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Comment: EU-Taiwan relations in the Indo-Pacific – time for an upgrade

Despite its diplomatic isolation, Taiwan’s geostrategic significance has only increased with the pandemic and the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China, writes Zsuzsa Anna Ferenc. But is Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation sustainable in a world paralysed by COVID-19 and torn by a race for critical technologies?

In April 2020 the EU thanked Taiwan for the 5.6 million masks it donated to the EU to help it fight the virus. Despite its strong performance during the pandemic in linking transparency, technology and trust to contain the virus, protect its economy and the health of its people, Taipei is not invited to sit at the international table to contribute to global efforts to fight COVID-19.

The island’s status as a ‘geopolitical absurdity’ – as a recent article in The Atlantic put it – has become even starker.  Taiwan now faces an existential threat from mainland China, territory it claims as its own under its ‘One-China Principle’. Today, the UN regards the government in Beijing as the sole legal government of China and does not recognise Taiwan as a separate sovereign entity.

Nonetheless, with a democratically elected government, a president, and a parliament, and as a member of the World Trade Organization, Taiwan upholds its right to conduct trade and economic cooperation with countries across the world.

As a self-ruled island, Taiwan has become the 7th largest economy in Asia and the 22nd largest in the world, and today maintains diplomatic relations with 15 countries. Still, Beijing falsely claims that it is the PRC that represents and provides for the 23 million Taiwanese, not the ROC government in Taipei.

The EU – like the majority of governments across the world – acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China. It doesn’t have diplomatic or formal political relations with Taiwan.

Nevertheless, the EU supports Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organisations. With European companies being the largest investors in Taiwan, the EU practically treats it as a separate entity.

A global reframing of the Taiwan question

To US President Joe Biden’s reaffirmation of America’s commitment to Taiwan, China has warned: any attempt to seek independence “means war”. In an effort to address an assertive China in the Indo-Pacific, Washington, Delhi, Canberra and Tokyo have recognised the need for urgency in dealing with the Taiwan question, individually and collectively, as seen through the strengthening of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad.

This shift signals Quad members are reframing the Taiwan question as a regional security question, where they all have their own interests to protect. While they all visualise Taiwan’s security in their own ways, they converge in their belief that Taiwan is an immediate strategic priority.

In May 2021, G7 foreign ministers agreed to “to support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in World Health Organisation forums and the World Health Assembly. The international community should be able to benefit from the experience of all partners, including Taiwan’s successful contribution to the tackling of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Yet, for the fifth consecutive year, Taiwan was not invited to this year’s World Health Assembly.

EU Indo-Pacific shift

So how can the EU, which is highly dependent on unimpeded maritime highways or sea lines of communication for its exports that pass through the Indo-Pacific, ensure the bloc is relevant in the big picture?

With the publication of its Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific this April, Brussels has acknowledged the urgency to be more active in the region. While the Strategy alludes to the China challenge by referring to geopolitical rivalry, the respect of human rights and international law or tensions over supply chains, it does not mention China once.

Instead, it seeks to balance its ties with China by being ‘inclusive’ vis-à-vis other countries in the region, yet leaving options open for cooperation with Beijing. But will Brussels also embrace Taiwan in the process of defining its Indo-Pacific engagement, just as it is rethinking its China policy?

The EU already considers Taiwan a like-minded partner. Yet, the ‘China factor’ has up to now limited EU-Taiwan cooperation and ensured Taiwan remains a ‘sensitive issue’, a matter Beijing has framed as one of national sovereignty, at the same time undermining the sovereign right of EU member states to engage Taiwan.

Europe’s policy on China remains fragmented. In 2019, the EU labelled China a ‘systemic rival’. The year 2020 was special for bilateral relations, for several reasons, including a ‘battle of narratives’ unleashed by the pandemic, Beijing’s ‘mask diplomacy’ and its disinformation operations in Europe.

Still, 2020 ended on an unexpected note: the EU and China concluded negotiations on a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment – CAI. A political and symbolic win for China, a strategic mistake for Europe – so the criticism went. The first quarter of this year has shown however that 2021 promises to bring even more unexpected twists, shaping how the EU sees both China and Taiwan.

In March 2021, for the first time in thirty years, the EU imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials for their treatment of the Uyghur minority living in Xinjiang. In retaliation, Beijing imposed its own sanctions on several national lawmakers and research institutes, but also Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), whose support is vital for the ratification of CAI.

This situation however created a strategic opportunity for Brussels to reconceptualise relations with Taiwan.

European Parliament takes lead

A good indication of genuine interest in seeing Taiwan on its own merit is the European Parliament’s decision to work on its first ever, stand-alone report on Taiwan – a process that is ongoing. Up until now, European Parliament resolutions have addressed Taiwan in the context of EU relations with China.

MEPs are now expected to send a clear message; internally to Brussels, that they will speak their truth and externally to Beijing that they will “not be silenced.” This approach is in line with the EP’s January resolution, where MEPs urged the “upgrading of political and trade relations between the EU and Taiwan.”

A stand-alone report on Taiwan reveals MEPs’ convergence to see Taiwan on its own merit, not only through the lens of China.

But what an ‘upgrade’ of EU-Taiwan ties could entail depends very much on the level of convergence between member states on how to deal with China, and with CAI, now that its ratification is suspended due to Chinese sanctions on MEPs, diplomats and scholars.

What to do?

Here is how I see how the EU should best approach the Taiwan question going forward.

Clearly, EU must see Taiwan as a thriving economy with a legally reliable investment climate, an indispensable actor in developing its own technological sovereignty and a like-minded partner with a robust democracy.

The EU’s approach to Taiwan must also be founded on its readiness to reassess its own interests as a ‘geopolitical’ actor in the region.

This further requires that the EU understands the urgency to push back against China’s false claims when it comes to Taiwan’s status and its participation in international organisations, and address the existential threat that Beijing’s assertiveness poses to Taiwan, and beyond, to the rules-based international order.

Following up on the commitments in its Indo-Pacific Strategy, it must work with like-minded partners and support Taiwan’s participation in international organisations, where it belongs.

Brussels must act on two fronts: internally, ensure the shift in perception is real; externally, build on the momentum of Taiwan’s success and recognition it has gained in global health and technology. So far, the European Parliament is showing the way.

The next step must be to insist the Commission launch an impact assessment of a Bilateral Investment Agreement with Taiwan, which will create economic opportunities for both sides.

Without Taiwan’s embrace, the EU’s approach to the Indo-Pacific will not be truly inclusive.

Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy is a Ph.D. research fellow at the European Union Centre in Taiwan at National Taiwan University, Taipei; affiliated scholar at the Political Science Department at Vrije Universiteit Brussel; head of associate network at 9dashline; and former political advisor in the European Parliament (2008-2020). She tweets @zsuzsettte

Views expressed by columnists at Borderlex are strictly their own.

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