It ended up taking 153 days to get from my home in Virginia to Beijing. It used to take only 15 hours and had become so regular that it felt like a short commute across town. Not any longer. The age of COVID-19 brought global air travel to a standstill for more than a year, and China’s zero-COVID policy has continued to make the country almost as hermetically sealed as its fellow communist neighbor North Korea, with international arrivals down almost 80 percent.
In an era when mutual isolation has left the Beijing-Washington relationship badly imbalanced, I still felt it was critical to go. My destination was Beijing, but I had to go through San Francisco for a week of COVID-19 tests, then quarantine in Shanghai for three weeks, get approval to travel to Beijing, and then quarantine there for another two weeks. But I barely began my path through that daunting gantlet when my plans began to unravel. After an initial flight to San Francisco got caught up in the usual delays of personnel shortages and refueling, I was in the midst of taking my first of three PCR tests required to board my flight to Shanghai when the U.S. government issued a warning on April 8 advising against travel—and announcing the voluntary departure of the U.S. Consulate’s nonessential personnel—because of the harsh lockdown in the city.
As much as I wanted to board that flight, I ultimately followed the universal advice of friends and colleagues and made the painful decision not to. And it was a good thing I listened to them, as the Shanghai lockdown lasted two months. Residents suffered tremendously, and one traveling friend, an American lawyer who made it to Shanghai just before the advisory was raised, ended up sitting in a hotel there for six weeks and then, unable to do anything or see anyone, turned around frustrated and went home.
Not ready to throw in the towel, I pivoted to Plan B and decided to go on a “friends tour” instead and visit Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. If I couldn’t make it to China, I could get darn close, resume fieldwork and interviewing, and see firsthand how others look at China and the U.S.-China relationship.
But getting around Asia in the spring of 2022 was no picnic. There was a 10-day mandatory quarantine for all visitors to Taiwan and in Japan a three-day quarantine for arrivals from locales designated as high risk. Bureaucratic judgments hadn’t caught up with reality, as South Korea had long since passed its peak of cases, while Taiwan’s numbers at the time were increasingly rapidly—and were over 44,000 on the day I left—yet those arriving in Japan from Taiwan faced no quarantine, leading some South Koreans to argue intentional discrimination. (South Korea was removed from Japan’s quarantine list a few weeks later.)
But the stressful navigating and waiting were more than worth it once I was liberated and could go about these cities and meet with people. I racked up dozens of meetings over 22 days with officials, business executives, journalists, scholars, old friends, and host families.
This extended detour left me deeply impressed with these places’ navigating skills. I saw how effectively all three have managed the pandemic. Their responses have been led by their public health bureaucracies, many of whose leaders studied or worked in the United States. They’ve followed commonsense practices, including masking and social distancing.
In Taiwan, the health minister holds a no-nonsense press conference each afternoon, where he announces the last day’s data on cases, hospitalizations, and deaths using simple charts placed on hand-held boards. And although all three maintained tight restrictions on travel through 2021, once the more virulent omicron variant emerged, they realized that their own versions of zero-COVID wouldn’t be sustainable. So, they doubled their vaccination efforts, obtained therapeutics, strengthened their health infrastructure, reset the public’s expectations, gradually opened their doors, and have tried to maintain normalcy as much as possible.
The results: Cases have gone up dramatically in 2022, but death rates have remained amazingly low, cumulatively around 0.2 percent in Japan and Taiwan and 0.1 percent in South Korea, compared with 0.6 percent in China and 1.1 percent in the United States. And while I encountered occasional griping, social trust has been boosted, and people who oppose vaccines are few and far between. Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist trained at Johns Hopkins University who helped crush SARS in 2003, was popular enough that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen chose him to serve as vice president during her first term. He helped lead Taiwan’s early policy response to COVID-19 and left office still highly revered—such that there are rumors he could run for president in 2024.
The three stand in stark contrast to both China, which has kept deaths low but is unwilling to abandon its draconian zero-COVID strategy and utilize proven mRNA vaccines, and the United States, which has played a central role in developing vaccines but has lost over a million lives to the disease and seen social trust all but vanish. It is hard to conceive of Anthony Fauci being the uniting figure in the United States that Chen is in Taiwan.
When it came to dealing with China itself, people I talked to in all three countries expressed deep concerns about the country’s domestic politics and more assertive foreign policy under Chinese President Xi Jinping, mirroring polling data showing the favorability ratings of China steadily dropping among people in these and other countries. And the great majority I met were anxious but eager to cooperate with the United States on numerous fronts, including strengthening military deterrence, restricting technology flows to China, developing resilient supply chains, and pushing back on Chinese economic coercion. “Economic security” is the new ubiquitous buzzword in all three locales.
