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By Michael Nienaber
BERLIN, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Germany on Friday ducked an appeal by Taiwan for its help to supply COVID-19 vaccines, as the Asian tech powerhouse's request for assistance following Berlin's plea to ease a semiconductor supply crunch in the auto industry risked provoking China's ire.
In an exchange between the economy ministers of Germany and Taiwan last month, Berlin first asked Taipei to persuade its chip foundries to increase supply to German car makers that have had to rein in production due to chip shortages.
While promising help on chips, Taiwan Economy Minister Wang Mei-hua appealed to Germany's de facto ambassador in Taipei for assistance in obtaining vaccines, none of which has arrived on the island yet.
The exchange risks angering Beijing, which considers self-ruled Taiwan a wayward province. Though German industry relies on chips made by the likes of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp, China is its largest trading partner and a big export market for its cars.
Asked at a regular news conference whether the Germany would entertain the idea of some kind of chips-for-vaccines deal, spokesmen for both the economy and foreign ministries declined comment.
A person familiar with discussions between the two governments said the diplomatic implications of any such agreement were tricky, as were the optics of exporting vaccines that remain in short supply at home.
The first COVID-19 vaccine to win European approval was devised by German biotech startup BioNTech, which is marketing the shot in partnership with U.S. drug company Pfizer Inc.
BioNTech, meanwhile, has an existing arrangement to market 100 million doses of its vaccine in China through Fosun Pharma. A company spokeswoman said initial talks were under way with Fosun on expanding that cooperation.
"We may consider shipping the bulk vaccine substance to mainland China and packaging there, or even producing the vaccine in mainland China through our partner Fosun Pharma, but these ideas are all under discussion," the spokeswoman said.
Asked whether it might supply vaccine to Taiwan, BioNTech declined to comment "on potential or planned specifics of our commercial discussions".
China has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule and has not renounced the use of force to do so. (Additional reporting and writing by Douglas Busvine; Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Nick Macfie)