How Taiwan can help its Pacific partners get through the pandemic

As the Covid-19 crisis wears on, the challenges facing Taiwan and its partners in assisting Pacific island countries are more complex than in usual times.

In the early stage of the pandemic, the immediate focus was on providing medical assistance, including the means to detect the virus, treat patients and protect civilians from getting infected. Taiwan overcame the shortage of personal protective equipment after beefing up production over a couple of months, and started to ship supplies around the world, including to Pacific islands (the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Nauru, Palau, Fiji and Papua New Guinea).

But the biggest challenges for island states are now, and likely continue to be, on the economic front. According to Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, economic threats are the more urgent concern for Pacific islands as strict measures seem to have brought health threats under control. But tackling the economic brunt creates its own challenges as Taiwan and its partners in the Pacific islands all hunker down to keep the virus away from their territories.

Financial aid is one of few paths for economic relief during a pandemic. Many countries have provided cash in the form of unemployment relief and economic stimulus programs. Monetary aid such as policy-based loans, budget support, grants and concessional financial assistance also comprise a big portion of aid to Pacific islands.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has requested additional funding (yet to receive legislative approval) for Pacific islands for the next fiscal year, and it intends to discuss ways to implement aid with its allies and partners. According to the Griffith Institute, Taiwan has already provided some A$2.2 million in cash aid to the Marshall Islands.

Providing direct financial assistance isn’t without political challenges in a democratic society. Most Taiwanese are glad to provide medical equipment and food aid to diplomatic allies and partners, but an aversion to the legacy of chequebook diplomacy has made some reluctant to provide cash.

Improving public understanding of and the sense of connection between Taiwan and its allies and partners in Pacific islands could help reduce concerns from the public and even encourage people to voluntarily join aid programs in ways they see fit. Taiwan, with 23 million people, donated roughly US$200 million to assist with Japan’s earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2011, which showed the willingness of its people to help friends in difficulties, and the potential of their big hearts.

It would be easier politically to support Pacific island partners simply by boosting trade. But there’s little economic complementarity between Taiwan and Pacific islands countries outside the tourism sector. Tourism, which comprises as much as 40% of GDP for some Pacific islands, would be where a boost could help in economic recovery, but the pandemic has made that complicated and difficult.

New Zealand and Australia have been working towards a reciprocal ‘travel bubble’, although and the new cluster of Covid-19 cases in South Australia may cause further delays. New Zealand has also been exploring a travel corridor with the Cook Islands, but that too may be postponed. Although the delay has frustrated the Cook Islands’ tourism sector, other Pacific islands are more cautious about opening their borders to save their economies.

Taiwan has so far managed to keep community transmission to a very low level. Its admirable management of the pandemic has invited countries such as South Korea, Thailand and New Zealand to float the idea of wrapping up a travel bubble with Taiwan. Palau is inclined to the enter into a travel bubble with Taiwan before it opens to other countries. But the head of Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center recently told reporters that no progress has been made on building such a travel bubble.

In meeting this pandemic, Taiwan’s sense of community has driven creation of business models to support local enterprises, such as ‘pay now, eat later’. This program allows people to pay in advance for their future consumption, in order to help restaurants and shops which they used to frequent in their neighbourhood to weather the pandemic. This concept could well be adapted to support Pacific islands’ tourism and aviation industries to overcome some of the effects of pandemic-based border restrictions. Tourism-related industries could continue paying for their employees to work on promoting travel packages to overseas tourists.

The Global Cooperation and Training Framework, which started as a bilateral mechanism between the US and Taiwan, now has had four co-hosts with the addition of Japan and Australia for some projects. The GCFT serves as a useful platform for Taiwan in collaboration with co-hosts to share its knowledge and expertise more broadly. The GCTF addresses themes from good governance and improving media literacy to women’s empowerment and responding to infectious disease. Through their common interests, the four co-hosts can use the GCTF to develop and support solutions to the challenges Pacific islands are facing now and will face after the pandemic.

The recent incident in Suva, Fiji, when Chinese officials assaulted a Taiwanese diplomat during celebrations of Taiwan National Day, is a disappointing outcome of China’s recent ‘wolf warrior’ approach. It is disturbing as it imports harassing surveillance to a free and democratic civil society. Also disturbing is that it brings challenges to the judicial system of the host country if the Chinese impose political pressure in an attempt to get away free.

Despite these challenges, Taiwan is committed to pursuing initiatives for building up mutual understanding and a sense of community with the Pacific islands in the face of the grave challenges posed by Covid-19. There are limits to what Taiwan can do. Supporting its partners in the region is a priority. The GCTF can help to find ways for Taiwan to share its innovative health and economic responses to the pandemic, as well as its expertise in education, governance and climate change, more broadly across the region.

This post is part of an ASPI research project on the vulnerability of Indo-Pacific island states in the age of Covid-19 being undertaken with the support of the Embassy of Japan in Australia.