Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
Taiwan is not Afghanistan
On the surface, there seems to be little connection between the developments in Afghanistan and European policy towards Taiwan. However, if one digs a little deeper, several aspects have critical linkages or implications for European policy.
The first one is the rather direct connection made by the Chinese propaganda machinery between the Fall of Afghanistan and Taiwan, implying that Taiwan might be “abandoned” by the USA and befall the same fate. In a separate article, Taiwan is not Afghanistan, we lay out seven fundamental differences between the situations in Taiwan and Afghanistan.
Exerting Leverage a Long Way from Home
A second aspect is a more indirect and long-term one: how do European countries exert leverage and provide deterrents in a situation a long way from home? In Afghanistan, we attempted this through peacekeeping operations, strengthening civil society, and building institutions that would hopefully help preserve stability in the country. But, unfortunately, this did not prove sufficient to withstand the onslaught of the home-based Taliban.
In the case of Taiwan – much farther away from Europe — the situation is quite different: the US has provided peace and stability through its military presence. In contrast, Europe has primarily focused on economic ties, investment, and trade with China and Taiwan.
But over time, Taiwan has developed into a significant trading partner for Europe in the Far East. The country is punching way above its size and weight: it is the EU’s 7th largest trading partner in Asia for a total two-way trade in 2018 of Euro 50.5 bln – more than twice of trade with Indonesia, more than three times as much as with the Philippines. Taiwan is US’ 10th largest trading partner, for a total two-way trade in 2019 of US$ 85.5 bln. And more than 50% of the advanced chips used in cars and computers in the world are manufactured by one company, TSMC, which happens to be in Taiwan. Taiwan is thus a key element in the global high-tech supply chain. So, any disruptions will be immediately felt around the world.
But over time, China has also developed into an economic powerhouse and is now throwing around its newly-gained economic and military weight to achieve its political purposes. In particular, during the past few years, since the ascent of Xi Jinping to the leadership role in Beijing, it has increasingly threatened Taiwan militarily, objected to Taiwan’s relations with other countries, and leaving no stone unturned in keeping Taiwan out of international organizations.
Taiwan’s Importance, as a Democracy and a Strategic Link
It is thus essential for Europe to start looking at Taiwan from more than only the economics and trade perspective. Two additional perspectives are imperative here: Taiwan as a vibrant democracy and its strategic importance to the region.
A Vibrant Democracy: After its momentous democratic transition in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Taiwan is now a prime example of a vibrant democracy in East Asia. Thus, it has joined Japan and South Korea as beacons for other nations in the region that are less far advanced in their quest for democracy. However, while Japan’s and South Korean existence are not threatened, Taiwan faces an existential threat from across the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, a Communist regime that intends to snuff out the existence of a free and democratic nation on its doorstep as it is an example of what China could be under a different political system.
Taiwan’s Strategic Importance: Located astride the major East Asian shipping lanes, a free and open Taiwan is essential for the economic lifelines of South Korea, Japan and the nations of South-East Asia. If China gained control of Taiwan, it would not hesitate to use its influence to impose its political will on those nations and strangle these lifelines. Therefore, Taiwan’s continued existence as a free and democratic nation is a prerequisite for the continuation of the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region.
Recommendations for the EU’s Policy Towards Taiwan
Against this background, what steps can Europe take to enhance its relations with Taiwan and prevail upon China to cease its threats and intimidations against the island and its people?
Below we outline several pragmatic steps designed to strengthen European ties with Taiwan and increase the collective European leverage vis-à-vis China intended to deter the government in Beijing from moving in the wrong direction. Experience with Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea shows that efforts to counter Beijing on those points have been fragmented, insufficient and less than compelling. Europe needs to use its toolbox better.
First, it must be made crystal clear to the leaders in Beijing that any effort to resolve the differences across the Strait through military means—Including blockades and grey zone operations—will mean an end to “business-as-usual” and will have severe repercussions for both political and trade relations between the EU and China. As highlighted above, Taiwan is an important trading partner for Europe, and any disruptions of its economy will be immediately felt around the world. Nevertheless, Europe can take a first step in the right direction by starting negotiations for the long-delayed Bilateral Investment Agreement (BIA) with Taiwan.
Second, while most countries in the EU have a “One China Policy”, there is ample room for manoeuvre to strengthen and intensify informal relations with Taiwan. The experience of the Czech Republic and Lithuania show that even small countries can stand up to Chinese pressure and not let themselves be intimidated by threats, intimidations, and bluff poker from Beijing. The point is to engage in such efforts across a broad range of countries so that Beijing cannot single out specific countries for reprisals.
Third, it is essential to coordinate our European position with the United States closely. Through its military presence in East Asia, the US has been able to maintain peace and stability. But Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behaviour, e.g., in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, is starting to challenge the US position. Together with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and other like-minded countries in the region, Europe can maintain that stability in the longer term. But this requires European strategic thinking, and a presence, in the area.
Fourth, EU policy towards China has traditionally been too dominated by the economic interests of the larger partners, Germany and France. In particular, a number of the smaller countries in Central and Eastern Europe are now pushing for a more values-based policy, in which respect for human rights and democracy are placed front and centre. Countries such as the Czech Republic and Lithuania see the parallels of the threat of a large Communist neighbour against a small democratic country. They feel they can do more to support Taiwan in its quest for a place under the sun.
Fifth, the EU as a block can do much more to support Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, such as the WHO, ICAO, the United Nations itself and others. If we value democracy, we need to push back much more firmly against China’s irrational and often childish efforts to exclude Taiwan from the international family of nations. The argument that “Taiwan is not a country” rings hollow: it is a country by any definition, and certainly, by the standards set by the 1933 Montevideo Convention, the international treaty generally regarded as the legal basis for the definition of nation-states.
The fall of Afghanistan has shown us the perils of being left without adequate leverage to influence developments in far-away places. Taiwan’s importance, not only as an economic powerhouse but also as a beacon for democracy and a strategic link in East Asia, make it essential that Europe strengthens its ties with the country and its people. Moreover, it should invest in a European contribution to maintaining peace and stability in the Far East.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief-editor of “Taiwan Communique.” He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and current issues in East Asia at George Washington University.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Reflections from Afghanistan to Taiwan’.