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Global Affairs

The forces behind Europe's growing tilt towards Taiwan

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (right) speaks next to member of the European Parliament Raphael Glucksmann at Taiwan’s Presidential Office on Nov 4, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

"We came here with a very simple, very clear message. You are not alone. Europe is at your side."

Mundane words, yet this message was anything but simple. For it was delivered by Mr Raphael Glucksmann, the French leader of a delegation of European parliamentarians who were received last week by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen at her official Taipei residence.

The event signified an unprecedented level of political engagement with an island nobody in Europe - apart from the Pope in the Vatican - recognises as an independent state.

Predictably, Beijing was outraged: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the Europeans that they will "pay a price" for developing closer ties with Taiwan and called upon European Union governments to "correct their mistake".

But China appears to be losing this battle, for ties between Taiwan and Europe are developing fast. Indeed, the more Beijing is threatening retaliation, the stronger the EU-Taiwan link seems to grow.

Furthermore, Europe's interest in elevating relations with Taiwan is likely to persist. All in all, this is the sort of significant development few predicted, but few European politicians are now able to ignore.

For at least half a century, Taiwan was largely a non-issue in Europe, seldom talked about not only in government circles but also in the media and the academic community. True, many European scholars specialising in China often launched their careers by attending Chinese-language courses in Taiwan, and many more regularly read Taiwanese publications.

But they often did so because Taiwan offered an accessible point of entry to the study of China, rather than because they deemed the island important. Indeed, as links between European universities and China increased and the number of Chinese students studying in Europe grew, links with Taiwan were not only relegated as unimportant, but also became problematic.

Academics who linked up with Taiwanese counterparts often lost their ability to secure visas to China, and that alone acted as a massive deterrent for any self-respecting European sinologist.

Meanwhile, European governments had their own reasons to ignore Taiwan. Trade between the EU and Taiwan has continued to grow: Taiwan is now the EU's fifth-largest Asian trade partner after China, Japan, South Korea, and India, and ranks 14th in the EU's top list of trade destinations. However, Taiwan accounts for only 1.4 per cent of overall EU trade, compared to 16.1 per cent for China.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, European governments spent little time thinking about relations with Taiwan; the political drawbacks of forging links with Taipei were far bigger than the potential advantages. And nowhere was this more obvious than in the 11 former communist countries of central and eastern Europe that joined the EU over the past two decades; for all of them, Taiwan did not figure even as a footnote in their foreign policy objectives.

Relatively poor in comparison with the western part of the continent and lacking financial resources, the central and east European nations readily embraced Beijing's offers of investment in infrastructure projects; for many years, the EU's newest member states were regarded as China's best friends.


The central and east European vanguard

But all this is now changing and, in an even more ironic twist, it's precisely those central and eastern European countries that are now leading the way in forging new links with Taiwan.

In August, Lithuania, a 2.7 million-strong nation in northern Europe, pulled out of a longstanding cooperation arrangement with China, and announced that it has authorised the opening of a "Taiwan Representative Office" on Lithuanian soil. China responded by withdrawing its ambassador from Lithuania and ordering the withdrawal of the Lithuanian ambassador from Beijing.

Undeterred by the Lithuanian incident, the president of the Czech Republic's Senate, constitutionally the second-highest official in his country, defied Chinese warnings and embarked on an official visit of Taiwan in early September.

More significant still was the recent visit to Europe by Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, who not only toured several central European countries, but also held secret talks with EU officials at the bloc's headquarters in Brussels and addressed via video an anti-China protest held on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in the Italian capital of Rome.

And if this was not enough, the European Parliament adopted last month - with a crushing majority of MPs - a resolution asking the EU to change the name of the EU representative office in Taipei to representative office in Taiwan, to underscore the island's distinct political existence and begin preparing negotiations for the signing of a bilateral EU-Taiwan investment agreement.

The European Commission, the EU's executive body, could have chosen to ignore this resolution. But instead, Mrs Margrethe Vestager, the commission's executive vice-president, not only attended the parliamentary debate on Taiwan but also congratulated MPs on "a very useful and timely exchange", which, she claimed, "confirms that, while remaining committed to the European Union's one-China policy", the commission "shares the same interest in continuing to develop our relationship with Taiwan".

Not a week goes by in Europe now without some pro-Taiwanese activity; far from being a one-off, the latest visit to Taipei by leading European parliamentarians is guaranteed to be just a stepping stone to a bigger and potentially more daring engagement.

The assumption in Beijing seems to be that China's well-established formula for dealing with such irritations can still work in silencing such European initiatives. The Chinese authorities are now publishing lists of European MPs who are banned from ever visiting China because they advocate closer relations with Taiwan. Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats in various European capitals are dropping dark hints that countries putting their heads above the parapet on the topic of Taiwan will see their trade suffer.

