including some that report higher COVID-19 caseloads than Taiwan’s.

“The EU decides not only on the grounds of med [medical] records and the factual reality,” said Fabrizio Bozzato, Taiwan-based researcher at the CEMAS Center research forum at the University of Rome. “Its decisions are also the result of political considerations, so the exclusion of Taiwan from the first iteration of the list does not come as a total surprise.”

The EU’s demand for Taiwan’s reciprocity is probably just an excuse, said Chao Chien-min, dean of social sciences at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. He suspects European countries want to get on the good side of China because of the Asian powerhouse’s global economic clout.

China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and condemns other governments from treating the island like a state.

“Because their relations with mainland China are already poor, they don’t need to make relations even worse because of Taiwan,” Chao said.