EU leader Ursula von der Leyen risks Beijing’s ire by lauding Taiwan’s donation of 5.6 million masks for coronavirus battle

·4-min read

The European Union’s top leader has praised Taiwan for donating millions of masks to help the bloc battle the coronavirus pandemic, in a highly unusual show of solidarity with the self-ruling island expected to provoke Beijing.

“The European Union thanks Taiwan for its donation of 5.6 million masks to help fight the #coronavirus. We really appreciate this gesture of solidarity,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a Twitter post on Wednesday.

“This global virus outbreak requires international solidarity & cooperation,” tweeted von der Leyen, who is four months into leading the executive arm of the 27-nation bloc. “Acts like this show that we are #StrongerTogether.”

Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward part of China to be brought back into the fold – by force, if necessary. Taiwan, currently led by an independence-leaning party, has been running its own governments since 1949.

Von der Leyen’s praise-filled tweet comes just days after US President Donald Trump signed into law the Taipei Act – an acronym for the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative – designed to bolster Taiwan’s diplomatic standing in the world.

Her post on the social media platform also follows the World Health Organisation facing a wave of criticism for evading media questions about Taiwan and appearing to be influenced by Beijing.

A WHO official reportedly hung up on a Hong Kong journalist when confronted with questions about Taiwan during a video interview earlier this week.

Why China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ is raising concern in the West

Unlike Washington, it is unusual for the EU to publicly support Taiwan, since the 27 nations in the bloc maintain varying degrees of closeness with Beijing – complicating the EU’s endeavour to produce major diplomatic statements or decisions unanimously.

In recent weeks, the EU has grown concerned about China’s massive but selective donations to European countries, prompting the bloc’s top diplomat to accuse China of practising the “politics of generosity”.

By focusing on Taiwan’s donations of masks, the bloc made its manoeuvre “in such a way that the EU could hit China with the same argument it uses all the time: that mask donations should not be politicised”, a diplomatic source said.

Apart from donating face masks, Taiwan's top research academy, Academia Sinica Fans, has also been in talks with the EU to develop vaccines and rapid testing, the island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, said last month.

There was no immediate response to von der Leyen’s tweet from the Chinese diplomatic mission to the EU.

Beijing has already lashed out at Taiwan over a joint medical-help initiative with the US.

“The joint statement between Taiwan and the US once again exposed the Democratic Progressive Party’s despicable move and political plot to use the Covid-19 pandemic to achieve independence,” the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office said last week.

Taiwan has garnered praise internationally for recording one of the lowest Covid-19 infection rates by territory or country, despite its proximity to the mainland. The island, which has a population of 23 million, has had five coronavirus deaths from 329 cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

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