Yet at the same time, like sailors facing a stiff headwind, the United States’ East Asian friends are pursuing, to the extent possible, a more nuanced approach toward China than is popular in Washington. Whether talking with national security or trade officials, the rhetoric was decidedly less ideologically charged than in the United States. They tend not to see the challenge with China in such Manichean terms and are less fatalistic about the inevitability of a military conflict. They’re not surprised that Xi has thrown his political support behind Russian President Vladimir Putin, but they believe Xi is less likely to be as aggressive, including attacking Taiwan, because of how much he could lose should things go sideways.
This sky-isn’t-falling view derives at least in part from being relatively successful and united at home. I felt a sense of self-confidence, though not cockiness, in Taipei, Seoul, and Tokyo that is far less common in Washington, save for campaign stump speeches.
The difference in domestic situations has a decisive effect in their preferred approach to handling China. All three want to reduce their dependence on China—with 42 percent of Taiwan’s exports headed for Chinese markets, 25 percent of South Korea’s, and 22 percent of Japan’s (compared with less than 9 percent of the United States’ exports)—but they are not at all on board with plans to decouple from or highly isolate the Chinese economy; half of Taiwan’s exports to China are semiconductors. Instead, they are trying to peacefully co-exist with China. They’ve effectively adapted to the rise of China’s economy by having significant protections for their own domestic manufacturing capabilities, so there is not a huge domestic constituency clamoring for decoupling. As one official in Taipei told me, “Trade with China won’t hurt Taiwan and fellow democracies.”
Moreover, they see interdependence as a two-way contest, in which they are trying to maximize whatever leverage they have with Beijing or Washington to keep China in check and limit its destructive behavior. I heard this in all three places, but it was most common in conversations in Taipei. Over the last few years, Taiwanese have begun to use the phrase “the spiritual mountain that protects the country” (huguo shenshan) in reference to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) and the island’s dominance of global semiconductor manufacturing.
Originally meant to describe how TSMC was almost single-handedly boosting the Taiwanese economy and stock markets, it has gained the meaning among some as a kind of talisman that makes it far more likely that the United States would defend the island from attack to protect the industry. This is what Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s chief representative in the United States, meant when she said Taiwan’s goal is to maintain its “strategic relevance.” Similarly, a Japanese official told me their goal is to ensure the “indispensability” of their technologies.
But Japan has made an even more indelible mark on the region’s trajectory, persuading Washington and others to accept some of its ideas as useful complements to U.S. initiatives. It was Japan that invented the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”; offered one of the first major alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (the Blue Dot Network); proposed the idea of “data free flow with trust” as a normative alternative to Chinese data practices; kept the Trans-Pacific Partnership alive and moving forward even after the United States backed out; and has pushed to coordinate technology restrictions while also maintaining extensive economic ties with China.
And Japan was pivotal in persuading Southeast Asian countries to join the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework not because it is in love with the idea—one Japanese official told me, frankly, that “it offers nothing attractive”—but because it wants to keep the United States economically tied to the region and involved in multilateral negotiations any way it can.
My unintended trip around the region made me much better prepared for when I would eventually get to China. The United States’ friends in Northeast Asia have much to be proud of. In fact, I was envious of their good governance and social cohesion.
Beijing often claims that it is at loggerheads with only the United States or that others who disagree with China are manipulated by Washington. But this trip reminded me of the narrowness of such a framework and the need to open the aperture of our perspective. The world does not face a dichotomous choice between Beijing and Washington. Beijing cannot persuasively claim that it is only the United States that has issues with its behavior or that Beijing must stick with zero-COVID because the only alternative would be no restrictions and U.S. levels of deaths.
Conversely, Washington has supportive friends in Taipei, Seoul, and Tokyo, but they are developing their own approaches to China and to international affairs more broadly. And some of these approaches, such as leveraging China’s dependence and not just reducing the United States’ own exposure, are worth borrowing from. In short, the partnership is increasingly a two-way street, and that is broadly a good thing for all concerned.
Fast forward a few months, and several more PCR tests and flight itineraries later, the time has come to put these insights to good use. More than 150 days after I got on that frustratingly long flight to San Francisco, I finally touched down in a cloudless Beijing. A few hours later, after going through a makeshift maze overseen by staffers all in the same white plastic protective equipment, I checked in to my hotel and found my way to my home for the next 10 days. It has been a long, strange trip, but thanks to all the detours, I’ll be better prepared than I was several months ago for what awaits me when my quarantine door finally opens.