Written by Michael Reilly.
The European Union’s relations with China are currently at their lowest level since at least the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, if not earlier. Growing disillusion with China’s economic and predatory business policies under Xi Jinping had already led to the EU branding China a ‘systemic rival’ in 2019. Since then, unease has only grown and relations further soured, most recently over China’s crude attempts to use the Coronavirus pandemic for propaganda purposes, followed by its imposition of a draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong in disregard of its obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. Although a regular EU-China Summit meeting took place in June, no joint communique was issued, nor joint press conference held, a further testimony to the poor state of relations.
Disquiet in Europe over China’s handling of both the pandemic and Hong Kong have helped focus attention on Taiwan. European governments have voiced support for Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO (the EU as a body is not a member but has also spoken in support) and on 1 April, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, publicly thanked Taiwan for its donation of 5.6 million masks to help fight the Coronavirus pandemic. ‘We really appreciate this gesture of solidarity… Acts like this show that we are stronger together,’ she tweeted.
Similarly, the moves in Hong Kong have been followed not just by expressions of concern, such as that of the EU’s High Representative on 1 July, but by statements of support for Taiwan by many European politicians, conscious of the implications for freedom and democracy there.
Those who hope or expect that expressions of solidarity with, or sympathy for, Taiwan might translate into any significant change in European policy towards the country are likely to be disappointed, however. An indication of the continuing obstacles to a more normal relationship came in early July when the German Foreign Ministry removed the Republic of China flag from its website, the ministry’s spokesman citing Germany’s ‘one-China policy’ and absence of diplomatic relations with Taiwan as justification for the move. And at a more substantive level, progress towards a bilateral investment agreement between the EU and Taiwan, something the European Commission agreed to consider five years ago, remains all but non-existent.
To Taiwanese, this can seem disappointing and frustrating in equal measure. After all, Taiwan and the EU share common values in their commitment to democracy, respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law. Yet some Taiwanese complain that Europeans seem more ready to lecture or hector Taiwan for not sufficiently supporting their perceptions of values, on same-sex marriage and capital punishment for example, than to offer any meaningful support in the face of continuing threats from China. By contrast, despite well-founded concerns about the lack of human rights in Vietnam and Myanmar, the EU has been happy to conclude a free trade agreement with the former and is currently negotiating an investment agreement with the latter.
Unlikely though it may seem, both the commitment to universal values and Europe’s ‘one China policy’ have features in common in that both are open to different interpretations. (Although Chinese officials may try to claim otherwise, there is no single ‘one China’ policy. A more accurate description might be ‘one China, different interpretations,’ for at one extreme in Europe are states whose legal, if unstated, position is that the status of Taiwan remains undetermined, at the other are states which explicitly regard Taiwan as a province of the People’s Republic of China). In both cases too, European policy is frequently limited to being the lowest common denominator of what all states can agree on.
This was shown clearly by the statement the EU issued after the Taiwanese presidential election in January. This was far more cautious, grudging even, than statements issued by countries such as the USA, Japan or even the UK, congratulating the people of Taiwan only on the ‘high turnout’ in the election, with no mention of the victor, democracy or common values. (By contrast, the 1 July declaration by the European High Representative on the imposition of the National Security Law on Hong Kong was positively outspoken). Given such caution, there is little prospect of a unified European policy that is more supportive of Taiwan. It is probably scant consolation to Taiwanese that, as one contributor to our forthcoming book on European relations with East Asia in the aftermath of Brexit argues, when European countries have acted together on non-commercial matters in their relations with East Asia, their interventions have not infrequently been failures, or worse, even counter-productive.
Nor should Taiwan pin any hopes on the United Kingdom being openly more supportive now that it has left the EU. Although some British politicians are vocal in arguing for more support for Taiwan, with Sino-British relations at a very low ebb following the British Government’s U-turn on the use of Huawei equipment in its 5G mobile phone programme, criticism of China’s attempt to cover up the origins of the Coronavirus pandemic, and the imposition of the National Security Law on Hong Kong, officials are likely to be anxious to avoid adding yet another source of conflict to a toxic mix.
This does not mean that the EU and UK cannot do more to show their support for Taiwan, while the moral obligation to do so is surely more important than ever. Although the EU does not engage in ‘hard’ security, naval vessels from both France and the United Kingdom have passed through the South China Sea in recent years to assert Freedom of Navigation. More such exercises would help send clear signals to China about its behaviour, especially if coordinated with other countries, such as Japan or Australia. If such exercises extended to the Taiwan Strait, the message would be even stronger.
With little likelihood of the EU and China concluding a bilateral investment agreement any time soon, the European Commission should reconsider its reluctance to open negotiations with Taiwan over one. The Commission does not require the unanimous approval of all member states to do so, nor should it allow it to be held hostage to the lack of progress with China. Since Taiwan is a fully-fledged member of the World Trade Organisation in its own right, there really is no justification for the Commission’s caution on this.
Taiwan’s principal trade objective, however, is membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (CPTPP). Japan, which leads the CPTPP, has so far been reluctant even to consider Taiwan’s hopes until it first lifts its ban on food imports from the Fukushima region. While Taiwan has to take the first step, the European Commission could help Taiwan by signalling its support for its CPTPP ambitions.
Before all this, however, there is one simple step that the EU could take to help Taiwan – and its member states at the same time. From 1 July, the EU lifted restrictions on travel from 14 third countries, including Japan, South Korea and potentially even China but not Taiwan. The failure to include Taiwan was almost certainly because Taiwan continues to require travellers from overseas to self-quarantine on arrival, while the EU’s approach appears based on reciprocal agreements. Given Taiwan’s exemplary management of the pandemic to date, however, this is surely a case where common sense should over-rule reciprocity. Failure to include Taiwan on the list only makes the EU look petty and bureaucratic, adding it would give a modest but important signal of support.
Michael Reilly is a Non-resident Senior Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham. His research interest includes the EU’s relations with Taiwan, specifically prospects and opportunities for developing these against the continuing growth of China. He is co-editor with Chun-yi Lee of: Europe and East Asia after Brexit: New opportunities or more of the same? due to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in the autumn.
This article is part of special issue on Taiwan-EU relations.