The country last year recorded zero cases of community transmission for eight straight months.
The recent increase in cases has led many people to wonder: what happened to Taiwan’s COVID success story?
One part of the answer is a very slow vaccine rollout. Australia should take heed.
How serious is Taiwan’s current outbreak?
On May 9, Taiwan recorded zero new community cases of COVID-19 (there was one imported case in quarantine). But only five days later, new local cases had risen exponentially to 29, and then to a peak of 333 on May 17. And on Saturday, the country’s health department retrospectively added an extra 400 cases to the previous week which were not included in earlier reports.
Although these numbers are still very low in comparison to many other countries, the fact that these new cases were spread across many cities and counties alarmed health officials. Previously, when Taiwan had its first peak — in March 2020 with 27 new cases — almost all cases were from overseas and were successfully isolated. Now the opposite is happening, with almost all new cases spreading in the community.
The current alert level three mandates wearing masks outside the home and limits people gatherings to five indoors and ten outdoors. This falls short of establishing a lockdown.
Taiwan is also temporarily barring any non-residents and transit travellers from entering the country. And there are restrictions on attending public venues, as well as sporting, entertainment and recreational events.
Level four, the highest level of the country’s restrictions would include the country’s first mass lockdown. This would only be triggered after 14 consecutive days of more than 100 cases, with 50% or more being of unknown origin.
Taiwan’s recent COVID surge
What went wrong?
Until now, Taiwan was able to prevent the virus from spreading in the community, and contain it to a few imported cases, by its extensive public health infrastructure. This includes quarantine in a government facility or at home for incoming travellers, and quarantine of close contacts of positive cases. This infrastructure was established before COVID and enabled the country to respond quickly and in a coordinated manner to it.
Taiwan’s effective methods for isolation and quarantine were aided by using digital technologies for identifying potential cases, and widespread use of face masks.
This previous COVID success might have led to the government to focus on other priorities rather than investing in resources for mass COVID testing. Indeed, in Taiwan it hasn’t been seen as cost-effective to roll out mass testing without many (or any) cases.
Now, Taiwan has ramped up its testing capacity over the past week as much as possible, but still falls short in comparison to Australia, which conducts far more tests per 1,000 population.
Taiwan’s success also may have led to its people having less of an urgency to get vaccinated.
Where does Taiwan stand on COVID vaccinations?
Only about 1% of the population was vaccinated against COVID when this outbreak started.
Taiwan’s government invested early in developing a local vaccine, which has yet to come to market. This could be one explanation for why Taiwan came late to ordering vaccines from international suppliers, and is still awaiting further shipments from overseas.
Only last week did a second shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrive in Taiwan through the global COVAX facility. However, this contained only 410,400 vaccine doses. Taiwan’s population is 23 million.
This is a warning sign for Australia
Whatever the reasons for the slow rollout of vaccines so far, for the time being and months to come, neither Taiwan nor Australia are even close to herd immunity against COVID.
Testing, tracing and isolation are still going to be important long into the future for both countries.
In saying that, even countries with the highest per capita vaccine rollout can suffer a new wave of the virus, for example Seychelles.
There may be outbreaks in places where not enough people have been vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, or where variants of the coronavirus are resulting in less protection in those vaccinated against the original strain.
Nevertheless, short of attempting to eliminate the virus by strict isolation (not only of cases but of the whole population from abroad) and severe quarantine or lockdown measures, getting everyone vaccinated as soon as possible is the best approach to a lasting COVID-free world.
Taiwan’s COVID surge demonstrates this virus has the capacity to break through isolation and quarantine barriers at any time, in any country. Many countries need to be better prepared.
The current situation in Taiwan should be a warning to other countries that you can’t let your guard down anywhere yet.
John Blaxland, Australian National UniversityTalk of war has become louder in recent days, but the “drumbeat” has been heard for some time now as China’s military capabilities have grown. China does not want war, at least not yet. It’s playing the long game and its evident intentions have become more unnerving.
Scholars like Brendan Taylor have identified four flash points for a possible conflict with China, including Korea, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan, but conventional war is not likely at this stage.
Where tensions are currently high
The armistice between North and South Korea has held for nearly 70 years. The pandemic has severely constrained North Korea’s economy and its testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles has ceased, for now. China has a stake in keeping Kim Jong-un’s regime in power in the North, but the prospects of reverting to a hot war have flowed and ebbed.
Just south of Korea, in the East China Sea, China has intensified its military activities around the Japanese-claimed but uninhabited Senkaku Islands. China appears to be wearing down Japan’s resolve to resist its claims over what it calls the Diaoyu Islands.
