Europe Needs to Stand With Taiwan
A German-language version of this article was published by Der Tagesspiegel.
This past Saturday, Taiwan’s seventh direct presidential election marked a bright spot for democracy in Asia. In a region that has suffered in places from weak democratic institutions and authoritarian resurgence, Taiwan’s relatively young democracy has proven resilient. Yet storm clouds are gathering. The country’s institutions may be strong, but it faces an ever-present and growing threat from the People’s Republic of China.
Since Tsai Ing-wen’s election to the presidency in 2016, Taiwan has contended with an unrelenting pressure campaign from the PRC. Beijing has used military, diplomatic, and economic tools in an attempt to bring the Tsai government to heel. That government has consistently advocated for maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, but has refused to acquiesce to a key Beijing demand—that Taipei accept there is only one China, of which Taiwan is a part.
Tsai, who was just elected to a second term in large part due to her promise to defend Taiwan’s democracy, will stick to her guns on the question of “one China.” The Chinese pressure campaign is likely to persist. In the coming years, that campaign may include formal or informal import bans on Taiwanese goods; military provocations; information warfare operations aimed at destabilizing Taiwanese society; and the poaching of diplomatic allies. Since Tsai’s inauguration in 2016, the PRC has swiped seven of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and Chinese state media has promised that, in the event of her reelection, Beijing would poach the 15 that remain.
These challenges are not insurmountable, but if Taiwan is to weather the storm, it is important that it not stand alone. The United States has been a staunch ally for decades, but European partners, too, have an interest in ensuring that Taiwan remains free and that the Strait remains at peace.
Taiwan’s strategically important location, its critical role in global high-tech supply chains, and its democratic way of life all make the country of great importance to European democracies. These countries depend on America’s robust engagement in NATO and the free global flow of goods and services. As part of the European Union, they embrace “a strong commitment to promoting and protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law worldwide.” A conflict in the Taiwan Strait or China’s annexation of Taiwan would imperil all of these interests.
Taiwan already has a number of supporters in Europe. Under the leadership of Mayor Zdenek Hrib, for example, Prague is establishing a new sister city relationship with Taipei after refusing to continue embracing Beijing’s “one China” principle. But Europe can and should do more to assist Taiwan in withstanding Chinese pressure and ensuring a stable balance of power across the Strait. Here’s how.
EU-Taiwan bilateral investment and free trade agreements would be good places to start, and can be concluded without significant negative repercussions for EU-China relations. Deepening already robust economic ties would serve the interests of EU member states and Taiwan alike. Beyond the economic benefits likely to redound to both parties, Europeans should consider that greater foreign commercial investment in Taiwan will contribute to the deterrence of PRC aggression and thus to stability in the Strait. Healthy economic growth, moreover, ensures Taiwan can sufficiently resource its security needs, again enhancing cross-Strait stability.
A key aspect of Beijing’s pressure campaign has been to isolate Taiwan on the world stage. Taipei’s European partners, then, should mount a more vigorous effort to support Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. The country’s continuing exclusion, at Beijing’s direction, from assemblies of the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Authority, and INTERPOL is detrimental to global health, the safety of civilian air travel, and efforts to counter transnational crime. The EU and individual member states should make that case to Beijing directly, explaining that they conceive of Taiwan’s exclusion as a national security issue, and work in concerted effort within these organizations to ensure Taiwan’s representatives are included going forward.
More risk-tolerant countries should consider arms sales to Taiwan. Within recent memory, the French and the Dutch sold fighter jets and warships to Taipei. China’s relationships with these and other countries have, of course, transformed in the decades since those deals were completed, but there remains a rationale for Europeans to contribute more directly to Taiwan’s defense. Perhaps the surest way to dissuade the People’s Republic from ever using force against Taiwan is to convince Beijing that any effort to do so would fail. The threat of American intervention in a conflict is, naturally, crucial here, but so is Taiwan’s own capacity for self-defense.
European defense firms, including those in search of new customers, surely have capabilities that would be useful to Taiwan, and which in some cases can be supplied at prices lower than can be found in the American or Taiwanese markets. Participation in Taiwan’s indigenous defense submarine program might be an attractive option for some European countries, whose shipbuilders could provide assistance with design and could provision components without selling a highly visible off-the-shelf system that might be more likely to incur a punitive Chinese response.
And Europeans should take note that Chinese responses to American sales—including those of new fighter jets, tanks, and missile defense systems—have always featured more bark than bite. When it comes to Beijing’s relationships with Western capitals, China has many interests at stake and is unlikely to let Taiwan concerns override all others. That will be doubly true if more than one European country steps up to the plate to provide for Taiwan’s defense needs.
Finally, a cross-Strait military balance that favors the PRC will draw more U.S. assets to the Asia-Pacific—and away from Europe and the Atlantic—to supplement Taiwan’s own deterrent posture. European arms sales to Taiwan can contribute to a more stable balance of power in Asia, with positive implications for American contributions to NATO’s defense.
European views on China are evolving, but views on Taiwan are not yet, broadly speaking, evolving with them. With Beijing’s determination to wipe Taiwan’s democracy from the map only growing during the Xi Jinping era, the time is now for Europe to take a stand.
Michael Mazza is a senior non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.