But the problem for China is that Europe's sudden interest in Taiwan is fuelled by a variety of different political trends and is therefore much more sustainable, or difficult to counteract, than Beijing either realises or cares to admit.

Backlash against Chinese behaviour

One explanation for the continent's "Taiwan tilt" is a growing European perception that China not only presents an economic challenge to Europe but also a political and security one. Chinese media campaigns dismissing European governments as weak and disorganised in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic brought this sentiment to the fore, but so did alleged Chinese hacking into EU computer systems, and the assertive - some would say aggressive - behaviour of Chinese diplomats in European capitals.

The Chinese embassy in Paris, for instance, regularly insults in public French lawmakers and academics it deems hostile, while Chinese diplomats in the Danish capital of Copenhagen recently took it upon themselves to tear down street posters advertising a candidate in local elections because the posters expressed support for Tibet.

China's rapidly deteriorating image in Europe has encouraged some European politicians to play the "Taiwan card" as a lever against Beijing. But it has also drawn broader European public attention to the restrictions which Beijing has managed to impose over many decades on Europe's dealings with Taiwan.

The Europeans are told that they must not allow Taiwan to call its representative offices on EU soil by the island's name to avoid any suggestion that such offices are de facto embassies.

Taiwanese officials, Beijing insists, should not be given diplomatic status, and not even be accorded basic courtesies such as reserved parking places for their cars, or special licence plates. Also, top officials from European countries, China demands, must not attend receptions hosted by Taiwanese officials, and must not allow Taiwan's foreign and defence ministers to visit. And the list goes on.

As long as China did not feature prominently in European public debates or was seen as just a lucrative commercial opportunity, none of this mattered; the Chinese-imposed list of "dos and don'ts" on Taiwan concerned only some protocol officials in each European country, and neither the European public nor the continent's parliamentarians were aware of its true extent.

But now that China dominates public debate and the conduct of Chinese diplomats is coming under heightened public scrutiny, it is becoming increasingly difficult for European governments to explain why restrictions which seem so petty are being enforced not because they were invented by European states, not because they serve any European objective, but simply because they are demanded by China.

Of course, most European officials and commentators are fully aware of Beijing's sensitivities. Still, they wonder why Beijing should be allowed to be the sole arbiter not only of what the one-China policy means, but also how other countries should interpret the policy, by insisting that other nations must follow to the letter China's precepts on this matter.

The decisions of various European parliamentarians to defy China's straightjacket on Taiwan by either visiting Taipei or by inviting Taiwanese officials to visit the continent largely stem from the argument that it is not up to China to dictate behaviour, and that a territory like Taiwan that respects all the political rights that Europeans hold dear cannot be held hostage to demands imposed by a country which denies all these rights.

The hammer and sickle

The central and east Europeans have moved into action for a different reason, that is President Xi Jinping's growing insistence on communist ideology as the guiding principle for China. In countries that have languished for decades under Soviet control and where politicians alive today still recall the horrible days of communism, pictures of President Xi speaking from a podium adorned with the hammer and sickle are complete anathema. They "send a shiver down our spines", as one local central European politician put it.

It is noticeable that most of the initiatives which the newer members of the EU have taken on Taiwan have all been explained in these anti-communist terms: support for Taiwan is now seen as a blow against communism, a winning formula in these parts of Europe.

The fact that the central and eastern European countries are also strong supporters of the United States also helps: reaching out to Taiwan is seen as their way of helping the US in handling China.

'US will help Taiwan defend itself' - US official

And there are some Europe-wide economic interests at play here as well. The EU is very keen to improve its capacity in the semiconductors sector, and Taiwan produces some of the world's most advanced microchips. Taiwan's President Tsai has already dispatched Mr Kung Ming-hsin, the Minister for Economic Affairs who is also a member of the board of Taiwan's semiconductor giant TSMC, to central and eastern Europe recently, and it is almost certain that microchips were also on the menu in the recent confidential talks that Mr Wu, the Taiwanese Foreign Minister, had with EU officials in Brussels.

Yet it will be wrong to put it all down to just European pride and hunger for microchips. For a number of European governments are now persuaded that a long-term and more inclusive approach to Taiwan not only acts as a warning to China that its domestic political crackdown has consequences on the country's overseas influence but can also be part of a new "division of labour" between Europe and the US in dealing with the Taiwan flashpoint.

So, while the US emphasises its military capabilities in protecting Taiwan from a potential Chinese military intervention, the Europeans are emphasising their growing economic links. It is a tandem that can work.

Of course, Europe is still divided on China. Still, when Mrs Vestager, the European Commission vice-president, told lawmakers recently that Chinese "displays of force" in the Taiwan Strait "may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity", she was signalling a potential shift of historic proportions.

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