Japan delivered 1.2m Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs to Taiwan on Friday, offering relief from a vaccine shortage Taipei has partly blamed on Chinese obstruction.
The donation has been condemned by Beijing. Wang Wenbin, China foreign ministry spokesman, criticised Japan last week for its plan to send the jabs, saying it had reduced vaccine assistance to “a tool of political self-interest”.
The slow rollout of its vaccination programme has exacerbated Taiwan’s first large-scale local outbreak of Covid-19, undermining the unity with which the country had tackled the pandemic.
Only 2.4 per cent of the 23.6m population has been vaccinated after Taiwan received fewer than 1m of the more than 15m doses ordered from AstraZeneca and Moderna.
China has tried to exploit the shortage by publicly offering vaccines while opposing international support for Taiwan, which it claims as part of its territory.
For its part, Taiwan has accused China of interfering in its attempts to secure the BioNTech/Pfizer jab from BioNTech directly.
According to Chen Shih-chung, Taiwan’s health minister, Taipei signed a contract with BioNTech in January for 5m doses. But the German company asked for the word “country” to be dropped from the Chinese version of the announcement of the deal. The minister said the deal had been delayed ever since.
Although Japan has approved the AstraZeneca vaccine and has an order to buy 120m doses, it has decided not to use them in its public vaccination programme because of concern about blood clots. It is now looking to donate its AstraZeneca supply, either in bilateral deals or via the international Covax facility, the World Health Organization’s vaccine procurement programme.
Japan, which ruled Taiwan for 50 years until 1945, is historically cautious in its dealings with the country. But politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic party have been pushing for Tokyo to improve its ties with Taipei, including support for Taiwanese membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Senior LDP members of parliament, including former prime minister Shinzo Abe, were reportedly involved in arranging the vaccine donation.
The US is also putting pressure on Japan to become more outspoken about Taiwan. After their recent summit, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga referred to “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”, in a departure from past language.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry on Friday said that “the relationship between Taiwan and Japan has always been extremely close, and our friendship is firm and deep”.
It added: “Whenever disasters or accidents occur, both sides immediately lend a helping hand to each other and send help in the hour of need.”
Last week, Chang Ya-chung, a politician from the opposition Kuomintang who supports unification with China, asked for government approval to import from China 5m doses each of BioNTech and Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccines. Chang said a Beijing-based organisation would donate the jabs.
Taipei said it would only deal with such requests if the vaccine’s original manufacturer authorised it. Chang failed to produce such authorisation.
Fosun, the Chinese conglomerate that has distributor rights for the BioNTech vaccine, has also publicly said it was ready to sell to Taiwan, but Taipei said there has been no contact to reach a deal.
Letter in response to this article:
Taiwan shows how jab deployment is politicised / From Kuan-Cheng Chen, Soas, University of London, Taoyuan City, Taiwan