The United States has assured Japan the islands fall under their mutual defence security guarantee. But a confrontation with China could test US backing and possibly set the stage for escalated confrontation elsewhere.
Similarly, China’s industrial-scale island building in the South China Sea has resulted in extensive military hardware and infrastructure. This will enable the Chinese to consolidate their position militarily and assert control over the so-called nine-dash line — its vast claim over most of the sea.
The US Navy continues to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the sea to challenge China’s claims. With thousands of marked and unmarked Chinese vessels operating there, however, the risk of an accident triggering an escalation is real.
In 2016, an international tribunal rejected China’s claims to the waters in a case brought by the Philippines. Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, China has ignored the tribunal’s ruling and continued to intrude on islands claimed by both the Philippines and Indonesia.
Recently, 220 Chinese vessels were anchored for months at a reef inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China’s actions appear premised on the dictum that possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Like China’s seizure of the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 that preceded its massive island construction further south, China could conceivably take the unwillingness of the US to challenge its latest moves as a cue for more assertive action over Taiwan.
This is, after all, the main prize Beijing seeks to secure President Xi Jinping’s legacy.
Why Taiwan’s security matters
Taiwan presents the US and its allies with a conundrum. It is a liberal open democracy and the world’s leading computer chip maker. It also sits in the middle of what military strategists refer to as the “first island chain” stretching from Japan in the north to the Philippines in the south. Its strategic significance is profound.
Having adopted a “One China” policy since 1979, the US security guarantee for Taiwan is conditional and tenuous. Reflecting growing unease over China’s actions, polls show strong US public support for defending Taiwan.
So far, ambiguity has served US interests well, providing some assurance to Taiwan while discouraging the PRC from invading.
This guarantee has been important for Japan, as well. With its pacifist constitution, and occasional concern over US commitment to its defence, Japan would be closely watching how the US approaches its Taiwan policy.
China is so far avoiding open war
Meanwhile, China has metamorphosed both economically and militarily. An exponential growth in China’s military capabilities has been matched by a steep rise in the lethality, accuracy, range and quantity of its weapons systems. On top of this, Beijing has ratcheted up its warlike rhetoric and tactics.
Last month, Xi made a muscular speech to the Boao Forum Asia, calling for an acceptance of China not only as an emerging superpower but also as an equal in addressing global challenges.
Sometimes actions speak louder than words. And China’s actions so far have avoided crossing the threshold into open warfare, refusing to present a “nail” to a US “hammer”. This is for good reason.
If war did break out, China would be vulnerable. For starters, it shares land borders with 14 countries, bringing the potential for heightened challenges, if not open attack on numerous fronts.
Then there are the economic concerns. China has significant Japanese, US and European industrial investments, and is also overwhelmingly dependent on energy and goods passing through the Malacca Strait between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, the Indo-Pacific’s jugular vein.
This reliance on the Malacca Strait — referred to by one analyst as the “Malacca dilemma” — helps explain why China has invested so much capital in its Belt and Road Initiative and studiously avoided open conflict, at least until it is more self-reliant.
To avoid outright war, China evidently reckons it is better to operate a paramilitary force with white-painted ships and armed fishing vessels in the thousands to push its claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea and constrict Taiwan’s freedom of action.
It also recently passed a new law allowing its coast guard to act more like a military body and enforce maritime law — again in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China is also expanding its “grey zone” warfare against Taiwan, which includes cyber attacks, repeated incursions of its air space and territorial waters, and diplomatic isolation to undermine Taiwan’s resolve and ability to resist.
Would America’s allies help defend Taiwan?
This persistent and escalating challenge by Chinese forces has demonstrated Taiwan’s inability to fully control its waters and air space. Beijing is continuing to build a fleet of amphibious capabilities to enable an invasion of Taiwan.
US pundits are also no longer confident the Americans would win in an outright war over Taiwan, with Washington’s top military officer in the region arguing one could happen within six years.
Taiwan lacks allies other than the United States, but Japan is mindful of the consequences of a US failure to defend Taiwan. Its ocean surveillance and coastal defence capabilities would be exposed if China took Taiwan. But Japan’s constitution precludes direct involvement in defending Taiwan.
Under its Anzus obligations, the US could call on Australia for military support to defend Taiwan. The mutual assistance provisions are not automatically invoked, but the implications of Canberra standing on the sidelines would be profound.
Warnings about rhetorical drumbeats of war remind us the US is no longer the world’s only superpower and suggest Australia should prepare for a more volatile world.
