China-Taiwan Tensions Heat Up During Pandemic As U.S. Voices Support for Island

The coronavirus pandemic has intensified the seven-decade dispute between China and Taiwan, a democratically governed island that Beijing regards as a breakaway province.

A report published Tuesday by the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission accused the Chinese government of having "undermined global health" by exerting influence and pressure to ensure the exclusion of Taiwan from the World Health Organization (WHO). Taiwan says it sounded the alarm early on about the dangers of the virus as it spread through China's central city of Wuhan late last year, only to be sidelined because of its disputed political status.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian lashed out at the report in a press briefing Wednesday, arguing that Beijing has "made proper arrangement for the Taiwan region's participation in global health affairs." He also said that "the Taiwan region is never excluded from the WHO global anti-epidemic system."

Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, has been ruled separately since Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War to the Communists and retreated to the island in 1949. Both governments claim to be the rightful rulers of all China, although Taiwan's formal diplomatic allies have dwindled dramatically since the United States and other Western nations began recognizing the Communist-ruled People's Republic in the early 1970s.

China fears that Taiwan, now led by a president whose party has traditionally favored independence rather than re-unification with the mainland, will ride a wave of global anger at Beijing's handling of the pandemic to gain wider recognition.

Zhao accused Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progress Party of making "reckless political maneuvers" throughout the pandemic to enhance the island government's participation in international institutions like the WHO.

"Their real intention is to solicit foreign support and seek independence under the pretext of the pandemic. We are firmly opposed to that. Their scheme will never succeed," Zhao told reporters.

"China urges relevant side in the U.S. to abide by the one-China principle and stop backing the Taiwan authorities' political maneuvering to seek independence under the disguise of epidemic response, so as to avoid disrupting global solidarity and cooperation against the pandemic," he added.

china, air, force, exercise, south, sea, taiwan
A J-10 fighter jet with the People's Liberation Army Southern Theater Command fires rockets at ground targets during a live-fire training exercise on April 27. Beijing has accelerated military training near the contested Taiwan Strait, warning that military action is an option to retake the self-ruling island. Xie Zhongwu/Chinese People's Liberation Army

Tuesday's congressional report said that China "ramped up military pressure on Taiwan through a series of coercive exercises" during the coronavirus crisis. Chinese President Xi Jinping has consistently vowed to retake the island through talks or military attack, and his country's state-run media have cheered him on.

After an article Tuesday in Japan's Kyodo News agency on upcoming Chinese island-landing drills drew a strong reaction from Taiwanese officials, who promised they were prepared to defend their shores, the Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times cited military expert Song Zhongping saying Wednesday that such maneuvers "are literally aimed at islands, like the Dongsha Islands, Penghu Islands and the larger island, namely Taiwan Island."

"If Taiwan secessionists insist on secession, military exercises can turn into action any time," Song said.

The newspaper also ran an op-ed Wednesday warning that U.S.-Taiwan collaboration against China would ultimately backfire.

China and Taiwan have not fought directly since the 1950s but have since had turbulent relations, ranging from hostile to tepid. The presidential election of the Democratic Progressive Party's Tsai Ing-wen resulted in another deterioration of ties. The Democratic Progressives take the view that Taiwan is already autonomous, and that a formal independence declaration, a challenging prospect under the constitution, is unnecessary.

Tsai's government has also fostered closer ties with President Donald Trump, who accepted her congratulatory call after his own victory in 2016. The U.S. has since expanded Taiwan relations with the Taipei Act and with military sales that have sparked outrage in China.

Washington is appealing for Taipei's greater participation on the world stage, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling upon the international community last week "to support Taiwan's participation as an observer at the [WHO's] World Health Assembly and in other relevant United Nations venues."

Days later, spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang of China's State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, said Beijing "will create a broad space for peaceful reunification, but we will never leave any room for various forms of secessionist activities of Taiwan independence."

taiwan, military, china, coronavirus, covid-19
Soldiers wearing face masks listen to an address by President Tsai Ing-wen during her visit to a military base in Tainan, southern Taiwan, on April 9. Taipei has called for international support as Beijing reinforces the diplomatic isolation of the island’s government through international institutions like the World Health Organization. SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

A Pew Research Center study published Tuesday revealed mostly negative views toward China among those living in Taiwan. The survey, originally conducted in mid-October, showed that 68 percent of respondents in Taiwan had a favorable view of the United States, as opposed to 35 percent who felt the same toward China.

With U.S.-China tensions rising over trade, military might and the handling of the pandemic, the two major powers face greater frictions over Taiwan. China has stepped up military exercises in the waters and skies near Taiwan, and the U.S. has increased naval and aerial patrols in the same region—even as the Pentagon moves to protect its ranks from the coronavirus, which has afflicted at least one Pacific aircraft carrier and sickened sailors elsewhere as well.

In addition to enforcing international passage near contested islands across the South China Sea through what the Navy calls freedom of navigation operations, the U.S. has sent ships on "presence operations" to prevent China from accessing lucrative oil and gas reserves claimed by other nations.

After three warships were sent to back Malaysia in a drilling standoff with China, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Fred Kacher, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group Seven said in a press statement Tuesday that "there is no better signal of our support for a free and open Indo-Pacific than positive and persistent U.S. naval engagement in this region."

Correction (5/13/2020, 11:00 p.m.): This story has been edited to clarify references to Taiwan's political status, the history of China's diplomatic relations with the United States and the political positions of the Taiwan's ruling party.