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Taiwan virus spike stymies Tsai's push for economic break from China

Approval rating sinks to record low, sapping momentum for US trade deal

Approval for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen hit a record low of 41% in a recent poll, falling under disapproval for the first time.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- One year since starting her second and final term as Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen's hopes of curbing the island's economic dependence on an increasingly assertive mainland China has hit major snags amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

China has ramped up military pressure on Taiwan in recent months through repeated incursions into Taiwanese airspace, fueling international concerns over a potential emergency in the Taiwan Strait. But Taiwanese trade with the mainland has only increased amid the rising tensions, while plunging support over the island's belated COVID-19 surge narrows Tsai's options to strengthen economic ties with the rest of the world.

Taiwanese authorities confirmed 275 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday. The island recorded more than 1,200 locally transmitted cases over the past five days, when it had seen just 160 in the entire year prior.

The rapid spread has led schools across Taiwan to shut down starting Wednesday. Streets also now stand largely empty.

Taiwan for months had been considered one of the safest places in the world in terms of the coronavirus, thanks to a quick and effective government response in the early days of the pandemic.

But the island has struggled to secure vaccines. It had received roughly 300,000 doses for its population of 23.6 million as of Tuesday, and its vaccination rate of about 1% ranks among the lowest in the world. The island also suspended foreign entries starting Wednesday, even as the U.S. and Europe begin to open up to international travel.

Under mounting pressure, Tsai on Tuesday said the government hopes to start distributing a homegrown vaccine by the end of July. Still, concerns persist among the island's population. Tsai's approval rating hit a record low of 41% in an opinion poll released Monday by broadcaster TVBS, down from 61% a year ago and was outpaced by disapproval for the first time.

Taiwan's real gross domestic product grew the fastest out of any Asian economy last year at 3.1%, even as many countries saw their economies shrink. A strong economy and solid public support had allowed Tsai to instead focus on bolstering the island's ties with the U.S. over the past year, and U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga explicitly called for stability in the Taiwan Strait in a historic statement from their summit last month.

Soldiers disinfect a train station in Taipei on May 18 following a surge of coronavirus cases in Taiwan.   © Reuters

The recent surge in COVID-19 throws a wrench in Tsai's strategy especially with Taiwan facing a four-question referendum at the end of August.

One of the biggest issues up for vote is pork -- a mainstay in Taiwanese cuisine. Tsai last summer decided to scrap a long-standing import ban against U.S. pork, which had been the topic of heated debated for over a decade due to trace amounts of growth hormones found in some U.S.-raised meat.

The move, made over significant public pushback, was intended to pave the way for a free trade agreement with the U.S. and curb Taiwan's economic reliance on mainland China. The Taiwanese government hopes that a U.S. deal could also sway other countries that are currently hesitant to ink such agreements with the island and potentially antagonize Beijing.

But obstacles remain. An opinion poll conducted at the end of April showed that over 60% of the Taiwanese public still opposes U.S. pork imports, meaning it is highly likely that the referendum would lead to at least a two-year halt to such shipments. This in turn would scupper Taiwan's hopes for a free trade agreement with the U.S. and its hopes of escaping China's economic orbit, regardless of how close Taiwan grows to the U.S. or Japan.

Tensions in the Taiwan Strait have been rising since last year, with Chinese military jets repeatedly entering the island's air defense identification zone. At the same time, Taiwan's trade shipments to mainland China reached a record $151.4 billion in 2020, or 44% of Taiwan's total exports -- the highest percentage since Tsai became president in 2016.

Taiwan's ties to Japan are also complicated by its claims over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands. Tsai in June reiterated territorial rights over the chain, which is claimed by Beijing as the Diaoyu. It is unclear how Taiwan would respond to a potential clash between Japan and China over the islands.

Another sticking point is the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Taiwan is eager to join the 11-country trade pact to advance its economic shift away from China. But to do so would require Taiwan to lift its ban on agricultural imports from Fukushima and its surrounding area, which was first imposed in response to the 2011 nuclear disaster there and has been upheld in a past referendum.

Tsai appears to be adopting a more cautious approach as her options narrow. She tweeted on April 20 that she was "pleased to see" Biden and Suga "affirm the importance of peace & stability in the Taiwan Strait," but refrained from more overt responses that could stoke tensions with the mainland.

Tsai has three more years in office. Her biggest challenge will be shifting the Taiwanese military's focus on ground forces, which dates back to the days of Chiang Kai-shek, to air and naval capabilities that will be crucial in responding to the Chinese threat, said Fan Shih-ping, a professor at the National Taiwan Normal University.

Despite signs of greater support from the U.S. and the rest of the international community, Taiwan nevertheless faces myriad challenges both at home and in terms of tensions with the mainland. Tsai's approach will face the voters' judgment in the local elections next year, considered as a touchstone for the next presidential race in 2024.

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