Employees quit their jobs at a semiconductor chip maker in Tainan, Taiwan, September 18, 2020. A global shortage has highlighted Taiwan’s crucial role in the global supply chain for semiconductor chips, which power everything from iPhones to German cars. (An Rong Xu / The New York Times)
TAIPEI, Taiwan – European nations have long kept Taiwan at bay, fearing to provoke Beijing, which opposes any contact with the island it claims as its territory.
But an unusual wave of diplomatic activity suggests that subtle change may be underway in Europe, driven in part by the region’s growing frustration with China’s aggressive stance.
Two weeks ago Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu launched a charm offensive in Europe, stopping in Brussels for unprecedented, albeit informal, meetings with European Union lawmakers. The European Parliament overwhelmingly supported a resolution calling for closer ties with Taiwan, which it described as a “democratic partner and ally in the Indo-Pacific.”
Then, last week, Parliament sent its first-ever official delegation to visit the island, defying threats of retaliation from Beijing.
“We came here with a very simple and clear message: ‘You are not alone. Europe is by your side, ‘”Raphaël Glucksmann, French member of the European Parliament and head of the delegation, told Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen at a meeting in Taipei last Thursday.
The breakup of diplomatic engagement with Taiwan would have been unlikely even a year ago. Around this time, Europe and China were finally and quickly completing a long-standing deal to make it easier for companies to operate in each other’s territory, marking what was briefly seen as a geopolitical victory for Beijing.
But China’s increasingly assertive authoritarianism under its leader, Xi Jinping, has also fueled mistrust and disgust. EU lawmakers blocked the investment deal, citing human rights violations and China’s sanctions. Now, concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown in Hong Kong, its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and its strategy of intimidating Taiwan with Chinese warplanes also appear to have sparked a growing willingness in Europe to reassess – and strengthen – its ties with Taiwan.
“For the first time in history, in a very significant way, there has been a subtle but noticeable change in European perceptions of Taiwan,” said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There has been a clear realization that the situation in Taiwan worries Europeans not only from the point of view of values but from the point of view of regional security architecture. “
Granted, Europe’s economic interests in China are enormous, and the focus on Taiwan is still a minority effort. Europe has shown no intention of abandoning its long-standing policy of recognizing Beijing’s position that there is only one Chinese government.
Europe is both reluctant and ill-equipped to become militarily involved in the Indo-Pacific in the face of intense Washington efforts to deter China from attacking Taiwan. The recent controversy over Australia’s dropping of a major submarine contract with France in favor of a contract with the United States (in which Britain played a supporting role) has angered de many people, not only in Paris but also in Brussels.
France, Glucksmann’s homeland, has at least 1.5 million citizens in the Indo-Pacific and some 8,000 soldiers are permanently based there. But no other European country has or intends to have a constant military presence in the region like the United States does. Britain and Germany are more ambivalent about Taiwan; a German warship avoided the Taiwan Strait after a warning from Beijing, while Britain sent one of its new aircraft carriers across the strait in September.
Yet for many in Taiwan and in Europe too, the island would seem a natural partner for Europe, which prides itself on being a “union of values”. Taiwan is a thriving democracy with an independent legal system and strong protections for individual rights and the environment.
Taiwan has also made efforts to rebuild its image globally with its response to the pandemic. With the virus largely under control at home, Taiwan has sent millions of masks to various countries, including Europe, winning praise from officials in the region.
More recently, a continuing shortage of semiconductor chips has highlighted Taiwan’s role as an indispensable node in the global supply chain for chips, which are used in everything from iPhones to German cars.
Taiwan has also sought to promote trade relations with Europe. He sent a delegation of 66 officials and business leaders to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania to discuss investment and industrial cooperation.
While Taiwan’s ultimate goal is to strike a bilateral investment agreement with Europe, it also focuses on institutionalizing the ties to counter China’s efforts at diplomatic isolation. In recent years, Beijing has continued to separate from Taiwan’s official diplomatic partners. Of Taiwan’s 15 remaining allies, only one – the Vatican – is in Europe. But Taiwan scored a small victory this year when Lithuania continued with plans to open a representative office early next year in Taiwan’s capital Taipei, despite Beijing’s outrage.
“Taiwan is really trying to attract the European Union in order to diversify its own exports and reduce our dependence on China,” said Cho Chung-hung, professor and director of the Institute of Studies. studies at Tamkang University in New Taipei. . “Taiwan is trying to seize this opportunity to create more sustained and normalized relations with Europe.”
Beijing has protested and pledged to take countermeasures against every outreach act in Taiwan, including the recall of its Lithuanian ambassador in August. But China could fear compromising its access to the European market and pushing the bloc further towards the United States. Last month, Charles Michel, chairman of the board representing the 27 members of the European bloc, spoke to Xi, the Chinese leader, for the first time since the investment deal was derailed in May. After the call, Michel announced on his Twitter account that the two parties had agreed to hold a virtual summit soon.
Despite the call, relations between Beijing and the European Union are not expected to improve quickly. Beijing does not want to back down on issues it sees as fundamental interests, such as Taiwan and Xinjiang, which are at the center of tensions, said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
It remains to be seen to what extent European support for Taiwan is rhetorical. MEPs have more leeway than their counterparts in the Council or the European Commission to take strong political action in favor of Taiwan. The new government in Germany and the upcoming elections in France will be crucial in shaping the region’s relations with Beijing and Taipei.
“The EU is going through this moment of introspection,” said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, Taipei-based researcher and former policy adviser to the European Parliament. “What kind of relationship do we want to have with China? “” And “What kind of relationship are we ready to have with Taiwan? These are the two big questions that still need to be addressed.
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© 2019 New York Times Press Service