Wednesday

8th Dec 2021

Opinion

MEPs in Taiwan - maybe don't rock the boat?

  • Taiwan's Presidential Office Building, Taipei - originally built in the Japanese era for colonial governors (Photo: Wikimedia)
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Visiting Taiwan last week, a group of EU Parliamentarians declared their visit was the start of "genuine relations between Taiwan and Europe", adding that the EU "wanted to learn how the island was able to counter Beijing's long-time threats".

The one lesson these MEPs should have learned before enjoying Taiwan's superb hospitality (great food, marvellous hotels, great headlines) is a simple one: "Don't Rock the Boat".

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Was this visit really designed to further stir up already troubled cross-Straits relations?

How does the visit help Taiwan or the EU in the relations between Taipei, China and the Indo Pacific?

Until Trump entered the White House in 2017, America and the EU strictly followed a policy of carefully protecting the status-quo which ensured peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encouraged the development of a thriving economy and democracy in Taiwan.

This meant that although Taiwan's president Chen Shui-ben (2000-08), belonged to the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), one of the tasks of the 200-staff American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) was to urge Chen, whenever he had one of his 'megaphone' anti-China outbursts, to calm down.

Pro-independence statements from the island, not only from president Chen, worried China to the extent that in 2005 it issued the Taiwan Anti-Secession Law which, while it expressed "friendship" and called for cooperation, also made clear that if Taiwan were ever to try to separate from China, Beijing would not hesitate to use "non-peaceful means".

America's policy changed on 2 December 2016 when US president-elect Donald Trump, took a congratulatory telephone call from Taiwan's current president Tsai Ing-wen, ending almost four decades of silence at high political level between the US and Taiwan.

It led to consternation in the US foreign policy establishment, which recognised it as a highly-provocative action. In the end, the Chinese reaction, although angry remained relatively measured.

Upturning 1979 settlement

Why was Trump's call with Tsai Ing-wen so tricky? Because it up-ended years of US policy on Taiwan under which since 1979, Washington committed to a one-China policy under which the PRC government was recognised as the "sole legal government of China".

Taiwan was no longer considered a separate sovereign entity. The US only "acknowledged" China's position that Taiwan was part of China.

As the logical consequence of the one-China policy, the US restricted high level political interactions with Taiwanese officials. European countries and EU institutions did the same.

The approach allowed for intensive cooperation and contacts in numerous other "technical" areas from trade to technology and from culture to fisheries, but excluded high level political contacts. This policy, as long as adhered to, led to relative stability across the Strait.

With the more conciliatory Beijing-leaning Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016, cross-Straits relations were calmer and there was an increase in contacts, including through flight traffic, tourism and trade between China and Taiwan.

Relations began to sour when in 2016, the DPP returned to power in Taiwan and renewed its pro-independence talk. In Washington, meanwhile Trump had been elected and was ready to move into the White House.

Initially, Trump's telephone exchange in December 2016, was considered an aberration. With hindsight it is clear it was part of a plan to change the goalposts, not a maverick's aberration. It was part of a longer-term plan to change America's Taiwan policy.

Joe Biden is following in Trump's footsteps.

For the first time in January 2021, the "Taipei Representative" in Washington was invited to attend the inauguration of the new president.

As veteran US diplomat Richard Haass points out: "Far from rescinding a policy introduced in the final weeks of the Trump administration that removed restrictions on official US interactions with Taiwanese officials, the Biden administration has actively implemented it, publicising high-level meetings between US officials and their Taiwan counterparts."

Many in the EU seem to want to follow the new US line. Having more or less buried the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) because of US pressure, EU policymakers are also changing their tune on Taiwan.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell does pay lip service to the "one-China policy", but has referred to Taiwan as a "like-minded partner" and voiced "support to Taiwan's system of democratic governance, rule of law and human rights".

The MEPs' visit to Taiwan pushes the envelope further. Adhering to the One-China Policy with the help of the US has served Taiwan well up until now. So what is the point of following the US down this risky road?

If China is able to keep its cool, the MEPs' trip in support of Taiwan's democracy may in the end be of little importance.

If not, conflict - planned or accidental – cannot be ruled out.

The EU has a reputation as a peace-maker and has developed a toolbox for conflict management.

It is worrying that as tensions rise in the Indo-Pacific, EU policymakers, parliamentarians and others seem to have forgotten the importance of diplomacy and the art of easing rather than increasing risks of confrontation.

Instead of irresponsible grand standing in the Indo Pacific, EU Parliamentarians should focus on defusing tensions between China and Taiwan.

Author bio

Jan Willem Blankert is senior fellow at the EU-Asia Centre, an economist and a former EU official. Before joining the EU institutions, he worked as a health statistician in Africa.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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