Make no mistake, Taiwan is winning the cold war with China in Europe

The Taiwanese foreign minister’s European tour is exploiting Merkel’s departure and China’s shortcomings in the region, writes Ahmed Aboudouh

Thursday 28 October 2021 12:03 BST
<p>The Speaker of Czech parliament's upper house, the Senate, Milos Vystrcil, right, welcomes Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu</p>

The Speaker of Czech parliament's upper house, the Senate, Milos Vystrcil, right, welcomes Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu

Taiwan is bolstering its ties with Europe, while China watches with fury.

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu is touring the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Rome, where he’ll take part in a demonstration on the sidelines of the G20 summit this week. But reports emerged that he will also go to Brussels to see EU officials in a previously unpublicised visit.

In Slovakia, Mr Wu warned on Tuesday that any conflict between Taiwan and China would be “a disaster — not only for Taiwan but also for China and the rest of the world”.

The message he wants the leaders and the society in the West to hear is simple - that his country is Taiwan, not Chinese Taipei.

It is a powerful message, for it underpins a grim reality for China. In essence, despite the record number of fighter jets and bombers harassing the self-ruled democratic island and the unprecedented diplomatic squeeze, Taiwan, not China, is gaining ground in Europe.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian earlier protested against Wu’s visit, saying he was “a typical Taiwan independence separatist”.

“China firmly opposes these countries conniving with Taiwan independence separatists and demands that relevant countries abide by the ‘one China’ principle and do not provide a platform for activities of Taiwan independence separatists,” he said.

Mr Wu’s yet unconfirmed participation in a rally in Rome, and his visit to Brussels, are expected to be especially a nightmare for China. His mere existence in Italy, at the same time as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, would carry a symbolic suggestion that Taiwan has become able to participate, despite indirectly, in high-profile international events.

While Mr Wu’s Brussels stunt would indicate to China that a significant change in the EU policy approach has already kicked off with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s departure.

Analysts say that Merkel’s soft policies towards China have been mainly drawn by the fact that Germany is the only EU member state with a favourable trade balance with China.

“The EU’s China policy writ large has largely been German-friendly. Many member states have endured their own exasperations with German dominance over China, France included. This partly explains why some member states have at times been caught drifting from the pack,” said Benjamin Robin Barton, assistant professor and expert of Chinese foreign policy at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, second from right, watches as a military jet taxis along a highway in Jiadong, Taiwan

Under no circumstances would Mr Wu’s stop in Brussels have happened if Mrs Merkel had still been in charge.

Not only at the EU level, but in Germany too, do analysts anticipate that Ms Merkel’s departure may perhaps pave the way for a more assertive German position against China’s increasing pressure on Taiwan.

Despite the anticipated stop in Brussels and the strong support from the European parliament, his public visit to the Czech Republic and Slovakia might signal that the CEE countries, and European lawmakers, are moving much faster ahead of the EU executives in terms of the block’s relations with Taiwan.

On Wednesday, an EU spokesperson said that Mr Wu’s meeting in Brussels would be “non-political” — meaning that he might not meet political leaders, such as EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

Reports also confirmed that seven MEPs might travel to Taipei next week to hold talks with their Taiwanese counterparts.

The slight twist for the EU could be evident in the discrepancy between Beijing’s enormous economic and financial dealings with Brussels on the one hand and its minimal economic bond with the CEE region on the other.

“There has not been the same kind of support on the EU executive level and in Western EU capitals. One key consideration is that the direct economic dependence in China in the Western European countries is significantly higher than in CEE, so there are more reasons for proceeding carefully,” Mr Šebok said.

The growing agency of the CEE countries going their own way in dealing with Taiwan might undermine France and Germany, who, especially under Mrs Merkel, have long kept the EU’s China policy on a very short leash.

“We might expect (Paris and Berlin’s monopoly on EU’s China policy) to change moving forward. Paris and Berlin will be paying very close attention to Mr Wu’s visit,” Mr Barton suggested.

