On June 17th, the United States sent 2.5 million Moderna COVID-19 vaccine doses to Taiwan, tripling its original pledge of 750,000. The shipment falls under President Biden’s plan to send 80 million doses abroad. Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung and top US diplomat Brent Christensen oversaw the arrival of the critical supplies in Taipei. As news crews filmed the occasion, both representatives posed with a big thumbs-up as bulk cases of the vaccine were offloaded in the background.
This vaccine donation showcases the vital importance of US-Taiwan relations. The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de-facto US embassy on the island, declared the donation as a serious commitment to a “trusted friend and an important security partner.” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen expressed the same sentiment, officially commenting that “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Making a brief stop in Taiwan last month, US Senators Tammy Duckworth, Christopher Coons, and Dan Sullivan emphasized the significance of the vaccine pledge to bolstering US-Taiwan ties.
With only around 6% of Taiwan’s population inoculated, the US shipment has been hailed as critically important to the island’s current efforts to curb the spread of the virus, especially amidst external vaccine obstruction and the repercussions of a Taiwanese vaccine shortage on semiconductor supply chains. Also concerned with a semiconductor shortage, Japan sent 1.24 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Taipei last month.
The aid also reflects gratitude for Taiwanese COVID-19 assistance. In the early onset of the pandemic, Taiwan proved extremely effective in managing its domestic outbreak, resulting in extraordinarily low numbers of infections despite the island’s proximity to the first reported outbreak in China. As a result of its effective, democratic leadership, Taiwan aided many countries in their domestic efforts to control rising cases, serving as a hallmark in the global response to curb the spread of COVID-19.
In April 2020, President Tsai, engaging in “mask diplomacy,” announced the donation of 10 million N95 masks to countries in need, sending around 2 million of these to the United States. This is in addition to an earlier bilateral agreement to send 400,000 masks in return for 300,000 US hazmat suits. Out of the 2 million masks, 100,000 were slated to be delivered to Colorado along with 2,000 thermometers. The allotment was likely due to Senator Cory Gardner’s close relationship with President Tsai. Gardner was also the main sponsor of the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, aimed at strengthening Taiwan’s engagement with international institutions. Colorado was able to secure another 10,000 masks in May 2020 through effective subnational diplomacy and close cooperation with Taiwanese leadership. Taiwan also donated a combined 230,000 masks to Florida and Arkansas amidst domestic surges in July 2020.
Alongside mask shipments, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a joint statement with AIT, also signaled its cooperation with the United States to research and collaborate on rapid testing, contract tracing, and the production of medicine and personal protective equipment (PPE). The collaboration led to a joint venture between Foxconn and Medtronic to produce 10,000 ventilators in the United States. The US-Taiwan partnership throughout the pandemic has undoubtedly strengthened relations at both the national and local levels.
Overall, Taiwanese COVID-19 assistance to the United States—and other countries—has been vital to the global effort to stem the pandemic, and the recent US vaccine donation to Taiwan returns the same steadfast commitment to help allies in need.
Isabel Ayala is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin concentrating in Asian Studies and Government.