By Wang Qi and Fan Anqi
Following verbal support to the island of Taiwan on recent G7 summit, the US shipped a batch of 2.5 million Moderna COVID-19 vaccines to the pandemic-hit island, as Taiwan residents are mired in a panic brought by Japan-shipped AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccines, as the island has witnessed 67 deaths after receiving AZ jabs.
The batch of 2.5 million Moderna vaccines arrived on the island on Sunday. The US initially pledged to deliver 750,000 doses to Taiwan, which was announced during a visit by three senators to Taiwan by a C-17 US military aircraft on June 6 and was described as “timely rain” by the island’s regional leader Tsai Ing-wen who is facing a huge wave of pressure from people and opposition camp due to the continued snub to Chinese mainland vaccines.
Tsai expressed her gratitude for the US’ latest shipment during a livestream speech on Facebook, describing the US as “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” The head of Taiwan’s health authority, Chen Shih-chung, held up a thank-you board, as shown in a photo as he received the batch of vaccines at the airport.
Tsai said that with the 2.5 million doses, there is a total of 4.85 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in Taiwan.
So far, only 6 percent of Taiwan’s total population of 23.5 million has received at least one jab, with over 40 million more doses needed for the island to achieve herd immunity, media reported.
Experts believe it is unrealistic that this batch of Moderna vaccines will alleviate the vaccine shortage, nor the public’s fear of AZ vaccination. A doctor from a Taipei-based hospital warned that even if people switch from AZ to Moderna, similar cases may continue to happen, Taiwan media reported.
Experts reached by the Global Times on Sunday said that US delivery is a drop in the bucket for the island. By offering vaccines to the island in a “toothpaste-squeezing manner,” it will relieve the political pressure on the secessionist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and make it beholden to the US and fully cooperate with Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy to act as the vanguard to confront the Chinese mainland.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a Twitter post that the vaccine shipment to Taiwan is not based on “political or economic conditions” but with “the singular objective of saving lives.” The words are regarded as in sharp contrast to comments from William Brent Christensen, director of the Taipei office of the American Institute in Taiwan, who said on May 26 that the number of confirmed cases in Taiwan is still relatively low compared with the world average, implying that the US would not be generous in helping the island with vaccine aid.
Observers said that the US did not extend a helping hand to Taiwan in the first place out of kinship and humanitarianism as the mainland did, instead, semiconductor chip supply and the arms sales are the reasons why the US has later showed care to Taiwan.
On June 10, US President Joe Biden announced that the US plans to donate 500 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to the world under the banner of the “US is back.”
The vaccine donation to Taiwan is part of Washington’s “vaccine diplomacy” to counter Russia and China’s vaccine influence after the US has carried out enough inoculations and stockpiled a large number of vaccines, Zhu Songling, a professor at the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Beijing Union University, told the Global Times on Sunday.
The US was estimated to have 300 million or more excess doses of vaccines authorized in the US and/or EU by the end of July, based on existing authorizations and purchase agreements.
The island’s defense authority on Thursday announced two arms procurement deals with the US, including one “long-range precision fire system” and “a batch of missiles,” Taiwan media reported. Analysts said the arms sale is not a coincidence, and that more murky political deals are going on.
The vaccine shipment comes at a time when the US is negotiating with the island on securing supply chains for strategic items such as computer chips. Taiwan is a major supplier of chips that are vital to the US automobile and other industries.
Xu Zhengwen, head of the Taiwan Chamber of Commerce, told the Global Times on Sunday that Washington’s sudden “kindness” came at a “delicate timing,” as a bipartisan group of US senators had just proposed a 25 percent tax credit for investments in semiconductor manufacturing in a bid to increase the country’s chip production.
“The donation of these doses could be aimed in exchange for Taiwan’s largest semiconductor manufacturer TSMC to invest in the US,” he said.
In terms of political sectors, Wang Jianmin, a senior cross-Straits expert at Minnan Normal University, Fujian Province, told the Global Times on Sunday that after the saga of the US’ anti-China roadshow in Europe, the US needs the island of Taiwan to do more to counter the mainland.
Despite the fact that the US did not come to Taiwan’s aid swiftly during the worst of the epidemic on the island, the 2.5 million doses will ease the DPP’s pressure to some extent facing the discontent and criticism over the repeated rejection of the mainland vaccine, Wang said.
The DPP will be grateful to the US, but the political deals behind the donation are not good for cross-Straits relations and China-US ties, Wang said.
Vaccine policy for self interest
Taiwan experts and residents also questioned the DPP authority why it is not suspending the vaccination of AZ vaccine for elderly people given the dozens of deaths after the AZ vaccine jab in a week. Australia recommended that the AZ COVID-19 jab should not be given to people under 60 on Thursday.
Even when cross-Straits relations were tense, people from Taiwan came to the mainland to get vaccinations. According to public health data, over 62,000 residents from the island have been vaccinated on the mainland as of May 31.
Cheng Po-yu, executive director of the cross-Straits Youth Exchange Association who were vaccinated in Beijing in May, told the Global Times that even with the 2.5 million doses, the vast majority of Taiwan people still have no chance to get one, as the DPP authorities have prioritized those related to key industries such as semiconductors, which the US also prefers to ensure their own supply chains won’t be affected,” Cheng told the Global Times on Sunday.
He added that in his effort to bring more Taiwan compatriots to the Chinese mainland to get free vaccination, the DPP authorities had banned travel groups specifically intended for COVID-19 jabs to leave for the mainland, forcing such groups to travel individually.
Although the DPP authority on Friday announced that it will authorize Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Taiwan’s Foxconn, and semiconductor giant TSMC, to negotiate on its behalf for COVID-19 vaccines, the idea is unpopular, as there is no reason to believe they can do “better” than authorities.
According to Taiwan media, the island authority has purchased 10 million AZ vaccines and 5.05 million Moderna vaccines but only 50,000 doses or order have arrived.
Zhang Wensheng, a deputy dean of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University, told the Global Times on Sunday that Taiwan’s overall vaccination layout is controlled by the DPP. The vaccines shipped from the US and Japan are designed to alleviate public pressure on DPP and Taiwan’s locally developed vaccine will dominate the main market.
Experts said that in fact, the DPP authority does not want the non-governmental organizations to play a role in case to squeeze the space of Taiwan-made vaccine, but given how hard it is for the DPP to get vaccines, they do not hold out much hope for Gou and TSMC who are not allowed by DPP authority to get vaccines through mainland channels.
The Taiwan-made vaccine will only be in Phase-II clinical trials in July and will not be certified internationally, but when the time comes, people on the island will have no choice but to be inoculated with it, observers said, noting that manufacturers will make a fortune, and the DPP has huge interests and connections with manufacturers.