Taiwan’s ‘Mask Diplomacy’ Gains Steam

Half a million masks arrive in Canada . . . 

With much of the world mired in a pandemic and struggling to procure personal protective equipment, Taiwan has had a successful epidemic response partially backed by its domestic mask production. On Tuesday, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it had donated 500,000 surgical-grade masks to Canada. The masks arrived in boxes labelled ‘Taiwan Can Help’ and are now being tested by Canada’s Public Health Agency. The Canadian Trade Office in Taipei thanked Taiwan in a Facebook post, saying it salutes Taiwan’s “innovative and timely actions.” Canada does not have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but the self-ruled island is Canada’s 13th largest trading partner and 5th largest in Asia.

Diplomatic campaign in the time of pandemic . . .

Taiwan’s donation to Canada is the latest in a series of similar donation efforts to countries around the world. Excluded from international bodies such as the UN and the World Health Organization due to pressure from Beijing, Taiwan has long sought ways to gain recognition and influence on the world stage – and its COVID-19 success has provided a boost. In early April, Taiwan made international headlines by sending 16 million masks to EU countries, the U.S., Japan, and its 15 diplomatic allies – mostly countries in Central America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. A second batch of made-in-Taiwan masks went to South and Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Myanmar. Starting this week, Taiwanese citizens can choose to turn their mask purchase quotas into mask donations through an app.

Toward closer Canada-Taiwan ties?

In early April, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, a former Canadian MP of mixed French and Cree descent, reached out to Kolas Yotaka – an Indigenous spokesperson for the Taiwanese government – to discuss his concerns over COVID-19's potentially devastating effects on First Nations reserves. As a result of this Indigenous-to-Indigenous connection, Taiwan's mask donations came with a suggestion that some masks might be used to help Indigenous communities. In addition to broader questions on whether Canada should reciprocate and pursue closer ties with Taiwan, potentially drawing the ire of Beijing, the mask episode raises interesting possibilities on subnational relations with Taiwan’s Indigenous communities, an arena of potentially lower political sensitivity.