Rather than rely solely on the US, Australia should bolster its own defence capabilities. At the same time, it should collaborate more with regional partners across Southeast Asia and beyond, particularly Indonesia, Japan, India and South Korea, to deter further belligerence and mitigate the risk of tensions escalating into open war.
Tony Walker, La Trobe UniversityAustralians woke up to the freelancing advice this week that “drums of war” were beating louder in their neighbourhood, according to the country’s top security official.
It is hardly news that regional anxiety is rising as the countries of the Indo-Pacific scramble to accommodate China’s surging power and influence.
However, an essay by Michael Pezzullo, Home Affairs secretary that spoke publicly of a possible war with an unnamed adversary, ventured into territory not previously traversed by government officials.
It appears not to have had the imprimatur of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Morrison did not repudiate Pezzullo’s remarks, nor did he endorse them. He said Australia’s goal was to “pursue peace and stability” and a “world order that favours freedom”.
This is what Pezzullo, whose responsibilities include the domestic spy agency the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, said in a message to his staff without directly mentioning the dragon in the room — China.
In a world of perpetual tension and dread, the drums of war beat sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times more loudly and ever closer […] until we are faced with the only prudent, if sorrowful course — to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight the nation’s wars.
These words, untethered from any immediate threat, might have been put aside, but their timing has helped focus attention on the security challenges facing Australia at a moment of considerable strategic uncertainty.
The change of administration in Washington, along with a continuing deterioration in relations between Canberra and Beijing, has further unsettled Australia’s national security calculations in an age of regional uncertainty.
The simple question in all of this is whether conflict with China has become more likely, even inevitable? And whether hawkish elements in the Australian national security establishment, like Pezzullo, are overstating the risks?
Is war over Taiwan likely?
The core of this discussion relates predominantly to Taiwan, amid the many other issues bedeviling relations between China and the West.
These include human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang, the abrogation of the “one country, two systems” agreements over Hong Kong, China’s abrasive, mercantilist economic practices, its suspected cyber intrusions, and its aggressive base construction in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
All of these issues cause tensions with its neighbours and the wider international community.
However, it is China’s recent threats against Taiwan that have emerged as the most vexed issue. They present a risk, however remote, of a military confrontation between superpowers.
Barring a miscalculation by either side in a tense environment, the likelihood of open conflict is low, given the potential costs involved on either side.
On the other hand, unless Washington and Beijing achieve new understandings that lower the temperature in and around the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese security will continue to weigh heavily on America and its alliance partners in the Asia-Pacific.
As an ANZUS Treaty ally of the United States — and with its own regional security preoccupations — Australia cannot avoid contemplating the possibility of a meltdown in the Taiwan Strait.
This includes the perennial question of whether Australia would involve itself militarily against China if asked to do so by its treaty ally. Such an outcome hardly bears contemplating.
Will the US make clear its intentions on Taiwan?
In its initial interactions with China on the Taiwan issue, the new Biden administration is treading carefully. This is in contrast to its predecessor, whose foreign posturing tended to follow the fluctuating whims of Donald Trump.
Among the options for Biden’s State Department is one that would transition America’s approach to Taiwan from one of strategic ambiguity to clarity.
This means rather than taking a non-explicit approach — leaving open the option of a military response should China seek to reunify Taiwan by force — the US would make an explicit declaration that it would would, in fact, respond militarily.
This approach is gaining support in Congress, where sentiment has hardened against China’s behaviour on various fronts.
It would be premature to declare a watershed has been reached on the Taiwan issue in which the US would make clear its intentions. But the debate appears to be heading in that direction.
Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, penned an influential essay in the September 2020 edition of Foreign Affairs in which he declared a policy of strategic ambiguity had “run its course”.
The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United Sates would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation, which is the likeliest catalyst for war in the Taiwan Strait.
Haass has a point.
In another essay published this month by three veteran security analysts, however, the authors issue a warning that “hyping the threat China poses to Taiwan does China’s work for it”.
As troubling as the trend-lines of Chinese behaviour are, it would be a mistake to infer that they represent an unalterable catastrophe. China’s top priority now and in the foreseeable future is to deter Taiwan independence rather than compel unification.
Why China favours a less risky approach
Beijing’s crude policy of conducting war games in Taiwan’s vicinity, including intrusions into its airspace, might suggest China is preparing retake the island. But the question is at what cost to its international standing, economic interests, and internal stability?
What is much more likely, Haass argues, is China will continue to exert pressure on Taiwan by various means in the hope that “once ripe the melon will drop from its stem”.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that in its latest five-year plan, China reaffirmed a policy guideline of pursuing “peaceful development of cross-strait relations”.
