Joseph Wu, Taiwan Foreign Minister, said Wednesday that his country worked with other governments to help its diplomatic partner Paraguay get COVID-19 vaccines after China put pressure on the South American country to ditch Taipei in exchange for shots, and India moved in to help.
Paraguay is one of only 15 countries that officially recognise Taipei over Beijing, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its region.
Beijing has ramped up pressure on Taiwan since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen because she rejects its position that the island is part of China. It has stolen seven of Taiwan’s official partners since then, including Panama, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
On Wednesday Taiwan’s foreign minister said China was trying to pursue Paraguay with the promise of badly needed vaccines. “This is a period of time when we see Chinese ‘vaccine diplomacy’ has been flexing its muscles in many parts of world, especially in central and south America,” Joseph Wu told reporters.
“The Chinese government was very active in saying… if the Paraguay government is willing to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, they will be able to get quite a few million vaccine doses from China,” he added.
“It generated a lot of pressure on the government of President Mario Abdo Benítez and this also generated a lot of pressure on us to find the necessary support,” Wu said, adding that Paraguay’s political opposition was “very willing to link up with China”.
Paraguay has recorded 224,000 coronavirus viruses and 4,500 deaths in a population of seven million.
Death rates have risen alarmingly in current weeks during a fresh wave of infections that have beaten its healthcare system.
There have been violent objections over the government’s acknowledgement as well as an ultimately failed attempt to impeach Abdo Benítez.
Wu said Taiwan had reached out to countries including Japan, the United States and India on the issue. “In the last few weeks, we have been speaking to like-minded countries, including Japan, the United States, India etcetera, and India fortunately has been able to provide some COVAXIN vaccines to Paraguay,” he said, pointing to a shot developed by India’s Bharat Biotech and a state research institute.
India has already shipped 100,000 doses to Paraguay and there will be another 100,000, Wu added.
Paraguay has also received 36,000 doses from AstraZeneca, 4,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, and 20,000 of the Chinese Coronavac donated by Chile.
Abdo Benítez has said he hopes to get enough vaccinations by the middle of the year. He accused the lack of doses of delays in Covax, a mechanism supported by the World Health Organization to widen access to vaccines.
Washington is also looking at ways to help countries striving to obtain enough vaccine supply, Wu said.
China has been a crucial source of vaccines for many poorer nations especially with wealthier countries locking up supplies of Western-made doses. It has previously refused to use vaccines as a diplomatic pressure device.
Taiwan — population 23 million — has been recognised as a global success story in containing the virus, with around 1,050 confirmed cases and 10 deaths.
But it has strived to secure vaccines and has so far only got 117,000 doses of AstraZeneca purchased from the manufacturer and another 199,200 doses of the same vaccine via Covax.