Taiwan’s Covid-19 Tactics Prove Island’s Military Preparedness

Strong, creditable leadership and public discipline mean Taiwanese won’t be easily intimidated

By: Jens Kastner

The remarkable steps Taiwan has taken in controlling the Covid-19 Coronavirus are the same ones the island would need to fend off the most-plausible war scenario the island could be facing – a naval blockade by China.

Tensions have continued to rise between an increasingly pugnacious government in Beijing and an estranged government and people in Taiwan, with some analysts saying the situation is significantly more serious than earlier crises including those in the 1950s and later in the mid-1990s, when the US was forced to send the Seventh Fleet down the Taiwan Strait to keep the peace.

Military planners say a blockade would be China’s most logical military course of action as it is less likely to prompt foreign intervention than a mix of invasion and bombardment, would cost fewer Chinese military lives and would likely direct the Taiwanese public’s fury at Taiwan’s own leadership rather than the aggressor.

The common military thinking is that Taiwan would be forced to capitulate within weeks, days or even hours if the US -- the island’s principal security guarantor – hesitated to intervene. But in the face of the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in late-2019, the Taiwan authorities got everything right, the first crucial step being not trusting anything their Chinese counterparts announced, having learned their lessons during the SARS outbreak in 2002-3, when China’s cover-ups delayed appropriate responses for weeks.

Shortly after reports on an outbreak in Wuhan emerged, Taiwan sent a fact-finding team to China, had health officials entering planes arriving from China to check for passengers with symptoms and quickly imposed travel bans and quarantines well ahead of most other Asian countries. The island’s death toll was only two, with only 153 infections so far.

Taiwan thus acted against the explicit recommendations of World Health Organization Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, whom the Taiwanese government suspects of being Beijing’s puppet.

To prevent panic buying, which is a common menace during any wartime blockade, Taiwan quickly set the price of surgical masks and used military personnel to increase mask production.

In an astonishingly short time also, authorities integrated the national health insurance database with the immigration and customs database to begin the creation of a big data system for epidemic analytics.

The measures were highly appreciated by the public, as reflected by the approval rating of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, which soared to 68.5 percent in February, up from 56.7 percent in the previous month.

“How this might apply to a Taiwan conflict is difficult to say, but at the very least there is reason to believe the government might enjoy a strong sense of legitimacy due to its competence as demonstrated in the coronavirus crisis as well as the democratic form of government,” Timothy R. Heath, a Senior International Defense Researcher at the RAND Corporation, told Asia Sentinel. “This could be a critical factor in determining the resolve the people in resisting a Chinese attack.”

Heath went on to explain that this possibility can be contrasted with those instances in which a government has low legitimacy among its people, such as South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, in which case public support in wartime proved weak and this lack of legitimacy eventually proved fatal to the government’s war effort.

With regards to China, Heath pointed out that although the Chinese leadership enjoys strong popular support, in part due to its performance in economic policy but also due to its embrace of nationalism, the country continues to face serious constraints on its ability to wage war.

“Its economy has serious weaknesses, all of which have intensified due to the crisis,” Heath said. “It may be able to count on an initial surge of enthusiastic popular support, but the difficulties encountered in sustaining the war effort suggest Beijing may not be able to count on that support to last very long,” he added.

Unsurprisingly, Taiwan Covid-19 responses were accompanied by a wave of China-based misinformation campaign against Taiwan aiming to undermine public trust in the authorities.

The Criminal Investigation Bureau flagged social media postings in which China-based authors pretended to be Taiwan-based and, for example, claimed to have seen convoys of government trucks fully loaded with dead bodies. When such postings were discovered to have been disseminated by Taiwanese, the authorities were quick to refer them to prosecutors for breaches of the Social Order Maintenance Communicable Disease Control Act.

This scenario is applicable to a Taiwan conflict, which with near-certainty would be accompanied by a China-based misinformation campaign aiming to destroy domestic morale by generating internal finger-pointing over issues such as inept Taiwanese government response and shortages of food and medical supply.

“The disruptions to the economy as a result of the Covid-19 crisis and the lockdown of a significant part of the mainland economy show that Taiwan can deal with significant economic disruptions emanating from the mainland,” said Steve Tsang, Director, SOAS China Institute, SOAS University of London.

“The real issue is whether there is a strong and credible leadership in place when the chips fell across the Strait. With an effective leadership that is credible among the general population, Taiwan can withstand a lot more than is often assumed given the asymmetry in power across the Strait,” Tsang said.

"Taiwan was reportedly able to benefit from some of the earliest warnings of the crisis due to its excellent intelligence capabilities, so Taiwan's response to the Wuhan Virus should serve as a serious deterrent to the Chinese Communist Party," said Rick Fisher, a Senior Fellow at International Assessment and Strategy Center.

"Now remember, a virus is invisible, but the PLA is very large and visible. This means it may be far more difficult for the PLA to conceal its war mobilization, thus, Taiwan and its partners may have a good chance of destroying a PLA campaign with a preemptive strike."