EU-Taiwan relations continue to expand in the framework of the One China Policy

EU-Taiwan relations. Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall in Taipei

On 13 September, during the European Parliament Plenary Session, the High Representative Josep Borrell said that the EU seeks ‘to broaden our cooperation with Taiwan, [and] to modernise our dialogue with Taiwan. But all of it in the framework of the One China Policy, which recognises the People’s Republic as the sole government of China. Let me be clear on this: the One China Policy does not prevent us –the European Union– from persisting and intensifying our cooperation with Taiwan, not from expressing our concerns at the recent rising tensions’.

Borrell’s statement clearly upholds the EU’s One China Policy that serves as the political foundation of China-EU relations. The High Representative and the members of the European Parliament, however, have reasserted Europe’s willingness to reinforce ties with Taiwan. There is a growing awareness in Europe of the importance of Taiwan, ‘not just for the security and prosperity of the region, but also for ours’. However, the EU made clear commitments regarding its relations with Taiwan when it opened diplomatic relations with Beijing. In 1975 Sir Christopher Soames, then Vice-president of the European Economic Community (EEC), travelled to China. During the visit, China and the EEC agreed to establish official relations. Regarding the Taiwan issue, although Soames clarified that ‘matters such as the recognition of states did not come within the responsibility of the Community’, he said that ‘in keeping with positions adopted at various times by all the Member States, the Community does not entertain any official relations with Taiwan or have any agreements with it’. Since then, the EU’s Taiwan policy can be summed up as safeguarding the status quo and stability in the Taiwan Strait, while advocating a peaceful and rules-based resolution of the issue. Brussels warns Beijing against coercive measures and has never encouraged any move by Taipei towards independence.

The reaffirmation of the EU’s position comes after months of debate on the US Taiwan policy. What seems clear is Washington’s willingness to recalibrate its One China Policy, following the structural modification by China of the military balance of power in the region. This erosion of the traditional US One China Policy is highlighted by the introduction of the Taiwan Policy Act, by President Biden’s statements regarding US support in case of a Chinese attack and by the four US arms sale to Taiwan approved this year. The recalibration was already visible during the Trump years. The Trump Administration allowed reciprocal visits of cabinet-level government officials, such as US Under Secretary of State Keith Krach’s visit to the island in 2020, and it approved Tsai Ing-wen’s exceptional ‘layover’ in New York in 2019 where she met with a bipartisan US congressional delegation. Furthermore, the US Congress approved a series of pro-Taiwan laws, such as the Taiwan Travel Act and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act in 2018, and the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative of 2020, demonstrating strong US support for the island.

A mature cooperation

So, how can respect for the EU’s One China policy be merged with the enhancement of relations with Taiwan? As long as diplomatic recognition is not reached, adhering to the policy leaves room for a wide range of ways in which to engage with Taipei. Ways that have already been explored and which Brussels would like to strengthen. Indeed, in the last years we witnessed a process of maturing cooperation, already evidenced by the inclusion of Taiwan in the European Union’s Indo-Pacific Cooperation Strategy. The EU remains Taiwan’s largest foreign investor and fourth largest trading partner. The European Union wants to build upon existing strong economic links, worth €63.9 billion in 2021, with a 29% rise from the previous year, and expand cooperation with Taipei. Taiwan’s role as an important supplier of advanced information and communications technology components makes it an attractive partner in resilient supply chains, semiconductors and data protection. However, there is more to it than just economic ties. Brussels and Taipei share and promote the same democratic values, the respect for international law and human rights, making political cooperation another important item on their shared agenda. From this perspective, national parliamentarians have also been quite active. In 2021 a large Taiwanese delegation visited Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Brussels while many European policymakers visited Taiwan. These reciprocal visits by national parliamentarians or mid-level government officials play an important role in setting the agenda, in raising awareness and in encouraging increased economic, scientific, cultural, political and people-to-people exchanges.

The symbolic dimension is always a sensitive and salient issue when we talk about Taiwan as it was clearly illustrated by Lithuania’s recent decision to upgrade its relationship with the island. The Baltic country allowed Taipei to open a representative office in Vilnius under the title of ‘Taiwan’ and is soon about to open its own trade office in Taipei. Such a move prompted Beijing to impose a trade embargo and provoked domestic criticism. However, the economic coercion did not make the Lithuanian government to change policy. Moreover, in the context of US erosion of its own One China Policy, other European states, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, may follow suit.

The impact of the war in Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine certainly had an impact on how the EU looks at Taiwan. The parallel between the war in Ukraine and a possible invasion of Taiwan is easy but not necessarily true. The differences are substantial and there is no evidence that China is preparing to invade Taiwan. Nevertheless, the Russian invasion had two indirect effects in this regard.

First, the war highlighted the growing dependence of East European countries on US military power to deter or to confront Moscow’s expansionism. US military aid is not restricted to Ukraine but also includes NATO members and Eastern European security partners perceived as ‘most potentially at risk for future Russian aggression’. Among the partners are Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Romania. This dependency could translate into increased US influence in these countries’ foreign policies and it could make them more receptive to assuming US positions in the Asia-Pacific, especially regarding the Taiwan Strait. On this issue, also due to the fact that China is increasingly being viewed as a rival by many EU states, the support by single member states for Taiwan has increased in recent years. Poland and the Czech Republic enhanced their legislative and humanitarian cooperation with Taiwan. Latvia and Estonia followed Lithuania’s example and withdrew from the ‘Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries’ forum. The decision was not explicitly justified, but it comes after China’s ambiguous position on the war in Ukraine and its growing military pressure on Taiwan. In their statements, the Estonian and Latvian Foreign Ministries stated that they will continue to work with China ‘in line with the rules-based international order and values such as human rights’. Indeed, a common feature in the relationship between these countries and Taiwan seems to be the emphasis both parts place on their identity as democratic states that are facing military threats and possible oppression and human rights abuses.

Secondly, the parallel between Kiev and Taipei brought the situation in the Taiwan Strait to global attention and it shed the light on how non-democratic regimes have different and, many times, unpredictable decision-making processes. In this framework, the EU stresses the importance of the international community’s support for the island and international law. Brussels believes that the most effective way to deter an attack on Taiwan is to publicly highlight the democratic bond between the EU and Taiwan and support the rule of law. As the European Parliament’s Vice-president, Nicola Beer, said: ‘We will not witness a 24th February in Asia!’.

However, the EU must be careful to prioritise substance over symbolism in order not to antagonise Beijing and to prevent increased tension in the Taiwan Strait. Brussel needs China’s support to encourage Putin to end the war in Ukraine and to isolate Russia. Consequently, the EU should make any effort to not give Beijing a pretext for pursuing a closer alignment or to engage in more cooperation with Moscow. Considering this, European and Taiwanese actors need to bear in mind that increasing EU-Taiwan engagement could escalate the tension with Beijing and lead to economic sanctions, worsening a situation that is already problematic.

Image: Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall in Taipei. Photo: leungchopan.