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Taiwan’s recent impact on EU-China Relations: A Farewell to the Status Quo?

European Union flag © 8268513/ Public domain/ Pixabay

Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China (ROC), has to a large extent found itself diplomatically isolated for many decades now. The end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 resulted with the ROC government under Chiang Kai-Shek fleeing to the island of Taiwan, while the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. Although the ROC government enjoyed international recognition as the legitimate representative of China in the first decades following the Civil War, this changed with President Nixon’s visit to the PRC in 1972 and the ensuing formal recognition of the PRC, and consequent derecognition of the ROC, by the United States. Having long given up on the goal of recapturing and reunifying with the mainland, the now democratic Taiwan is building a new Taiwanese identity as the vast majority of Taiwanese no longer identifies with the mainland and wishes to distance itself from China’s sphere of influence (Wu, 2016; Blackwill and Zelikow, 2021. The same cannot be said about Beijing, which aims to remove the island’s status of de facto independence. The Chinese Communist Party under president Xi Jinping’s leadership regards reunifying Taiwan with the mainland as central in achieving its goal of “national rejuvenation” and fulfillment of the “China Dream” (Huang, 2017). Given these stakes, Beijing has expended great efforts to prevent Taiwan from declaring formal independence and keep it isolated from other major international political actors. By leveraging its economic strength and international standing, the PRC has so far been successful in marginalizing Taiwan in the international community by, for instance, requiring countries it holds formal ties with to adhere to the “One-China Principle”, thus acknowledging the PRC as the only legitimate China of which Taiwan is a part of.

In an effort to not damage its ties with Beijing, the EU and its member states had until recently accepted these terms without much objection. A series of recent events in the past year, however, indicate that a rapprochement in EU-Taiwan relations is already taking place and impacting the EU’s relations with the PRC.

These developments are partly being driven by Eastern European countries, many of which have recently moved to increase their ties with Taiwan, which were until now largely informal (Nachman, 2021). During his visit to Europe in October 2021, Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu was welcomed by Lithuania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic to sign a series of technology-related agreements. Beijing reacted strongly to this move, slamming the visits as “promoting secessionism” and “malicious provocative acts” (Lau and Kijewski, 2021). However, Beijing’s most assertive reaction came after Lithuania’s decision to establish a Taiwan representative office, a de facto embassy, in its capital Vilnius, which opened its doors in late 2021. Beijing reacted to this move by withdrawing its diplomats from Lithuania and cracking down on the country’s imports as well as goods from other EU countries that include parts from Lithuanian supply chains (Vela, Leali and Lau, 2022). European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen responded to the developing conflict in October with a letter to EU lawmakers, saying that “threats, political pressure and coercive measures directed against EU member states are not acceptable” (Lau, 2021). Taipei, for its part, responded by announcing its plan to set up a $200 million fund to invest in Lithuanian industries and boost bilateral trade (Reuters, 2022).

While still unresolved, this conflict may end up shaping the EU’s future trade policy. Following China’s reaction, France was quick to advocate for a new trade policy tool that could allow the EU to react quickly and more assertively when a member state is faced with similar coercion measures (Vela, Leali and Lau 2022). In late January, the EU went one step further by moving the conflict to the international stage when it filed a WTO case against China over targeting Lithuanian goods on the basis of its stance on Taiwan (Finbarr, 2022). Since then, a number of WTO members such as the U.S., Australia, Britain and, unsurprisingly, Taiwan have voiced their support for the case. Expressing their anger over the situation, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian meanwhile stated that “Lithuania should stop confusing right with wrong and cease its malicious hype, let alone trying to get other nations to join its acts against China.” (Xinhua, 2022).

The incident surrounding Lithuania moreover comes after the European Parliament’s recommendation of October 2021, which states that the EU and Taiwan are like-minded partners sharing common values. It also acknowledges the wish of the Taiwanese people for independence from Beijing, as well as Taiwan’s critical role in the global high-tech supply chains and its successful containment of the Covid-19 pandemic. On this basis, the EU Parliament recommends the EU and its member states to strengthen their ties with the island through various means such as bilateral economic relations and people-to-people contacts, as well as city-to-city and region-to-region partnerships. The recommendation moreover strongly advocates for Taiwan’s meaningful participation as an observer in meetings, mechanisms and activities of international bodies, such as the World Health Organization or the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (European Parliament, 2021 [a]). While not binding for member states, the recommendation is still of importance as it signifies an increased political focus on Taiwan and highlights the potential for a changing course of actions with regards to the island.

