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After Pelosi’s visit: The EU realigns its Taiwan policy

By Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy
Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy of Dong Hwa University, Hualien, Taiwan.

Brussels is in the process of defining an upgrade in its own cooperation with Taiwan. As of yet, EU member states have no common vision on the way forward, or on the measures to take should there be a Taiwan contingency at any time in the future. Yet, there is a clear understanding shared by member states that it is time for a change, because China has changed. In this context, Brussels is following closely the developments in Taiwan in the context of the Indo-Pacific, also because it has acknowledged that it is an area where it has its own interests to protect. A disruption in the region would have serious consequences for Europe, this is explicitly in the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy which is still to be implemented.

In this process, coordination with partners in the region will be key, which is the driving force of the Strategy itself. In this context, the EU High Representative joining the G7 foreign ministers’ statement issued the day of Pelosi’s visit on the need to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait and calling on the PRC not to unilaterally change the status quo indicates that going forward the EU will coordinate with its like-minded partners

The way in which Brussels might read dynamics in the Strait and respond, will also depend on China’s behavior and retaliation following Pelosi’s visit. The response is expected to include further economic coercion against Taiwan and large-scale military drills around it, as Beijing has already indicated. Concerning economic coercion, China has for years used both positive and economic statecraft in cross-strait relations. Through their asymmetric interdependence, with Taiwan far more dependent on China than the other way around, Beijing has built up leverage to pressure, intimidate and impose costs on Taiwan while seeking to alter the domestic political landscape. These efforts now have led to more backlash against Beijing than support for it inside Taiwan.

Projecting a strong image and using strong rhetoric is vital for the Chinese leader both in a domestic and international context. Disrupting the stability in the region, as fragile as it might already be, is not in Beijing’s interest. It is however in its own interest to project the image of a strong and resolute leader as he heads toward the Party Congress in the fall where he is widely anticipated to be reappointed for an unprecedented third term.

Change in Brussels’ thinking on Taiwan is already underway, moving from quiet conversations toward taking measures. In this sense, as a like-minded partner, Taiwan has already entered the political discourse in Brussels. At present, Brussels sees Taiwan through the lens of democracy as well as of trade and economic cooperation, less through the lens of security, hence the absence of a ‘Taiwan contingency’ discussion in Brussels. As such, the EU considers Taiwan a reliable and like-minded democracy in the Indo-Pacific, in sharp contrast with the People’s Republic of China, which for decades it has closely engaged as a strategic partner.

Beijing promotes most China skepticism itself

In 2019 Brussels labeled the PRC both a partner and a “systemic rival”, indicative of growing skepticism regarding the continuation of the ‘business-as-usual’ kind of cooperation with China. With Beijing displaying readiness to use economic coercion and disinformation at the expense of European interests, the shift in perceptions in Brussels should come as no surprise.

Seen in the current geopolitical context, a reversal of the existing dynamic concerning Taiwan on a European level looks more and more unlikely, a shift which, ironically, Beijing itself keeps greatly contributing to. While it remains within the EU’s own One China policy, this new dynamic on Taiwan is real and despite limitations, it does provide actual room for maneuver, which many inside Europe have failed to see. Communicating this both inside the EU and Taiwan will be important, and a joint responsibility as both sides will need to manage expectations at home.

A newfound awareness of Taiwan’s importance across the EU has come through via statements, reports and resolutions, but also European and national parliamentary visits, and an upgrade in bilateral trade dialogues with the European Commission. These are all unprecedented activities from a bloc most often seen as divided and incoherent on China, and cautious when it comes to Taiwan. Seen in the European context, these activities set a precedent for the future of EU-Taiwan cooperation

More MEPs will travel to Taipei

EU member states are now working on reducing their strategic dependencies on both China and Russia, and reinforcing their economic and political resilience. This has further elevated Taiwan’s relevance in Brussels’s geostrategic efforts, which in my view is precisely why the momentum in EU-Taiwan will continue. The fact that the EP sent a delegation of its special committee focusing on disinformation to Taiwan in November 2021 was no coincidence; both Taiwan and EU have been victims of China’s influence operations and disinformation campaigns, and both have things to learn from each other.

Beijing’s efforts to undermine democracy with disinformation throughout the pandemic damaged itself and its ties with the EU, and ironically helped bring Taiwan closer to the EU. In this light, I expect support from the EU, in particular, the European Parliament to continue and intensify. I also expect some member states, such as Lithuania, Czechia, and Slovakia to continue leading the way, but I also believe countries such as Germany will not lose sight of Taiwan’s relevance in their efforts to reduce their strategic dependencies on China.

National parliamentary visits are in fact becoming the new normal, notwithstanding the diversity of views within member states which Taiwan-friendly governments will have to balance against fears of Chinese retaliation, as they push for closer cooperation with Taiwan. Based on recent experience, visits from the EP will carry on, seeking concrete ways of cooperation in trade, and more exchanges in the fields of science, research, culture and education. Given that the EU is the largest investor in Taiwan, EU member states seem to have understood that any disruption in the Strait would undermine their interests. In what ways they would actually defend these interests is however to be seen; it is a matter of military capabilities and political will to act.

Beijing wants to appear strong

A kinetic clash in the Strait is in no one’s interest, not in Beijing’s, not in Washington’s and certainly not in Taiwan’s. Beijing sees stability in the region as indispensable to the pursuit of its development trajectory, to be able to assert its power at home and project its influence abroad. In fact, Beijing wants stability in its ties with the EU also; access to European markets for China is vital, so seeking to further undermine bilateral ties is not what Beijing wants.

Protecting the Party’s legitimacy is a major priority that requires a tough but sensible reaction under the current circumstances. Beijing’s use of hostile rhetoric, economic coercion, threats and retaliation as well as military provocations against Taiwan have already intensified, meant to both punish Taiwan and strengthen its domestic base. I expect Beijing to double down on these efforts in the coming weeks and seek to project the image of a strong China that won’t be bullied by Washington. Strong domestic support will remain vital for Beijing in its pursuit of its global agenda

Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy is an Assistant Professor at National Dong Hwa University, Hualien, Taiwan, and a former political advisor in the European Parliament.

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