Wednesday

7th Dec 2022

Opinion

If EU wants to embrace Taiwan, it needs to explain first to Beijing

  • The president's office in Taiwan's capital, Taipei. 'Europe is rightly embracing Taiwan — it is also time to shake hands with Beijing and explain it to Washington' (Photo: Wikimedia)
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Europe has stepped up its engagement with Taiwan to a level unthinkable only a few years ago — a dynamic which is welcomed in Washington but risks triggering commercial reprisals from Beijing. If not managed carefully, such actions threaten to reduce the EU's diplomatic leeway and ability to contribute to a peaceful solution of cross-Strait relations.

Since 2021, there has been a dramatic surge in Europe-Taiwan relations. European governments continue to officially abide by the 'One China' policy — i.e., the acknowledgement of Beijing's position that there is only one Chinese government.

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  • Under the 'One China' policy, the EU and its member states recognise and have formal ties with the People's Republic of China rather than the island of Taiwan (Photo: NASA/Wikimedia)

Under this policy, the EU and its member states recognise and have formal ties with the People's Republic of China rather than the island of Taiwan. In practice, however, various EU institutions and European governments are treating Taiwan as a 'de facto' independent state with which they are entitled to entertain economic and political relations.

The European Parliament is leading efforts aimed at upgrading Taiwan's status.

On 21 October 2021, the EU legislature adopted a recommendation on EU–Taiwan political relations and cooperation, urging the Union to protect Taiwan's democracy and the island's status as an important EU partner.

In November 2021, a seven-member delegation of the European Parliament visited Taiwan — the first ever official delegation dispatched by the EU legislature to the island. Furthermore, the parliament's vice-president Nicola Beer, a German MEP from the Free Democratic Party, visited Taiwan in July 2022 where she met with Taiwan's leader Tsai Ing-wen to discuss the upgrading of relations between the two sides.

There are plans for the European Parliament Committee on International Trade to visit Taiwan by end of year.

National legislatures have also adopted resolutions and sent — or are planning to send — delegations to Taiwan. For instance, the petitions committee of the German Bundestag passed a resolution on 9 December 2021 calling on the government in Berlin to re-evaluate its stance on Taiwan, including potentially recognising it as a sovereign state.

The German Bundestag's committee on human rights has announced that it will send a delegation of eight lawmakers from six political parties to Taiwan at the end of October 2022.

A high-level French Senate delegation visited Taiwan at the beginning of September — the second French senate delegation to visit the island in 2022.

A delegation of Italian MPs is expected to visit the island by end of year.

Alongside lawmakers, European governments are also showing increasing support for Taiwan, notwithstanding criticism from Beijing. In August 2022, a Lithuanian delegation led by vice-minister for transport and communications Agne Vaiciukeviciute visited Taiwan during which it was announced that the Baltic state will open a trade office in Taipei.

In response, Beijing imposed sanctions on the Lithuanian politician.

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock has made various remarks in favour of Taiwan. In August 2022, speaking at a United Nations conference, Baerbock warned China against escalating tensions with Taiwan and expressed support for the island democracy.

'Ambassador'?

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Italian far-right conservative party Brothers of Italy, met with Andrea Sing-Ying Lee, head of the Taiwan representative office in Rome at the end of July 2022. During the visit, Meloni addressed Sing-Ying Lee as "the ambassador of Taiwan", promising that when she becomes prime minister she would promote Italy–Taiwan relations and play a positive role in advancing wider Brussels–Taipei ties.

Europe's embrace of Taiwan is a positive development since it gives meaning and content to EU commitments to a value-based foreign policy. However, China remains a very important economic partner for the EU.

The bloc's trade deficit with China currently stands at €249bn. Will Europe find the necessary strength to continue to deepen ties with Taiwan and resist threats of economic reprisals coming from Beijing?

Moreover, blindly following the harsh US line on China risks reducing Europe's leeway to promote diplomatic initiatives aimed at reducing tensions in the region. Fostering cooperative relations with all Asian nations, including Beijing, is a key pillar of the EU's Indo-Pacific strategy issued in September 2021.

The challenge ahead for EU policy makers is thus to find a balance between three main dynamics:

One, maintaining the EU's "One China" policy so as to avoid jeopardising relations with Beijing;

Two, continue deepening ties with Taipei, including support for initiatives aimed at deterring a potential future invasion of the island;

Three, avoid the perception of an EU that sides too closely with Washington, so as to keep room for diplomatic manoeuvres.

To do so, the EU should set up a communication channel with Beijing on security in East Asia with the objective of transforming this, over time, into a structured dialogue mechanism that would complement the EU–US high-level dialogue on the Indo-Pacific.

China will, of course, continue to perceive Europe as a junior partner of Washington and be wary of EU intentions — while the US may be against such a Sino-European dialogue for fear of losing leverage.

Yet, if the EU wants to be a political actor in East Asia and contribute in earnest to reducing tensions in an area that could easily spiral out of control — and be very damaging for the old continent — dialogue with China is essential.

Europe is rightly embracing Taiwan — it is also time to shake hands with Beijing and explain it to Washington.

Author bio

Nicola Casarini is associate fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome, and Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington DC.

Disclaimer

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

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