Lithuania and the Czech Republic have both begun to normalise relations with Taiwan. But Beijing is hitting back.
Late last year, the Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy think tank opened a new office in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.
Billing itself as the “only European security-oriented think-tank with [a] legal entity in Taiwan”, according to its director, it is now on the front line of a battle for influence between Beijing and Taipei.
“Taiwan is a goldmine of knowledge about China in general,” Jakub Janda, a Taipei-based director of the think tank, told Euronews. “Central European countries don't have much of this knowledge and we will need it in upcoming years, so we are setting up our office in Taipei to facilitate it.”
Last year saw a groundswell of European support for Taiwan, a liberal Asian democracy that faces mounting diplomatic, military and financial pressure from China. Beijing considers the island a rogue province that broke away from the Chinese mainland following the Communist takeover of 1949.
The US has even warned that Taiwan risks military occupation by China, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warning last month that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is engaged in what “looks a lot like rehearsals” for military operations against the island.
Speaking last October, President Xi Jinping said reunification in a "peaceful manner" was "most in line with the overall interest of the Chinese nation, including Taiwan compatriots". However, he added, "No one should underestimate the Chinese people's staunch determination, firm will, and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity."
A delegation of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) visited Taipei last October to meet with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, while the European Parliament passed a resolution the same month calling for strengthening the EU's ties with the island.
Parliaments in France and Germany have demanded their governments do the same. Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu made a covert visit to Brussels last November. The following month, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc will “pursue cooperation and exchanges with Taiwan in areas of common interest”.
Most of the activity, though, has come from Central and Eastern Europeans. Last October, a large Taiwanese delegation visited Slovakia and the Czech Republic, whose new government vows to strengthen relations with Taipei.
The following month, Lithuania became the first EU state to deepen diplomatic ties with Taiwan. It quit the China-led “17+1” forum, and allowed the de-facto Taiwanese embassy in Vilnius to change its name to the “Taiwanese Representative Office”, rather than “Taipei Representative Office”.
Beijing opposes any official use of the word “Taiwan” in case it lends international legitimacy to the island. The Vatican City is the only European state, and only one of about a dozen globally, that formally recognises Taiwan as a sovereign country.
Beijing retaliated by downgrading diplomatic relations with Lithuania and imposing hefty trade sanctions on the Baltic state. Lithuanian exports to China fell by 91.4% last month, compared to a year earlier, according to Chinese customs data.
However, Chinese measures against Vilnius also affected goods from any country that used Lithuanian products, creating a problem for other European exporters to China. On Thursday this week, the European Union took the matter to the World Trade Organization over what it calls Beijing’s “discriminatory trade practices” against Lithuania.
Last week, Slovenia became the latest European country to wade into the issue. Its prime minister, Janez Janša, a controversial populist, said that Taiwan’s representative office in its capital might also change its name to “Taiwan,” rather than “Chinese Taipei”.
From Beijing’s perspective, anything “pro-Taiwan” is intrinsically anti-China. From a European perspective, however, it’s more complex.
There’s nothing intrinsically anti-China about supporting Taiwan’s autonomy and security, said Kevin Curran, a project assistant at the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based think tank.
“The EU has no issue forwarding a somewhat schizophrenic stance regarding China as at once a 'rival', 'competitor’, and ‘partner’,” Curran said, referring to a document released by Brussels in 2019 that described China as all three.
“There seems to be no reason why a similarly ambiguous policy can’t be pursued with Taiwan,” he added.
Taiwanese politicians had a busy 2021 with lobbying visits to several European capitals, as well as issuing promises of investment in their tech sectors. This month, Taipei announced a €176 million investment fund for Lithuania, including investments to build a semiconductor industry in the small Baltic state, something “France and Germany could only dream of,” as Politico Europe recently put it.
However, European academics, journalists and public intellectuals, some of whom studied or lived in Taipei, are also trying to foster changes from their own governments.
The “hype” over Taiwan in Europe hasn’t come out of nowhere, said Kristina Kironska, a Bratislava-based academic who specialises in Taiwan. “There have always been Taiwan advocates,” she said, “but they were not heard as loudly as they are now.”
A few years ago, Europe’s China “hawks” were also in a tough position. They were accused of being fellow-travellers of then-US president Donald Trump, whose administration radically altered global perceptions on China but who was personally a figure of opprobrium among some in Europe.
