Will the EU act any differently towards Taiwan following the results of the January 13 elections?

, by Manuel Ballotta

Will the EU act any differently towards Taiwan following the results of the January 13 elections?
President Tsai poses for a photo with the first official European Parliament delegation to Taiwan, 2021 中華民國總統府, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/license...> , via Wikimedia Commons

On January 13, Taiwan went to the polls and elected vice-president Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as the self-ruled island’s new president. Mainland China sees Taiwan as a breakaway region which must be reunified with the mainland at all costs. To achieve this, (especially since 2016, when president Tsai Ing-Wen of the DPP was elected), China has ramped up a mixture of hybrid tactics to pressure Taiwanese citizens into believing that reunification to the mainland is their only option. The tactics employed include shows of military force, cyber attacks, a misinformation campaign, and economic and diplomatic coercion. The president-elect is strongly despised by Beijing for its stance over Taiwanese sovereignty and in the build-up to the elections and in the days that followed, China’s rhetoric has only grown more assertive. In the meantime, the rest of the world observed with extreme caution.

The EU’s response

“Restraint” perfectly describes how EU leaders reacted to the news of Lai’s victory in the presidential elections.

The European External Action Service, as well as Germany, France, and the Netherlands, released official statements to congratulate the people of Taiwan for exercising their right to vote, and condemned any attempt to unilaterally change the status-quo in the Taiwan strait, but at no point they directly congratulated the president-elect, in what can be seen only as an attempt to not anger China (spoiler alert: China got angry anyway). This does not come as a surprise, considering that all EU states adhere to the One China Policy, but it is also reflective of the enormous economic influence that China maintains over the EU. In fact, no European state other than the UK mentioned Lai in their congratulatory statements, but this still does not change the fact that many member states hold diverse views over the issue of Taiwan. Some are more keen to publicly support the Taiwan cause, such as Lithuania, which was the first to send a Parliamentary delegation after elections, and the Czech Republic.

A dangerous lack of coordination?

When it comes Taiwan as a geopolitical issue, we see very different posturing between member states. While certain member states, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania and the Czech Republic have published Indo-Pacific strategies, understating its importance and geopolitical hotspots, they identified different approaches to preserving its stability (also in consideration of their size, whereby France was the most assertive being able to contribute to freedom of navigation missions in the Taiwan strait). Despite this, it remains unclear how the EU and its member states would react to an invasion, with Macron arguing at the end of his visit to China in 2023 that the EU should not end up getting caught up “In crises that are not ours”. Further, most member states not having yet even published any official Indo-Pacific strategy.

What is evident is that the lack of a coordinated EU Taiwan and Indo-Pacific policy can only be detrimental in the longer term, with more and more experts stating with confidence that a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan can not be excluded in the coming years. With the Taiwan strait being one of the world’s most important commercial waterways, and Taiwan being the world’s largest productor of semi-conductors, the repercussions of such an invasion on the EU’s economic stability would be enormous.

A missed opportunity?

Despite the risks of angering China, as the case of Lithuania demonstrated, there is also certain benefits that the EU may be giving up by not developing a coordinated Taiwan strategy and by not strengthening ties with the self-governed island. First of all, the president-elect has demonstrated interest in deepening commercial ties with the EU. Taiwan is the EU’s 14th largest trading partner, and EU is already Taiwan’s largest foreign investor. Formalizing economic relations would therefore lead to a concrete economic benefit for both sides, since it would build-up on already strong foundations.

Moreover, a deeper engagement with Taiwan would increase the EU’s heads of state willingness to play a more active role in preserving stability in the Taiwan strait. In this regard, the European Parliament is clearly the most vocal European actor, having adopted a resolution in the days following the elections, where it condemned Chinese aggressiveness towards Taiwan and called for improving EU-Taiwan relations through an EU-Taiwan bilateral investment agreement.

What Next?

It is evident that the EU needs to agree on what to do with Taiwan, and it should do it fast, but as we know, the European Council, which has the final say over the EU’s foreign policy, is famously slow to act. With its eyes already focused on crises closer to home, most prominently the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza, it is hard to expect any sudden change with regard to the EU’s Taiwan policy. Furthermore, Mainland China remains a political and economic priority, as highlighted by Belgium’s De Croo’s visit to China in the days preceding the election. The fact that Belgium holds the driving seat of the Council in the first half of the year only makes this feeling stronger.

Despite this, as European Federalists, we should never stop raising our voices for a more coordinated (and indeed, Federal) European Foreign Policy. In this sense, the possibility of changing the voting mechanism in the Council from Unanimity to Quality-Majority Voting (QMV), would be a welcome outcome. In the end, the EU can only hope to play a driving role in preventing the challenges of the future with a united voice.

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