Who won the political battle behind Taiwan’s effort to acquire BioNTech vaccines?

After Taiwan’s TSMC and Hon Hai closed the deal to acquire 10 million doses of BioNTech vaccine for Taiwan, Taiwan’s representative to Germany and the Presidential office revealed some political obstacles and maneuvering throughout the months-long negotiation process. Experts think the success in acquiring 10 million doses of vaccines can reduce the pressure that the Taiwanese government has been experiencing due to the lack of vaccines in the country.

All sides begin to pay attention to the political maneuvering behind the negotiation between BioNTech and two of Taiwan’s biggest tech companies after they signed the deal last weekend.

On Tuesday, Taiwan’s top diplomat in Germany Shieh Jhy-wey wrote on his personal Facebook page that BioNTech had planned to send Taiwan five million COVID-19 vaccine doses by July under an original deal that collapsed in January.

However, on January 8, two days after Taiwan and BioNTech were supposed to announce the deal through an English press release, a different person at BioNTech than they had previously been communicating with began returning messages.

“The English was mixed with simplified Chinese characters to request ‘our country’ be changed to ‘Taiwan’, and from then on it, all came crumbling down,” he wrote on his personal Facebook page.

Shieh said what had happened was of course political interference and he hinted that the interference may have come from China. “However, during the whole process of coordination and negotiation behind the scenes, not only me but also members of parliament and German officials strongly felt the high willingness and enthusiasm of BioNTech’s top management to supply Taiwan with vaccines,” he added.

Taiwan Presidential Office: China’s political interference is inexpressible

Apart from Shieh’s revelation, Taiwan’s Presidential Office also said in an interview with Central News Agency that the whole acquisition process was made possible through the joint efforts between the Taiwanese and German government, as well as TSMC and Hon Hai.

The office said the large amount of vaccine donation made by Japan and the US had forced the Chinese government from allowing Taiwan to acquire 10 million doses of BioNTech vaccines, as it put a lot of pressure on Beijing.

“The timely support from democratic countries created a lot of pressure for Beijing because if they don’t let go of the interference, it might prove to the outside world that China is truly obstructing Taiwan’s efforts to acquire vaccines from BioNTech,” an anonymous source from the Presidential Office said.

Some experts think the reason why the Taiwanese government has been revealing details of several high-profile vaccine acquisition deals over the last few weeks is that they hope to let the general public understand the fact that Taiwan did face a lot of external obstruction during the process of acquiring more vaccines for the island.

“Based on all available information, the obstruction comes from China,” said Chen Fang-yu, a political science expert in Taiwan. “Even though opposition parties and some media think Taiwan shouldn’t be blaming the shortage of its vaccines all on China, Taiwanese government’s way to reveal the details is to prove to the general public that [obstruction from Beijing] did exist.”

Chieh-Ting Yeh, the Vice Chairman of the Global Taiwan Institute, said the Taiwanese government was balancing acquiring vaccines as quickly as possible, while notgiving Beijing all the credit, which he thinks would certainly be used as propaganda.

“As more people are vaccinated, the pressure on the government will decrease, and over time public opinion will remember the Tsai government as having navigated a complex multi-layered diplomatic situation,” he said.

Is the Taiwanese government trying to score some points on the diplomatic front?

Since the worst domestic COVID19 outbreak began on May 15 in Taiwan, the Taiwanese government has been facing criticism from all sides. Apart from the increasing number of citizens who hope to receive vaccination, Taiwan’s opposition parties have also heavily criticized the government’s failure to acquire enough vaccines in time.

Chieh-Ting Yeh thinks the news of more vaccines coming into Taiwan will alleviate the public pressure on the government, and he believes the criticism of the government regarding not acquiring vaccines fast enough stems mostly from a basic urgency to stay healthy rather than a fundamental disagreement with the government’s stance.“As more people become vaccinated, this issue will dissipate over time,” he said.

Austin Wang, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said based on opinion polls, even though the ruling party’s support among floating voters has dropped slightly, those voters didn’t seem to have turned to other political parties.

On top of that, since the situation of the domestic outbreak is different in different parts of Taiwan, he thinks most voters are still waiting to see how the situation will develop.

As for whether vaccine acquisition will affect the public’s opinion about the government, Wang thinks it will depend on the actual number of vaccines arriving in Taiwan. He points out that recent numbers from the vaccine registration platform show that around 60% of the people who have signed up only want to get Moderna vaccines, which means the general public still has some doubt about AstraZeneca vaccines.

While these doubts may gradually disappear as more vaccines arrive in Taiwan or as the vaccination rate grows, the premise is that more vaccines should arrive in Taiwan. “If the number of vaccines arriving in Taiwan is not enough for the population or if the performance of the domestically developed vaccines is not good enough, the government may have to ultimately rely on vaccines from BioNTech and the government may not be able to score some points on the diplomatic front through the BioNTech case,” Wang said.

Did Taiwan win the political battle behind the vaccine acquisition?

Chen Fang-yu thinks the key factor that forces BioNTech’s Chinese distributor to abandon the plan of forcing Taiwan to acquire the vaccines through the “Hong Kong and Macau model” is the Taiwanese government’s decision to add TSMC into the process of negotiation, which forces the Chinese distributor to handle the negotiation through “the international commercial model.”

Reuters reported on Tuesday that the Chinese sales agent put forward a template contract seeking access to Taiwanese medical records, which sparked alarm, as such a requirement would be anathema for Taiwan’s government, long wary of Beijing’s attempts at influence over the democratic island.

Chen said the Taiwanese government’s move to add TSMC into the vaccine negotiation process allowed Taiwan’s vaccine acquisition progress to attract international attention. Additionally, foreign media reports have put additional pressure on the German government, forcing them to participate in the negotiation process as well.

The large number of vaccine donations from Japan and the US not only reduced the urgency of Taiwan’s vaccine shortage but also prevent the Chinese distributor to have more bargains during the negotiation. “I think it was a very smart move from the Taiwanese government to add TSMC into the negotiation, and the result seems to suggest that Taiwan has won the political battle,” he said.

This piece first appeared in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.



William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

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William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.