More damaging, they were liable to charges of racism, anti-Asian prejudice, or attempting to foment a “clash of civilisation” between the West and East. Beijing’s own jingoistic newspapers regularly threw these epithets at its European critics.
Taiwan’s emergence on the global retina in 2021 has made things easier. Nowadays, Europe’s China “hawks” can point to their support for a liberal Asian democracy, rather than merely their opposition to China’s authoritarian model and its alleged human rights abuses. Taiwan shows there is no intrinsic aversion to democracy in Chinese culture, analysts say, and European support for an Asian democracy takes the accusation of racism or Western superiority off the table.
“Given the promotion of Taiwan as a democracy standing in contrast to China’s authoritarian model; a defender of minorities in contrast to China’s policies; many pro-Taiwan arguments in direct opposition to Beijing,” Curran said.
Pew Research Center surveys have found China’s popularity in Europe is flagging. Some 56% of Germans held unfavourable views of China in 2019. It rose to 71% in 2020 and 2021. For the French, it increased from 62% in 2019 to 70% in 2020 and 66% in 2021.
The annus horribilis for China’s reputation in Europe was 2020. Beijing was blamed for its role in allowing an epidemic in Wuhan to become a global pandemic, and in turn criticised Western nations for their response to the crisis.
In December 2020, the European Commission agreed terms with China on an investment pact, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). However, just four months later Beijing imposed sanctions on several European politicians and think tanks, a retaliation for the EU’s own sanctions on Chinese officials for their role in alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang.
While China's relationship with some parts of Europe is struggling, Taiwanese politicians have launched a successful charm offensive.
Taiwan, which is to date recorded just 851 deaths related to COVID-19, has been praised across the world as the standout performer during the pandemic, a crisis that also revealed major fault-lines in global supply chains, said Justyna Szczudlik, a China analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs think tank.
As the world’s largest producer of semiconductors (the “new oil” of 21st-century geopolitics, as EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell recently put it), Taiwan has grown in economic importance. “We realised Taiwan’s critical role in [the] fabrication of semiconductors and that economic dependence on China poses a threat not only for further Europe’s development but also security,” Szczudlik said.
Economics, indeed, plays a large role. Central and Eastern Europe “doesn't have so deep business dependence and sometimes elite capture on China, so it is easier for Central European countries to engage with Taiwan,” said Janda, of the European Values Center for Security Policy.
A growing divide
A divide is growing within Europe between states that trade heavily with China and those that don’t.
Germany, which is accused of trying to push EU policy towards a more favourable position on Beijing, is the only EU state that counts China as one of its four-largest export markets. For years, China has been Germany’s most important trading partner for goods, with bilateral trade worth €212 billion in 2020, according to German government records.
In 2019, just 1.18% of Lithuanian exports were purchased by China, which accounted for only around 3% of the Baltic state’s imports, according to data from the OEC. China purchased just 1.3% of all exports from the Czech Republic that year, 1.17% of Poland’s and 0.94% of Slovenia’s.
At the same time, there has also been what academics call a “normative” change. The Indo-Pacific region has become increasingly important to the EU in recent years. France published its Indo-Pacific strategy report in 2018, but Germany and the Netherlands only released theirs in 2020. The EU finally published its strategy last September.
Brussels has also paid more attention to values, like human rights and democracy-building since Ursula von der Leyen became president of the European Commission in late 2019. Von der Leyen vowed to build a “geopolitical” Commission.
The ethical argument is particularly appealing in Central and Eastern Europe, countries of the former socialist bloc that existed for almost half of the 20th century under Soviet control. These countries “know from their own experience what it is like to be living under the shadow of coercion from a big, influential, and authoritarian neighbour,” said Szczudlik.
“Taiwan as a vibrant democracy is an attractive partner amid the crisis of democracy, not only in Europe,” she added. “All of this became more visible in 2020 and 2021.”
This history -- as well as present Russian threats to invade Ukraine -- has prompted much of the region to signal their belief in US security. While many of these nations are going further than the US in strengthening relations with Taiwan, Curran, of the Association for International Affairs, described the moves as “a tacit signal of solidarity against China in an increasingly bipolar world”.
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