Another noteworthy event on the EU front was the visit of a European Parliament delegation to Taiwan in late October 2021, which marked its first official visit to the island. During the visit the delegation met the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, as well as other political representatives and civil society organisations to discuss issues such as cyber security. The delegation moreover expressed solidarity with Taiwan for its efforts to deal with pressures from Beijing and agreed to explore future avenues of cooperation (European Parliament, 2021 [b]). In a press conference, INGE Chair Raphaël Glucksmann remarked that it is in Europe’s long-term interest to support Taiwan, as the island embodies freedom and democracy, which should be cherished and protected by democrats around the world (European Parliament, 2021 [c]).

While the delegation assured that the visit was not meant to be a provocation to Beijing, it has nevertheless spurred Beijing’s anger with the EU. Beijing has announced to hold those who support Taiwanese independence criminally liable for life, adding to the tensions after a number of European MPs, including Glucksmann, were sanctioned by Beijing earlier in 2021 (European Parliament, 2021 [c]). China plans to enforce this punishment through a blacklist, which forbids entry to the mainland and its Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau and prohibits cooperation with entities or people from the mainland to those on the list (Tian, 2021).

But what has been the trigger for the seemingly sudden change in the EU’s attitude towards Taiwan? The reason may be twofold. Firstly, Beijing’s increasingly confrontational and aggressive approach towards Taiwan may have had the opposite effect than Beijing intended. Besides regularly using military incursions in Taiwan’s Air Defense Zone to signal its commitment and resolution to reunification, the PRC continuously warns nations moving to strengthen ties with Taiwan of the consequences this move would bring for their diplomatic and economic relations with the mainland. While this strategy seems to have been fairly successful in the past, the recent events may be an indicator that Beijing has pushed its intimidation strategy too far. Many western nations, including EU member states, appear to be irritated by Beijing’s continued threats and now seem more willing to show their support for Taiwan through various means (Horton, 2021; Mu, 2021).

Secondly, the EU is starting to regard Taiwan as a suitable partner in its efforts to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Taiwan has been a democracy for roughly three decades now and has recently been ranked as the top “full democracy” in Asia and 8th globally by the 2021 report of the Economic Intelligence Unit (Tsao and Ko, 2022). The newfound global focus of the island may moreover have been triggered by its successful containment of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a consequence there has been an increase in voices within the EU calling for the participation of Taiwan in the WHO, a global organisation that, like many others, still excludes Taiwan.

It is undeniable that Taiwan’s global presence has grown in the last year. Nevertheless, most countries still stop short of formally recognising Taiwan, wary of the consequences this move might bring in regard to their relations with Beijing. Yet as long as the rivalry between the West and China is to continue, Taiwan is sure to remain in the global focus. EU-China relations are currently at a low point, while EU-Taiwan relations are seemingly flourishing. However, heightened tensions between Beijing and Brussels are not necessarily good news for Taiwan, as it increases unpredictability and the risk of conflict.

As neither side is willing to back down, it remains unclear what the future will hold for Taiwan. Though it appears that Taipei is currently expanding its network of allies and strengthening its ties with the EU, it is uncertain how long this trend will continue and how far the EU and its member states are willing to go in order to back Taiwan. However, it is important that the EU and China, despite their disagreements, continue to engage with each other in order to strengthen mutual understanding and ensure ongoing dialogue. While one can never dismiss the possibility of a future military conflict, a conflict spiraling out of control due to a number of misjudgments and misunderstandings on both sides would not be beneficial to anyone involved.

Nora Tenta is a graduate student in East Asian Politics at the Ruhr University Bochum, where she mainly focuses on issues concerning China and Taiwan. In the course of her studies she has also spent time at the Feng China University and National Taiwan University in Taiwan. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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