A bespectacled leader of Taiwan was sworn in for her second term as President of the island nation a few days ago. President Tsai remains one of the few world leaders showcasing effective leadership in tackling the COVID – 19 pandemic, and belongs to a select group of female leaders in particular to do so. Yet her presidency, the first and now the upcoming second term, has been one defined by an antagonist relationship with Beijing, as the latter continues to aggressively further its cause of having Taiwan join the PRC as part of its “one country, two system” policy. Beijing countering Taiwan or aggressively promoting its soft power has raised numerous questions regarding its intention, transparency, integrity and its approach. While its “medical diplomacy” might have succeeded in promoting its soft power in few targeted regions, others interpret the new confrontational approach as the “wolf-warrior diplomacy”.
The highlight of President Tsai inauguration speech was her rebuttal against Beijing’s “one country, two system”, a system that is facing tremendous pressure of being dismantled in Hong Kong due to the former’s policy. She rejected Beijing’s proposal for the second time and instead stuck to the Republic of China (ROC)’s constitution and persisted with the demand to maintain of the cross-strait status quo. While President Tsai intends to strengthen ties with U.S., Japan, Europe and other like-minded countries, Beijing continues to pressure and manipulate countries around the world into adhering to its “One China” policy in an attempt to weaken Taiwan. The island country is not only concerned with the dwindling number of diplomatic allies (leaving it with only 15 nations that it has formal ties with), but more importantly, Taiwan has been denied access to a number of international fora which it was previously able to participate in. It has been able to maintain full membership in only 38 intergovernmental organizations (IGO), Observer ships in 15, and other forms of official participation (i.e. associate member, cooperating non-member, etc.) in another 4.
Recently, Taiwan was excluded from participating in the World Health Assembly despite Taiwan’s impressive containment of the pandemic within its borders. With a population of 23 million, Taiwan has less than 450 confirmed cases of people affected with corona virus despite its territorial proximity with China. Due to China’s economic and political leverage, the international community has increasingly aligned itself with China in their attempt to isolate Taiwan. Bonnie S Glaser claims that after the pandemic outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) did not share information about the disease with Taiwan since the island nation is excluded from the organization’s alert and response network. The director general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in particular, has been accused of being too deferential to China. Moreover, in one surprising yet appalling turn of event, the senior advisor at the World Health Organization (WHO), Bruce Aylward increasingly dodged a question on Taiwan’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and then repeatedly referred to it as China. The senior advisor in an interview with Hong Kong’s RTHK repeatedly and deliberately avoided answering any questions about Taiwan’s response to the pandemic and its membership in the WHO.
Clearly Beijing’s diplomacy through strong arming those around it has reached unprecedented heights. Above all, the ethical standard of an international organization like the WHO seems to have suffered after rejecting Taiwan bid to serve as an observer. Taking these into consideration, it is apt to ask whether Beijing’s approach to the global political, economic and cultural matters is a new normal for international relations or should China’s aggressive expansion of its diplomatic muscle be checked.
Beijing’s increasingly image – conscious efforts seen during the COVID -19 pandemic has given the impression that the mastery of global image through various means is an important aspect in the process of being seen a powerful and benign country. China’s remarkable achievement in reducing its poverty level from 100 million in 2012 to 16.6 million in late 2018 effectively played vital role in rebuilding its economy internally. In fact, president Xi Jinping reiterated its target to eradicate poverty by 2020. Externally, China replaced Japan as the second largest economy in the world, it is the largest contributor of peacekeeping forces among the five permanent members of UN Security Council and provided generous economic and humanitarian aid to regions in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia has nonetheless laid the foundation for China’s international image or at least improved its global standing.
Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing quickly moved aggressively towards securing its image both internationally and domestically. China responded with sending its medical team to Iran, Iraq, Italy, Serbia and Cambodia, claiming that the government has provided 83 countries and international organizations with emergency assistance to tackle the pandemic. Through such goodwill, Beijing not only hopes to garner positive responses to its global image, but strategically influences the emotions of the people of these countries. Italy in particular has been severely hit by the pandemic and Beijing was quick to seize the opportunity to downplay the role of EU and European countries. In fact, the Chinese propaganda machine quickly made a video of Italians praising Chinese generosity. The positive perception that China has gained much grounds in creating i.e. one defined by generosity, benevolence, friendly, goodhearted and sympathetic during the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with strong diplomatic influence at the international level. .
On the other hand, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, nonetheless, has increased global attention and scrutiny over China’s policies. Using both overt and covert tactics, Beijing was able to bully and threaten foreign officials whose opinions went against its policies. Beijing seems adamant to use the pandemic as a platform to exhibit its diplomatic muscle, particularly its soft power diplomacy. These incidents might have increased China’s leverage, but they do not necessarily translate into favourable perceptions because there are limitations to China’s soft power and rising skepticism from world leaders and communities on China’s handling of the COVID – 19 pandemic.
In a fund-raising effort spearheaded by the EU that brought many countries around the world to pledge their contributions in an effort to develop a vaccine to stop the virus, China has made no financial pledge despite the fact that the pandemic that spread from Wuhan has brought immense disaster around the world. China’s lack of transparency, suspicious death toll rate, refusing to allow international experts, blocking Chinese scientists from probing the origin of the disease, threatening officials for documenting the Chinese governments push in spreading disinformation about the COVID – 19 pandemic and its conceited approach towards cutting Taiwan off from the World Health Assembly as an observer has added to the global suspicion. Several countries now want an inquiry into the roles of both WHO and China with China being increasing belligerent in its response to such demands.
2019 saw China being put under pressure and questioned for its internal policies towards its ethnic minority communities in Tibet and Xinjiang while the large scale protests in Hong Kong revealed the insecurity of Beijing with regards to its “One country, Two System” arrangement. Similarly China’s BRI initiative as well as border issues with India, Japan and the rest of South East Asia saw it being flanked on multiple sides. The COVID – 19 pandemic brought an immediate blanket cover on all these issues and the global world shifted its entire focus on dealing with the situation, so much so that China received positive adulation from WHO and even President Trump for its role during the initial spread of the disease. The present situation, five months after China closed down the Wuhan region, is very different. The US is increasingly turning antagonistic towards Beijing while a large section of the global community has started to view Xi’s policies with great apprehension. Furthermore, the Hong Kong protests has picked up steam again due to China new proposed legislation that threatens to strip away at the already failing Hong Kong autonomy while its coercive stance towards Taiwan has brought the Cross – Strait relations under rising pressure. 2020 may have started off well for China’s foreign policy and as a shield for its internal maneuvers but it seems that the magic has worn off, revealing the foundational ruptures between Beijing’s propagandist claims and the reality that it attempts to hide from the rest of the world.
*Tenzin Lhadon is a visiting fellow of Tibet Policy Institute and a Ph.D scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflects those of the Tibet Policy Institute.