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China/Taiwan Disaster Diplomacy

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Radix:  Radical Interpretations of and Solutions for Disasters

China/Taiwan Disaster Diplomacy

Great Hall of the People beside Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China (2012).

Great Hall of the People beside Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2012.)

  • 21 September 1999 An earthquake hits Taiwan killing over 2,000 people across the island.

  • From BBC News (Tuesday 21 September 1999 11:55 GMT):
             "China responds with aid"
    Chinese President Jiang Zemin has offered sympathy and assistance for Taiwan's "agony" after Tuesday's devastating earthquake.
    The quake struck at a time of high political tension between China and the country it regards as a renegade province.
    Mr Jiang extended his condolences to the victims, saying compatriots on the two sides of the Taiwan strait were "as closely linked as flesh and blood".
    "The catastrophe and agony of our Taiwan compatriots affect the hearts of all Chinese," a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman quoted Jiang as saying.
    "We are willing to provide all possible assistance to reduce losses from the earthquake disaster."
    China's Red Cross said it had offered its Taiwan counterpart $100,000 in cash and relief goods worth 500,000 yuan ($60,000).
    There was no immediate response from the island's government.

  • By Carla Prater (6 February 2001):
             The offer of assistance from China to Taiwan after the Chi-Chi earthquake is actually an illustration of the need to understand both sides of the conflict in question in order to use disaster diplomacy. The Taiwanese read the Chinese offers of assistance as patronising attempts to assert ownership of and control over the island's territory. As well, there is a Taiwanese branch of the Red Cross that should have been the first point of contact for all offers of assistance, but their position was usurped by the mainland group. Thus, the failure of disaster diplomacy in this case.

  • By Paul Tsoundarou (6 February 2001):
             The earthquake resulted in some abated tensions. PRC extended, through its President Jiang Zemin, a message of sympathy and condolences, expressing the hurt and pain of the mainland because of what the Chinese people on the other side of the Taiwanese strait were enduring. In addition to the collective sympathy and condolences of the Chinese people, PRC offered all assistance within its capability to aid Taiwan, including technical support, funds, rescue teams, doctors, seismologists, tents, and quilts. As was the case in the Turkish and Greek earthquakes, the media in China were sympathetic to the plight of the earthquake victims.
             The Taiwanese government was suspicious of PRC's intent regarding the offer of aid and politely declined, stating it was not needed. Chang Yung-shan, a spokesperson for Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) stated, "If [the Chinese] come now, it's not clear to me if it would be useful or not...we welcome the humanitarian assistance, but I'm afraid they could have some political purpose." (quoted 24 September 1999). Nevertheless, the Taiwanese acknowledge that the overtures after the earthquake were positive. MAC's chair, Su Chi, simply said, "This would be a good beginning to improving ties" (quoted 22 September 1999).
             The result of the devastating earthquake in Taiwan had the immediate result of abating tension between the two, even if it did not significantly improve bilateral relations on a political level. Nevertheless, the mainland offers of aid and sympathy did not go unappreciated in Taiwan, helping to ease the climate of hostility between them. There have not been any bellicose threats from China or military exercises against Taiwan since the earthquake, which could be a sign of better cooperation ahead in the relationship.

  • By Ilan Kelman (8 July 2001):
             Given the numerous events since the earthquake which have impacted, in particular, relations between China and the US--for example, the spy plane standoff, the visit of Taiwan's president to New York, and President Bush's meeting with the Dalai Lama in the White House--has the disaster had any lasting legacy on this diplomatic issue? Or could the spy plane incident be considered a "disaster" which forced both countries to talk and compromise, thus paving the way for future dialogue?

  • 5 May 2002. Drought Diplomacy? Taiwan buys water from China for an outlying island suffering a water shortage. BBC Coverage.

  • 16 May 2002. A state-run company in China and a state-run company in Taiwan sign a deal to explore for oil in the Taiwan Straits. BBC Coverage.

  • 7 July 2002. Taiwan's Red Cross donates USD100,000 to China's Red Cross to assist with response to the recent flooding in China.

  • 9 July 2002. Taiwanese rescue more than 130 Chinese fishermen in rough conditions. BBC Coverage.

