On September 13, EU High Representative Josip Borrell told the plenary session of the European Parliament that the EU seeks to “strengthen cooperation with Taiwan and modernize our dialogue with Taiwan. But all of this is under “One China” within the framework of the policy, which recognizes The People’s Republic of China is the sole government of the country. To be clear, the ‘One China’ policy does not prevent us – the EU – from maintaining and strengthening our cooperation with Taiwan, or expressing concern over the recent escalation of tensions. “
Borrell’s statement clearly upholds the “one China” policy, which is the political foundation of China-EU relations. However, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and MEPs reiterated Europe’s willingness to strengthen ties with Taiwan. In Europe, Taiwan’s importance is increasingly recognized “not only for the security and prosperity of the region, but also for our security and prosperity”. However, the EU made a clear commitment to Taiwan relations when it established diplomatic relations with Beijing. In 1975, Sir Christopher Soames, then Vice-President of the European Community, visited China. During that visit, China and the EEC agreed to establish official relations. Regarding the Taiwan issue, although Soames clarified that “issues such as national recognition do not fall within the scope of the community’s responsibility”, he said that “according to the positions taken by various member states on different occasions, the community does not advocate having no formal relationship with Taiwan, nor has it countries reached an agreement”.Since then, the EU’s Taiwan policy can be summarized as maintaining status quo Stability and stability in the Taiwan Strait, while advocating a peaceful and rules-based solution to issues. Brussels has warned Beijing against coercive measures and has never encouraged Taipei to move towards independence.
The EU reaffirmed its position after months of debate in the United States over Taiwan policy. What is clear is that Washington intends to realign its “One China” policy following a structural shift in the balance of Chinese military power in the region. This erosion of the traditional “one China” policy of the United States is reflected in the introduction of the Taiwan Policy Act, Biden’s announcement that the US military will support Taiwan if China launches an attack on Taiwan, and the four US arms sales agreements Taiwan ratified this year. This realignment has been evident during the Trump administration. The Trump administration has allowed exchanges of visits by senior administration officials, such as Under Secretary of State Keith Krach’s visit to the island in 2020, and granted Tsai a “special stop” in New York in 2019, where she met with a bipartisan delegation from the U.S. Congress. In addition, the U.S. Congress passed a series of “pro-Taiwan” laws in 2020, including the Taiwan Travel Act, the Asia Assurance Initiative Act, and the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, showing strong U.S. support for the island .
So how can the EU combine respect for the “one China” policy with strengthening ties with Taiwan? Adherence to the policy allows for various types of relations with Taipei, as long as there is no diplomatic recognition. These linkages have already been explored, and Brussels will work to strengthen them. Indeed, in recent years we have observed a transition to more mature cooperation, as evidenced by Taiwan’s inclusion in the EU’s Indo-Pacific Cooperation Strategy. Union remains Taiwan’s largest foreign investor and fourth among trading partners. The EU seeks to expand cooperation with Taipei on top of an existing economic relationship worth 63.9 billion euros in 2021, up 29 percent from the previous year. Taiwan’s status as a major supplier of advanced ICT components makes it an attractive partner for data protection, semiconductors, and durable supply chains. However, it’s not just economic ties. Brussels and Taipei share and promote the same democratic values, respect for international law and human rights, making political cooperation another important aspect of their agenda. From this point of view, members of the National Assembly have been very active. In 2021, a Taiwanese delegation visited Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Brussels, while several European lawmakers visited Taiwan. Exchanges of visits by parliamentarians or mid-level government officials in these countries play an important role in setting agendas, raising awareness, and promoting economic, scientific, cultural, political, and people-to-people exchanges.
The symbolic dimension, when it comes to Taiwan, is a sensitive and salient issue; this is clearly illustrated by Lithuania’s recent decision to improve ties with the island. The Baltic states have allowed Taipei to open a representative office in Vilnius under the name “Taiwan” and will soon open its own trade office in Taipei. The move prompted Beijing to impose a trade embargo and sparked internal criticism. However, economic coercion failed to induce the Lithuanian government to change its policies. In addition, as the US “one China” policy weakens, other European countries, especially those in Eastern and Central Europe, may follow suit.
The impact of the war in Ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has undoubtedly had an impact on the way the EU views Taiwan. It’s easy to draw parallels between the war in Ukraine and a possible invasion of Taiwan, but that’s not necessarily true. The difference is huge, and there is no evidence that China is preparing to invade Taiwan. Regardless, the Russian invasion had two indirect effects.
First, the war highlighted the growing reliance of Eastern European states on U.S. military power to deter or counter Moscow expansionism. U.S. military support is not limited to Ukraine, but also includes NATO members and Eastern European security partners, considered “countries with the greatest risk of future Russian aggression.” These partners include Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Czech Republic and Romania. This reliance could translate into growing U.S. influence in these countries’ foreign policy and could make them more willing to take the same stance as the U.S. on the Asia-Pacific region, especially on the Taiwan Strait issue. It is precisely because several EU countries increasingly view China as a competitor that member states’ support for Taiwan has increased in recent years. Poland and the Czech Republic have stepped up legislative and humanitarian cooperation with Taiwan. Latvia and Estonia followed Lithuania’s example and withdrew from the China-Central and Eastern European Countries Cooperation Forum. There is no clear reason for the decision, but it comes from China’s ambiguous stance on the war in Ukraine and growing military pressure on Taiwan. Estonian and Latvian foreign ministries said in statements that they would continue to cooperate with China “in line with values such as international rules-based order and human rights”. Indeed, a common feature of relations between these countries and Taiwan appears to be that both sides emphasize their status as democracies facing military threats, possible repression, and human rights abuses.
Second, the similarities between Kyiv and Taipei draw global attention to the Taiwan Strait issue, reminding us of the different and often unpredictable ways in which non-democratic regimes conduct decision-making processes. Within this framework, the EU stresses the importance of international support for the island. Brussels believes that the most effective way to prevent an attack on Taiwan is to emphasize the democratic relationship that exists between Taiwan and the EU and to support the rule of law. As Nicola Beer, Vice-President of the European Parliament said: “You won’t see 24 February in Asia!”.
However, the EU must be careful to prioritize substance over symbolism so as not to anger Beijing and prevent an escalation of tensions across the Taiwan Strait. Brussels needs China’s support to get Putin to end the war in Ukraine and isolate Russia. Likewise, the EU must do its best to avoid giving Beijing an excuse to move closer to Russia or seek further cooperation with Moscow. In this regard, European and Taiwanese actors should bear in mind that further relations between the EU and Taiwan could lead to an escalation of tensions with Beijing and lead to economic sanctions, further exacerbating an already problematic situation.
Photo: National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taipei. Photo: Liang Chupan.
Authors: Mario Esteban, Michael Malinconi.