On April 3, Taiwan experienced its most powerful earthquake since 1999. The earthquake struck the east coast county of Hualian and was felt across the entire island, including the capital Taipei City. At least 18 people were reported dead and more than 1,100 injured. Taiwan’s high level of earthquake preparedness stems from its familiarity with seismic activity and most importantly, lessons learned from several catastrophic earthquakes over the past two decades.

A search and rescue team prepares to enter a leaning building following a magnitude-7.4 earthquake in Hualien, Taiwan, on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)
A search and rescue team prepares to enter a leaning building following a magnitude-7.4 earthquake in Hualien, Taiwan, on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

The international community quickly responded with an outpouring of support for Taiwan, while the response from neighboring China followed a familiar pattern, with Beijing exploiting a disaster to increase its leverage and demonstrate its self-proclaimed dominion over the island.

USIP’s Naiyu Kuo and Andrew Scobell and the U.S.-China Education Trust’s Rosie Levine discuss the domestic response, how the international community stepped in and what this incident demonstrates about cross-Strait relations.

What did Taiwan's domestic earthquake response look like?

Kuo: The U.S. Geological Survey measured the earthquake at a 7.4 magnitude, while the local earthquake monitoring agency measured it as a 7.2 at a depth of 15.5 kilometers, which is considered shallow and generally tends to be more damaging. A month after the earthquake, more than 1,000 aftershocks were recorded, with the largest one reaching a magnitude of 6.5. The Taiwan Seismological Center predicts aftershocks to persist for three to six months.

Without Taiwan's advanced earthquake prevention and disaster management efforts, casualties could have been significantly higher. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake, for example, that struck Turkey and Syria last February resulted in over 55,000 dead and nearly 130,000 injured; a much smaller earthquake that hit New Zealand in 2011 with a magnitude of 6.7 flattened much of the Christchurch central city.

Located at the junction of two tectonic plates, Taiwan experiences between 700 to over 2,000 perceptible earthquakes on average each year. Additionally, following the catastrophic earthquake of 7.7 magnitude in 1999, known as the 921 earthquake, which resulted in more than 2,400 deaths, Taiwan has significantly improved its earthquake resilience.

Through government-civil society collaboration, measures have been implemented to mitigate potential damage from natural disasters, including enforcing stringent building codes, enhancing disaster management laws and conducting widespread education campaigns and earthquake safety drills. Taiwan's National Fire Agency, crucial in disaster prevention and rescue, highlights the value of previous national-level disaster relief exercises in Hualien for current relief operations. Building on exchanges with the United States in recent years, these exercises have employed unscripted simulations to closely resemble real disaster scenarios.

Taiwan’s earthquake response this time also demonstrates its robust and well-organized disaster relief and management efforts. Following the earthquake, the Ministry of the Interior promptly established the Central Disaster Response Center, with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, and Premier Chen Chien-yen overseeing and directing disaster relief efforts. The Ministry of National Defense mobilized the armed forces to assist in disaster recovery, providing support to local governments. Immediately after this earthquake, local authorities, government units and non-governmental organizations also teamed up to evacuate residents in downtown Hualien. Coordination efforts in disaster relief were especially enhanced after Taiwan experienced the 6.4-magnitude earthquake in 2016 that caused over 100 deaths and another 6.2-magnitude earthquake in 2018 that killed 17 people.

Taipei continues to learn from its experience in disaster prevention and management. One example is the national-level emergency mobile phone alert system that the government would employ to notify the public of a potential Chinese air raid. Although two separate earthquake warnings were issued seconds after the earthquake, residents in Taipei, New Taipei and Kaohsiung reported not receiving the alert. Taipei has pledged to issue the island’s emergency alert on a larger scale, which will play a crucial role in informing and evacuating Taiwanese citizens if China launches an attack against the island.

How did the international community respond, and what does that tell us?

Kuo and Levine: Diplomatic statements and foreign aid mobilized in response to the earthquake provide a snapshot of Taiwan’s standing on the global stage. Taiwan received broad support from the international community, extending beyond countries with formal diplomatic relations with Taipei. A statement from U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said, “The United States stands ready to provide any necessary assistance.” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stated that Japan is ready to provide any support necessary to Taiwan, “a neighbor across the sea.”

Japan and Taiwan have developed a particularly strong bond in disaster relief efforts, consistently supporting each other during times of crisis by exchanging expertise, resources and personnel. Following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan, Taiwan's government and citizens collectively donated over $250 million, making Taiwan the foremost donor in the world. This collaboration has fostered closer ties between both sides and has underscored the importance of regional cooperation in addressing natural disasters.

