By Justin Cheung
Since the sweeping victory of Tsai-Ing Wen in Taiwan’s January elections, China has grown increasingly weary of what it sees to be growing pro-independence sentiment among Taiwanese. The recent rekindling of a dormant nation snatching duel for diplomatic recognition has served to reinvigorate tensions between Taiwan and the Mainland (Tiezzi, 2016). The threat of armed conflict, which has always loomed in the rhetoric of Mainland China, and the sheer size of the People’s Liberation Army means that the Taiwanese government must approach building its image in a less confrontational way. For Taiwan, this has meant an expansion of soft power building initiatives, augmenting its international perceptions of trustworthiness and prestige. One of the key bastions of Taiwan’s soft power building is its public health policy which has recently come into the limelight as the world faces a greater number of disease-based threats.
Specifically, Taiwanese public health initiatives against the spreading Zika virus represent one of its increasingly global attempts to assert itself as a leader in the arena of international health crises. Zika preparedness is important for Taiwan on a domestic level as well. In January of this year, Taiwan reported its first Zika case arriving from an infected Thai national during a routine fever screening at Taoyuan International Airport (Huang et al., 2016). Taiwan’s first, and thus far only, case underscores the looming threat that the widening geographical scope of the Zika virus poses.
The World Health Organization (WHO) labeled the Zika virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on February 1st, 2016 (World Health Organization, 2016). Although the majority of reported cases have largely been limited to Latin America, the tropical climate of Taiwan makes it a ripe target for the disease to spread. The virus, which is known to cause microcephaly in children whose mothers were infected during pregnancy, is spread by Aedes mosquitoes’ bites. This is a particularly worrisome sign for Taiwan, which has often struggled in the past to contain outbreaks of Dengue fever – a disease similarly spread by the Aedes mosquito.
Since the first reported case of the virus on its shores, Taiwan has rigorously implemented and upgraded its methods and means of pandemic preparedness. In a February press release, the Taiwan Center for Disease Control (Taiwan CDC) announced travel notices to its citizens and appropriated four hundred million TWD to augment Zika preparedness in areas such as quarantine and detection (Taiwan CDC, 2016a).
Thus far, the Taiwan CDC’s response to the threat of the Zika virus has been aggressive and thorough. Yet recent developments in Taiwan’s Zika response also underscore an intriguing aspect of its more geo-politically oriented intentions.
The Taiwan CDC announced in early April that it had sent two medical officers to Honduras and Brazil (Taiwan CDC, 2016b). The officers were tasked with providing Zika awareness and prevention education to the local Taiwanese populations living in the two countries. Furthermore, the medical officers paid visits to local hospitals to observe the containment and public health procedures that had been implemented by Brazil and Honduras. Their reports on Zika to the Taiwanese government asserted an increased need for Taiwan to sufficiently develop its medical infrastructure and invest resources in awareness education. These claims have compelled the Taiwan CDC to strengthen the nation’s laboratory testing accuracy and reliability for the Zika virus.
The fruits of this reaction can be seen in the US-Taiwan Global Cooperation Training Framework, held on April 14th, 2016 (Taiwan CDC, 2016c). The workshop, co-organized by the Taiwan CDC and its U.S. counterpart, sought to highlight Taiwan’s laboratory capability to rapidly detect Zika, dengue, and chukungunya. More importantly, Taiwan has used the workshop to widen regional availability and capacity for Zika testing. Some of the nations in attendance included Australia, Japan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam. In sharing the basis of these medical skills to a variety of participating nations – many of whom are its regional neighbors – Taiwan has used the training framework to expand its role as a global player in the realm of public health and infectious disease.
With Mainland China coming in at the bottom of the major nations in soft power rankings, Taiwan has grasped many an opportunity to expand its prestige and trustworthiness in many ways that its more cumbersome mainland rival has failed to. Ultimately, the Taiwan CDC’s willingness to send its medical officers abroad and its rapidity in translating scientific advancement represent Taiwan’s heightened attempt to more aggressively build a consensus of respect from many of its regional neighbors in East Asia, one that is above the hawkish rhetoric of the mainland.
These landmark events in the development of Taiwan’s public health – which occurred in just a span of three months – highlight a certain duality: firstly, that Taiwan plans to willingly invest itself in constructing a globally robust disease prevention mechanism and secondly, that the increasingly important role that Taiwan plays in this mechanism represents a renewed and aggressive attempt of soft power assertion at a regional and international level.
Justin Cheung is a student in Stony Brook University's 8 Year BE/MD Engineering Scholars for Medicine Program. He is majoring in Chemical and Molecular Engineering and has been published in Soft Matter and ACS Macro Letters in topics related to polymer physics. He has been selected as an Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Fellow within the National Institutes of Health's branch of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the summer of 2016.