EU-Taiwan Relations: Struggles with Strategic Clarity and Mutual Trust
In light of its deteriorating relationship with Beijing and the Ukraine War serving as a warning of the potential for another crisis in the Indo-Pacific, Taiwan has become a greater focus for Brussels. As more and more European stakeholders travel to Taiwan, mainly on the parliamentary level and led by the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, EU-Taiwan relations appear to be strengthening. Yet, recent comments from French President Emmanuel Macron revealed the incoherence among European countries' rhetoric and political actions regarding Taiwan led to mixed feedback, if not confusion or criticism, from Taiwan's public discourse.
European Leaders Under Fire
Macron, who visited Beijing in April 2023 with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, expressed his concern about "Europeans following the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction (towards Taiwan)" after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The comment has prompted backlash within Europe and abroad, not least because Macron's concept of "EU's strategic autonomy" has been distorted and then echoed by Chinese state media.
Shortly after Macron’s comment, the President of Taiwan’s Parliament, You Si-kun, emphasized in his speech that economic gains are important, but "liberty, equality, fraternity," the motto of the French Revolution, are not discardable. It is, however, not the first time that European actors' gestures lead to confusion among Taiwanese stakeholders. In April 2023, two top diplomats from the European Union (EU) were reluctant to the idea of a bilateral investment agreement (BIA) with Taiwan, a task that Taipei described as "top of our agenda." European External Action Service (EEAS) Asia Pacific Managing Director Gunnar Wiegand stated that a Taiwan-EU BIA would be a political sign but not a necessitiy from the perspective of EU investor’s side since Taiwan has a stable rule of law. This made such extra-protection redundant. Adeline Hinderer, the European Commission’s Unit Head for trade with China and Taiwan, explained that "the investment policy (of EU's) has changed," and that therefore a BIA is currently not on the cards.
The EU's reluctance to sign a BIA with Taiwan was quickly criticized by Taiwan's state-owned news agency, which described the EU as "demanding yet refusing to offer". They perceived the EU diplomats’ argument as to be solely focusing on business interests and needs, ignoring the impact of geopolitical tensions on economic policy-making decisions. The same piece also warned that such an attitude might threaten Brussels’ call for Taiwan's semiconductor industry to expand investment in Europe. In addition, Taiwan's Ambassador to the EU, Remus Chen, urged Brussels to "adopt concrete and creative ways to deepen its cooperation with Taiwan."
The Cost of Inconsistency
This ambiguity makes some Taiwanese question if the EU is a credible and trustworthy ally for Taiwan: A recent street interview made by DW showed that some Taiwanese people "never put too much faith" in Western European countries such as France or Germany, nor do they believe in their sincerity in maintaining stability across the Taiwan Strait. Some experts from Taiwan were critical toward Taipei's attempts to deepen EU-Taiwan relations through economic incentives, such as a TSMC plant in Germany. According to voices as such, they mainly feel insecure whether Taiwan would give up more than it would get in this scenario. They are also not confident in "main players within the EU, such as Germany, who has closer ties with Beijing." This shows, that parts of Taiwan’s society have the impression that the EU's commitment to Taiwan is mainly rhetorical. Moreover, the ambiguity or perceived inconsistency between its verbal support and concrete actions is often taken as a signal of weakness, which could undermine Brussels' credibility as a strategic partner.
Winning over Taiwanese people's trust might not be Brussels’ priority, but the repercussions of distrust towards democratic allies should not be underestimated. If people in Taiwan are distrustful of their democratic allies, then this really is a gift to Beijing: Scholars and stakeholders have pointed out the alarming anti-American sentiment in Taiwan that has increased significantly in the past year and its impacts on the determination to resist China's encroachment or even election results. According to a survey done by the research institution Academia Sinica, nearly 57% of respondents do not consider the US trustworthy, though many have even lower belief in the credibility of China. In other words, while Taiwanese people still favor the US over China, they have reservations about their democratic partner due to the "strategic ambiguity" principle in US policy towards Taiwan, according to Prof. Dr. Chien-huei Wu, who conducted this research.
In terms of Europe, observers have noted that Taiwanese media and public debates express similar skepticism, for example towards Germany, the important EU actor. The debates often feature strong opinions yet not necessarily an accurate understanding of the local German context. This sentiment is comparable to reservations about the US, as Berlin also finds it difficult to adopt a fully open stance on Taiwan due to strategic considerations. This "strategic ambiguity" principle casts a shadow over the public perception of German's Taiwan and China policy among Taiwanese people. Germany only has official diplomatic relations with Beijing, and no official embassy in Taipei. This is the case for the majority of democracies, and this results in only limited official channels to exchange with Taiwan. However, the Academia Sinica poll mentioned earlier also pointed out that high-level US officials' visits to Taiwan and US arms sales are highly favored by the Taiwanese public, indicating that practical policy actions are well-received. For EU countries like Germany or France, this could mean establishing Trade and Investment Dialogues (TID) with Taiwan on the level of Ministers. In addition, EU member states could start to actively and regularly participate in initiatives such as the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) to expand cooperation with Taiwan on critical issues of mutual concern.
Navigating the Delicate Balance: Moving Beyond Rhetoric and Ambiguity
To avoid miscommunication and unnecessary mutual disappointment, stakeholders from Taiwan and Europe must be mindful of the thin line between strategic ambiguity and lack of clarity when interacting with each other. Against this background, a united and consistent stance on Taiwan from European actors would be more urgent than ever. European countries that are important economic partners of China should also make it clear that crippling sanctions would be imposed should Beijing decide to launch an invasion against Taiwan, a suggestion both former NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the Chairwoman of the Defense Committee of German parliament Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann have offered before. At the same time, Taipei and Taiwanese people should understand that a more hawkish attitude toward Beijing should not be directly interpreted as direct support for Taipei. In other words, Taiwan should understand the constraints and limitations of its counterparts. At the same time, the other side should not shy away from using the space for maneuvering when the situation allows. Lastly, both sides should remain vigilant against harmful narratives amplified through information operations from PRC-related actors that aim to trigger distrust toward Europe.
* Yu-Fen Lai is FNF Global Innovation Hub's Program Officer "Digital Transformation"
Thinking about Taiwan
In a global comparison, Taiwan is one of the top countries in the freedom ranking: The island has a free press, a freely debating parliament and the rule of law prevails. But it is precisely these democratic qualities that put the country under strong pressure. Xi Jinping, for example, has sharpened his rhetoric towards Taiwan in recent years, so the possible prospect of an attempted occupation is not so far-fetched. What matters now is that Taiwan develops an intelligent and successful defence strategy to fend off a possible Chinese attack.