Finally, in all of this, there is the cold hard calculation of the military balance in the Taiwan Strait.
In its latest annual report to Congress, the US Department of Defence acknowledged China had “achieved parity with — or even exceeded – the United States” in three areas: shipbuilding, land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, and air defence.
In other words, the military balance in the Taiwan Strait is continuing to shift in China’s favour. This reality makes loose talk of Australian “warriors” responding to the trumpet call of war even less palatable.
Taiwan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been among the world’s best. With a population almost the size of Australia’s, the island nation has reported only 496 confirmed cases of the disease and no locally acquired infections for months.
What began with the hackers of the “open source, open government” movement g0v and student protesters has grown into an experiment in radical democracy that is yielding astonishing results.
‘Fast, fair and fun’
While the notion of “digital democracy” is as old as the internet, few countries have really tried to find out how to practice democracy in digital spheres. In Taiwan, however, there is a strong collective narrative of digital democracy, and government and civil society work together in online spaces to build public trust.
The pillars of Taiwan’s approach to digital democracy are “fast, fair and fun”.
Taiwan was among the first countries in the world to detect and respond to the virus, thanks to crowd-sourced, collective intelligence through online bulletin boards. Warnings of the virus were first noted in December 31 2019, when a senior health official spotted a heavily “up-voted” post on the PTT bulletin board.
Before long, civic tech hackers were working on open data projects for citizens to interact with live maps, distributed ledger technology and chat bots to find the nearest pharmacy to claim free masks, with stock levels updated in real time to stop panic buying. Audrey Tang dubbed this rapid, iterative, bottom-up process – as opposed to a top-down government-led distribution system – “reverse procurement”.
A “humour over rumour” strategy has also been very successful to combat misinformation, fake news and disinformation. Taiwan is engineering memes to spread public awareness of positive behaviours through the virality of social media algorithms.
Government departments are responsible for addressing disinformation by providing a “memetic” response according to the “2-2-2”: a response in 20 minutes, in 200 words or less, with 2 images.
Alongside dog memes and pink face masks, one of the most successful is a rapid response to halt runs on toilet paper. This featured a cartoon video of Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang shaking his backside with a caption saying “We only have one pair of buttocks”.
How hacktivists reached the halls of power
How has the mindset and culture of hacktivism been cultivated to motivate civic hackers to participate in Taiwan’s digital democracy?
First, a figurehead and a manifesto. Audrey Tang is the figurehead, and her manifesto On Utopia for Public Action espouses post-party politics, free speech and deliberation, all enabled through thoughtful and experimental application of digital infrastructure.
Third, inviting participation, listening to community voices, and taking action as a result. Taiwan’s culture of civic participation follows the model of open source software communities. This means working from the bottom up, sharing information, improving on the work of others, mutual benefit and participatory collective action.
Underlying these initiatives and digital infrastructures, is two-way trust. In the words of Yun Chen, a member of the “decentralized civic tech community” g0v:
The first key is trust … it was the trust that made government officers take open data as performance instead of troubles, which led government to initiate open data and be willing to accept tech assistance from civic tech communities.
Despite low overall trust in government and leadership in Taiwan, recent polling suggests 91% of citizens are satisfied with the Central Epidemic Command Centre. Tang has said “the government needs to fully trust the citizens”, and that this trust is reciprocated.
A small experiment
With all of this enthusiasm, I wanted to try participating in digital democracy myself. I had heard Tang quote some statistics on increased public trust in several interviews, but I couldn’t find the source. At the suggestion of my Taiwanese compatriot Chih Cheng Liang, I simply asked Tang for the source on Twitter.
Tang’s response was extremely impressive: in less than 5 minutes, she replied with a link to the relevant Taiwanese poll.
A radical experiment
In many countries, policy makers don’t fully understand the technical and governance dynamics of the digital realm. In Taiwan, we are seeing what can happen when they do: bringing “hacker” tools and methods into the institutions of government to increase public participation in democracy.
It’s a vast change. Digital infrastructures are inherently political, or spheres for political engagement. They emerge out of the interaction between technology and society, and are influenced and constrained by human agents.
Radical democracy is essentially radical. Tang also sits on the board of of American economist Glen Weyl’s Radical Xchange initiative, which aims at “uprooting capitalism and democracy for a just society”.
There is now talk of trying out the collective decision making system known as “quadratic voting”, and other experimental crowd-sourcing mechanisms that have surfaced from the Ethereum blockchain community.
Other countries are free to pick up both lessons and digital innovations from Taiwan’s innovations. Many tools and models have been made available on an open-source basis at Taiwancanhelp.us.