By Thomas J. Shattuck*
(FPRI) — Relations between the European Union and Taiwan have accelerated at near warp speed over the last few weeks: The European Parliament approved a non-binding report calling for the expansion and intensification of the European Union’s relations with Taiwan; Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu visited a number of countries in Europe, including Brussels; Taiwan sent a business delegation to the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Slovakia; and Taiwan is now hosting the first-ever EU Parliamentary delegation in Taipei. All of these developments point to the potential beginning of a new chapter in how the EU will treat Taiwan, and they continue a wave of international support for Taipei. Within the EU context, the report is worth exploring more in-depth because it provides a framework for what is to come.
Passed by a substantial majority—580 to 26, with 66 abstentions—the report lays the groundwork for the next step in the EU’s approach to Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, and the greater Indo-Pacific region. The report’s passage did not occur within a black box of improving relations with Taipei; it serves just as a much as a warning shot to Beijing over its disinformation operations and increasing assertive military posture in the region. With the EU-Taiwan political relations and cooperation report’s passage now in the rearview, Brussels and European capitals should follow through on the report’s primary objectives, lest it become another page in the ever-increasing stack of symbolic gestures supporting Taiwan.
The report continues the groundswell of support and calls to action from countries around the globe concerning their relations with Taiwan. The report itself mentions this trend: It “acknowledge[s] that the US and Japan have highlighted for the first time the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait in the joint statement of a recent bilateral summit.” Similar statements followed in the aftermath of that summit, most importantly the Group of 7 Carbis Bay Communique.
While the inclusion of this issue in joint statements and communiques is vital for signaling and symbolic purposes, the EU report marks a more significant step since it openly outlines how the EU should go about developing and cultivating its relationship with Taiwan. The main goal for the EU is to launch negotiations for a trade agreement with Taiwan in an effort to shore up semiconductor chip supply. The EU’s Taiwan report should be considered a model for larger international institutions and individual countries in how to approach their relations with Taiwan.
As Beijing’s multifaceted coercion campaign against Taipei intensifies, Taiwan finds itself in a position with more friends and partners showing support and making plans. The more loudly these countries speak out and the more interested they are in Taiwan’s lasting security, the less likely that China will launch an all-out attack since the number of potential countries responding to such a contingency could increase—and thus complicate Beijing’s desire for a quick and decisive victory.
An EU Call to Action
The EU’s Taiwan report has three major categories: concern about Chinese behavior; the importance of Taiwan as a democracy; and areas where Brussels and Taipei can enhance their relations, the most important of which is initiating negotiations for a trade agreement.
First, the way in which the People’s Republic has increased its military, economic, and political coercion against Taiwan has worked against Beijing. Turning up the heat has pushed countries to more publicly express support for Taiwan than in previous years. As governments are in the process of re-assessing the future of their own bilateral relations with China, the constant bullying of Taiwan does Beijing no favors. The near-daily incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) by Chinese military aircraft is a constant reminder to everyone about Beijing’s military threat against Taiwan since the PRC has never renounced the use of force. The report specifically mentions the large-scale ADIZ incursions between October 1-4, 2021, when about 150 Chinese military aircraft breached the ADIZ. The report goes pretty far in calling out Beijing’s hypocrisy. It “call[s] out the inflammatory Chinese rhetoric signalling its seemingly contradictory intention of wanting to incorporate Taiwan under the totalitarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), while at the same time claiming to pursue a peaceful development of relations with Taiwan.” This statement quite succinctly sums up the current state of cross-Strait relations.
Second, the report highlights Taiwan’s importance as a democratic country, which is in line with the founding values of the European Union. The values expressed in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union—such as a peaceful future, human dignity, freedom, the principles of democracy, and the rule of law—are being threatened by Beijing not just in Taiwan but across the world. Most importantly, given the immense importance that the EU places on human rights issues, in particular, the report notes the great strides that Taiwan has taken. Once a one-party authoritarian state, Taiwan not only peacefully democratized at the same time that a number of post-Soviet states did (many of which are now EU members seeking to bolster their bilateral ties with Taiwan), but the Tsai Ing-wen administration is tackling the country’s authoritarian history head-on with a number transitional justice, human rights, and indigenous peoples’ rights initiatives—all of which would be under threat in a CCP-controlled Taiwan.
Third, the EU report recommends that the institution and members work to further enhance economic relations with Taiwan. The end goal for the EU is to negotiate and sign a free trade agreement with Taiwan. The impetus of this desire is fueled by the shortage of semiconductor chips for automobiles, which has had a significant impact on EU car companies. The EU is hoping to develop its indigenous semiconductor manufacturing capabilities and double its capacity from nine percent to 20 percent by 2030. Since Taiwan is home to the most advanced semiconductor manufacturing company in the world, Brussels hopes to woo TSMC into investing in the EU. The EU report is the first step in realizing the goal of a trade agreement with Taiwan, but similar calls have been put out in the United States for many years—with bipartisan support—with little-to-no progress to show for it. Maybe Brussels will move faster than Washington.
The Future of EU-Taiwan Relations
The passage of the report came just days before Taiwan sent a business delegation to three EU countries: Lithuania, Slovakia, and Czech Republic. Taiwanese National Development Council Minister Kung Ming-hsin led a delegation of 66 individuals in the hopes of increasing investment and trade between Taiwan and three countries. The Czech Republic had sent a similar business delegation to Taiwan in 2020, during which President of the Czech Senate Miloš Vystrčil addressed Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. Taiwan and Lithuania have been growing closer throughout 2021, with both announcing the intent to open reciprocal diplomatic representative offices. That announcement led Beijing to launch a campaign of economic coercion against Vilnius. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu visited Slovakia and Czech Republic, though he is not a part of the business delegation. His most important stop—not confirmed beforehand—was meeting with EU officials in Brussels. It is rare for a Taiwanese politician of such a high level to be received in foreign countries that do not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
The momentum of EU-Taiwan relations in 2021—culminating with the passage of the EU’s Taiwan report—is an important development for Taiwan and its international space. While the report is non-binding, the immense support for Taiwan within the EU and within member states will likely only increase as Beijing continues its intimidation campaign against entities that seek to enhance their relations with Taipei. Chinese government officials have already lashed out at the countries hosting the Taiwanese delegation. Some of the EU officials visiting Taipei were already sanctioned by Beijing. Also, Chinese Ambassador to the EU Zhang Ming reportedly pressured European Parliament President David Maria Sassoli to “leverage” his role to stop the Taiwan report from passing. Beijing does not seem have heeded the warnings of tempering its “wolf warrior” diplomacy, to its detriment.
Will Beijing exert a greater and more focused economic coercion campaign even though the EU report specifically mentions that behavior as a reason for the desire to improve relations with Taiwan? If that is the case, then the EU will only move closer and closer to Taiwan in response—especially since the report calls for “exchanges with the participation of Member State representatives, including at the most senior levels.” The Biden administration has been hosting and interacting more regularly with Taiwanese officials, so after the passage of this report, it is likely that those interactions will now occur across Europe.
As Taiwan faces down the growing threat from Beijing, the world is paying more attention to cross-Strait issues, with governments and institutions calling for closer ties. The Tsai administration has a unique opportunity to expand Taiwan’s international presence—and even has some economic leverage. It is time for these countries and institutions to start making concrete and actionable progress in their relationship with Taipei. The EU appears to be making some headway towards treating Taiwan more seriously.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
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