Filip Šebok, Research Fellow of the Prague-based Association for International Affairs (AMO) Research Center dealing with China, said the Taiwanese leader’s visit was “in line with the recent developments in bilateral relations between Taiwan and these countries, building upon the cooperation throughout the pandemic- there were Taiwanese donations of PPE, reciprocated by donations of vaccines from the CEE countries”.

China’s strategy in central and eastern Europe has traditionally used the historical complacency of these countries towards Beijing to attract economic benefits against a firmer, united European approach. But the divide and conquer policy has lacked substance.

In Slovakia, Chinese investments in 2019 were $269m, representing only one per cent of the total direct foreign investment in the country. In neighbouring Czech Republic, China’s commerce ministry estimated $287m investments in the same year. While in Lithuania, which is adopting an increasingly assertive policy towards Beijing, the total Chinese investment was around just $96m last year, according to the Central and Eastern Europe Centre for Asian Studies. This amounts to about 0.4 per cent of Lithuania’s total foreign direct investment.

According to Chinese official data, total trade between China and the whole of central and eastern European block stood at $103 billion in 2020.

The China Communist Party’s foot-dragging on pumping money into the region prompted Lithuania to pull out from what it called the “divisive” Chinese 17+1 forum, created in 2012 to promote cooperation between China and the CEE region.

“Central and Eastern European countries may have a lower stake when it comes to smooth EU-China relations based on their relatively low trade dependence with China, which gives them a bigger manoeuvring space,” Ivana Karaskova, leader of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE), said.

France may have get a free hand in dealing with China after Merkel

“This time, however, it is less about China and more about Taiwan as all three countries have a genuine interest in developing trade, cultural and science cooperation with Taiwan,” she noted.

This is largely because Mr Wu’s visit targets a domestic audience growing impatient with China and more aligned with Taiwan’s democratic appeal, telling the tale of a small nation standing up to a mammoth dictatorship at its doorstep.

And this brings back the memory of the Soviet repression of many in Eastern Europe. Beijing’s lethargic economic policy may have presented Prague and Bratislava with an opportunity to break free from the cage of soothing an authoritarian giant which constantly invokes the gloomy memories of the Soviet Union.

In reality, the recent shift in policy towards the China-Taiwan crunch is due to a greater change in domestic politics in the CEE countries.

Even though Mr Wu’s visit to the Czech Republic and Slovakia is focused on NGO and think tank organisations - his schedule did not initially include meetings with government officials - it may help European politicians boost their popularity at home.

“The global rising anti-China sentiment gaining traction since the outbreak of Covid-19, support for democratic Taiwan is seen as a short-time means of scoring political points, similar to when leaders opt to meet with the Dalai Lama – it is usually welcomed by domestic audiences despite triggering Beijing’s ire,” Mr Barton said.

During a visit to Taipei last year, the Czech Senate Speaker Miloš Vystrčil told the Taiwanese lawmakers, “I am a Taiwanese,” a statement invoked Beijing’ ire.

In August, China also recalled its ambassador to Lithuania over Vilnius’ move to allow Taiwan to open its first diplomatic outpost in the EU bearing the name “Taiwan” instead of Chinese Taipei.

“Specifically, Lithuania believes that political and economic matters should be considered together when dealing with non-democratic regimes because in the end, the non-democratic regimes are less predictable and business with them is more vulnerable,” Ms Karaskova said.

The push for “values-based foreign policy” by Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania might undermine the 16+1 one of President Xi Jinping’s fingerprint initiatives by convincing other members to break away in favour of deeper economic and technological relations with Taipei.

But France and Germany will not be the only concerned powers by China’s potential retaliation against Taiwan in the aftermath of Mr Wu’s European tour. The US is perhaps disquietly watching too.

Mr Wu’s hawkish rhetoric against China will be welcomed by the Biden administration, which steadfastly maintained Trump’s aggressive policies towards China on the Taiwan issue.

But it would ideally prefer these countries to stay the course with Washington on fundamental but controversial core issues, such as the “one-China policy”, which guarantees these countries will not shift diplomatic recognition from Beijing to Taipei.

“Biden and his team will want to make sure that allies keep up the momentum on containing and balancing China, with the caveat that there is some degree of coherence and that no country goes too far in crossing the Rubicon single-handedly,” Mr Barton said.

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