  • By Ilan Kelman (23 April 2003):
             Beyond July 2002, a similar pattern was seen. Links between China and Taiwan continued to improve as evidenced in areas such as flights between the two and Chinese goods being available in Taiwanese shops. The latter, though, appears to have been mostly a result of Taiwan entry into the World Trade Organization in early 2002. Little mention was made of earthquakes, droughts, or other disasters. Instead, the superficial appearance was a straightforward normalisation of relations between two entities which might feel that the conflict has continued long enough. Deeper analysis, however, would help to establish exactly why relations have continued to improve and whether or not the disasters provided impetus for starting or continuing the improvements.
             In March 2003, the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) led to links being reduced between Taiwan and China. Taiwan accused China of exacerbating SARS' spread through secrecy during the initial outbreak. Significant diplomatic fallout is not yet evident from this case of Disaster Undiplomacy.
             Overall, it appears that even if disaster diplomacy assisted China-Taiwan relations at times, it was not the main factor in this diplomatic situation. Further research might uncover hidden disaster diplomacy cases or confirm the lack of disaster diplomacy here.

  • Weizhun and Tianshu (2005) publish two articles with a China focus, one in Shanghai Institute For International Studies International Review and one in World Economy and Politics.

  • 12 May 2008. An earthquake in southern China kills over 62,000 people. Taiwan's government and citizens, along with Taiwanese ex-patriots, offer relief donations and assistance. China accepts the offers with thanks. China also quickly opens up the area to international aid and international relief workers, including from the USA. Could the August 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing have influenced the choice, particularly given the bad publicity which China had experienced in previous weeks due to protests during the Olympic torch relay? Or is that far too unfair, cynical, and undiplomatic, because China's reaction instead shows that it is opening up and seeking to create diplomatic connections, while ensuring that it helps its citizens in post-disaster times?

  • Kelman, I. 2008. "Burma and China Disaster Diplomacy". Disaster and Social Crisis Research Network Electronic Newsletter, no. 34 (April-June), pp. 2-3, full text (11 kb in PDF).

  • By Ilan Kelman (23 August 2009) with thanks to James Lewis:
             China-Taiwan relations continued to improve and to receive political backing from the electorate in Taiwan irrespective of disasters. Then, on 8-9 August 2009, Typhoon Morakot swept over Taiwan, killing hundreds. Numerous Taiwanese politicians apologised for their late and incompetent response to the typhoon, especially regarding slow and inept rescue efforts. Taiwan's President was publicly criticised by those affected, especially by those bereaved and he continues to apologise.
             On 17 August, Taiwan's deputy foreign minister resigned because his ministry refused international assistance for rescuers and rescue equipment immediately after the typhoon. On 19 August, the defence minister and cabinet chief offered to resign to acknowledge their role in the botched response. Given the Taiwanese government's plummeting popularity and the loss of credibility of key members, the stance supporting reconciliation with Beijing could be affected by the public's backlash. The poor disaster response could have a political fallout whereby politicians favouring links with Beijing are replaced by others, leading to frostier relations between Beijing and Taipei.
             Other elements of disaster diplomacy--actually lack thereof--have been reported. The USA's military assistance from nearby Japan did not arrive until a week after the typhoon, a delay linked to Washington's continuing efforts to stay friendly with Beijing. Spats between Beijing and Taipei erupted over Beijing's offers of assistance.
             Throughout these unfolding events, the biggest disappointment is that these issues are emerging after a disaster, when people have already been killed. Why are the Taiwanese politicians not receiving as much criticism for poor disaster risk reduction and for inadequate disaster preparedness? Why have the Beijing-Taipei-Washington protocols not been worked through for disaster risk reduction, and for disaster response, before the disaster? Yet again, the failure of disaster diplomacy is highlighted in a post-disaster setting without full consideration or implementation of pre-disaster opportunities for disaster risk reduction--opportunities that could in turn avert the post-disaster failures in terms of both diplomacy and disaster response.

Fog on the roads surrounding Taipei, Taiwan (2013).

Fog on the roads surrounding Taipei, Taiwan.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2013.)

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