In President William Lai Ching-te’s inaugural speech on May 20, he said that the recovery work after the earthquake is still underway and thanked the international community for concern and support. The spokesperson for Taiwan’s Presidential Office stated that within a day after the earthquake, a total of 88 political figures from allies and like-minded countries — including the Philippines, India, Canada and the European Council — had expressed condolences and support for Taiwan.

In terms of tangible foreign aid, the Japanese government donated $1 million, the South Korean government $500,000, the Czech Republic $150,000 and the Thai government contributed $30,000. Taipei also received multiple private donations from other countries such as the U.S., the U.K., Hong Kong and Australia. Turkey provided technical expertise, based on its experience using of drones in disaster relief.

This response demonstrates the rhetorical power of Taiwan’s capabilities in disaster response. Sandra Oudkirk, the top U.S. diplomat in Taiwan, emphasized the soft power component of the response: “Taiwan has demonstrated a successful model of disaster prevention, disaster management, and humanitarian rescue to communities around the world.” Even as the number of countries that officially recognize Taiwan continues to dwindle, this global response shows that efforts to integrate Taiwan into networks of like-minded democracies has been successful in many ways. At a time of vulnerability, many countries were willing to quickly mobilize resources and come to Taiwan’s aid.

What did China offer, how did Taiwan respond, and what does this tell us about cross-Strait relations?

Scobell and Kuo: On the one hand, China is a logical source of aid and assistance in the event of a natural disaster in Taiwan because it is proximate, has significant humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities, as well as cultural and linguistic affinities. On the other hand, China is far from a disinterested or altruistic bystander. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that rules the mainland insists that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and for seven decades has sought to use all available means to absorb the island. Although since the 1980s, the CCP has dubbed its policy toward the island “peaceful unification,” the use of military force has never been ruled out. In recent years, the CCP has increased its coercive activities in and around Taiwan as well as launched a concerted diplomacy war to squeeze Taiwan’s international space, including preventing Taiwan from gaining recognition from countries and from participating in international organizations.

Moreover, the CCP has seized opportunities presented by past Taiwan disasters to increase its influence, leverage and exercise its sense of ownership over the island. Following the 1999 earthquake, Taiwan rejected help from the CCP and the island’s foreign minister condemned Beijing for exploiting the situation and interfering for political gain. The CCP took advantage of Taipei’s lack of U.N. representation and stood in the way of the global body’s ability to provide aid, causing delays in rescue and relief work. A poll conducted in 1999 indicated that the majority of Taiwanese people (54.9%) did not perceive Beijing’s proffered donation of $100,000 as a gesture of goodwill.

In April 2024, Taipei promptly rejected Beijing’s assistance offer, likely due to a lack of trust in Beijing’s intentions. A few hours after the earthquake, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) declared, “Mainland China expresses deep concern and extends sincere condolences to the disaster-stricken Taiwanese compatriots. We pledge to closely monitor the situation and stand ready to offer assistance in disaster relief efforts.” In response, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council issued a short statement on the same day rejecting Beijing’s offer to help.

The following day, Taipei condemned China as “shameless” after Beijing's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Geng Shuang, thanked the world for its concern about a strong earthquake on the island. A spokesperson from Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned Geng for “thanking the international community on behalf of Taiwan,” calling it “political calculation and cognitive warfare on the international stage.”

CCP public rhetoric brings mainland public opinion into play. As noted above, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) possesses significant disaster relief capabilities. On mainland social media platforms, comments like, “Shouldn't the PLA be sent to the island for disaster relief?” gained significant traction in the days following the earthquake.

When meeting former Taiwan president, Ma Ying-jeou, on April 10, Xi Jinping stated, “I extend my condolences to the victims and express sympathy to the people affected by the disaster.” Then on April 27, a TAO spokesperson said that the CCP was willing to donate prefabricated houses through Red Cross organizations to Taiwan. Beijing announced the offer on the same day as a meeting between a Kuomintang (KMT) legislative delegation and CCP Politburo member Wang Huning, likely as a positive gesture in anticipation of a change of administration in Taipei. In response, Taipei officials stated that unlike the situation after the 921 earthquake, there is no need for prefabricated houses in the disaster area.

Previous negative experiences with disaster assistance from Beijing to Taipei, coupled with recent interactions after the earthquake, suggest that Beijing will likely exploit any opportunity to assert its sovereignty claim over Taiwan. Despite the earthquake, the PLA maintained its regular operations tempo of gray-zone activity — daily air and sea provocations around Taiwan — on the day and days following the earthquake. While the future of cross-Strait interactions seems likely to be more of the same, it is unclear how Beijing will respond to the new administration of President Lai, who was sworn into office in Taipei on May 20.

Rosie Levine is the executive director of the U.S.-China Education Trust.

PHOTO: A search and rescue team prepares to enter a leaning building following a magnitude-7.4 earthquake in Hualien, Taiwan, on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).

PUBLICATION TYPE: Question and Answer