Deepening EU-Taiwan ties
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. Under this policy, the EU and its Member States recognize 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. In October 2021, the EU legislature adopted a recommendation on EU-Taiwan political relations and cooperation. Among the various initiatives listed in the document, EU lawmakers prod Brussels to launch an ‘impact assessment, public consultation and scoping exercise’ for an EU-Taiwan Bilateral Investment Agreement. The MEPs also urge the EU to do more to address Cross-Strait tensions, 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. It was the first official delegation dispatched by the European legislature to the island in history. Furthermore, the EP 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 the island by end of year. It would be the first time in history that this Committee - one of the most important of the EU’s legislature – sends a delegation to Taiwan.
National legislatures have also adopted resolutions and sent – or are planning to send - delegations to Taiwan. For instance, the German Bundestag passed a resolution on 9 December 2021 calling on the government in Berlin to reassess its Taiwan policy and deepen exchanges with Taipei. The Petitions Committee of the Bundestag made clear that in light of the rapidly changing international situation, the German government should reevaluate its stance on Taiwan, including potentially recognizing it as a sovereign state. Moreover, the German Bundestag’s Committee on Human Rights announced that it will send a delegation of eight lawmakers from six political parties to Taiwan. A high-level French Senate delegation visited Taiwan at the beginning of September - the second French senate delegation visiting the island in 2022. Britain’s House of Commons foreign affairs committee is planning a visit to Taiwan in late 2022. Similarly, a delegation of Italian MPs is expected to visit the island by end of year.
Lawmakers are not the only ones travelling to the island to show support for Taiwan. Various EU member states have sent – or plan to send – government delegations to the island despite heavy criticism from Beijing. Lithuania has been at the forefront of a trend among Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries to promote ties with Taipei following the decision by the Baltic state at the end of 2021 to set up a representative office in Vilnius that carries the name Taiwan. This triggered Beijing’s campaign of economic coercion against the Baltic state. 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. Slovenia and the Czech Republic have also voiced criticism of China and strengthened relations with Taiwan.
Western European governments and politicians are also showing increasing support for Taiwan. Since her appointment last year, 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. 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 Mr. Sing-Ying Lee as ‘the Ambassador of Taiwan,’ promising that in case she becomes prime minister (in an election she has since won), her government will promote Italy-Taiwan relations and play a positive role in advancing wider Brussels-Taipei ties.
Implications for China and the U.S.
Europe’s growing engagement with Taiwan bolsters the position of the U.S. in its tug-of-war with China. Washington continues to defend the right of lawmakers and officials to visit Taiwan and is pressuring the allies to do the same. There are plans for a western parliamentary delegation to visit the island – an idea discussed in the context of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) - an international cross-party group of legislators formed in 2020. Many of the IPAC’s members also belong to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly which in recent months has become more vocal in its criticism of Beijing and support for Taiwanese democracy.
China has responded by adopting coercive measures against those politicians and countries - such as Lithuania - that do not conform to Beijing’s interpretation of the ‘One China’ policy. Small EU member states are particularly vulnerable from Chinese commercial reprisals. The business community is also concerned about the potential backlash from Beijing against European companies as China remains an important economic partner of the EU. According to Eurostat, last year imports from China to the EU jumped by more than a fifth to 472 billion euros compared to 2020, widening the bloc’s trade deficit with the country by over a third to 249 billion euros. As Europe’s economic dependency from China grows, it remains to be seen whether the 27-member bloc will be able to find the internal strength to continue to deepen ties with Taiwan and resist threats of economic reprisals coming from Beijing.
Furthermore, blindly following the harsh U.S. 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 which stands in stark contrast to the US which increasingly considers Beijing a major threat to Washington’s global primacy.
The EU should urgently open a high-level communication channel with Beijing to complement the already established transatlantic dialogue on the Indo-Pacific. China will, of course, continue to perceive Europe as a junior partner of Washington and be wary of Brussels’ intentions - while the U.S. may be against such a Sino-European dialogue for fear of losing leverage over the old continent. However, as Europe embraces Taiwan, it is time for Brussels to shake hands with Beijing and explain it to Washington.