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Strengthening Cooperation and Dialogue between the United States, Europe, and Taiwan

8 min read
Photo Credit: NH / Shutterstock
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck a triumphant note, avowing that “our countries together have maintained our freedoms a

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck a triumphant note, avowing that “our countries together have maintained our freedoms and our sovereignty for the past 30-plus years now…We’ve done it through the challenges of radical Islamist terrorism, we’ve done it through a global financial crisis, and we’re doing it now in the face of an increasingly aggressive Chinese Communist Party.” This assertion—that the transatlantic community faces a common challenge from China—would have shocked listeners just a few years ago. Today, with the world struggling with a pandemic that emerged from China amid a mixture of official negligence and obfuscation, it appears obvious.

The coronavirus crisis may reenergize the impulse on both sides of the Atlantic to cooperate more closely in grappling with the China challenge, but the United States and its European counterparts should also look further afield for partners in that effort. Taiwan should be a prime candidate. Despite its international isolation and exclusion from the World Health Organization, its response to the pandemic has been exceptional—successful at home (thus far) and generous abroad. The country’s performance shows that it has much to offer the international community.

Last December, several weeks before Pompeo’s speech and while the novel coronavirus was stealthily circulating in Wuhan, scholars and governments officials came together for the second annual U.S.-Europe-Taiwan Trilateral Forum, a Track 1.5 dialogue hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Over two days of discussions, it became increasingly clear that networks among the policy communities in Washington, Taipei, and European capitals are sorely needed. There is a remarkable convergence of interests—notably on questions of economics, security, and values—but little effort to advance them in a coordinated fashion and, more fundamentally, limited appreciation of those shared interests.

Europe Is Coming Around on China

The Trilateral Forum featured wide-ranging discussions. Not all of them focused on China’s rise, but all at least touched on the challenges that it is increasingly posing. From traditional national security issues to the proliferation of 5G telecommunications and Chinese economic statecraft, and from Asian security architecture to foreign interference and advancing human rights, representatives from the United States, Taiwan, and a variety of European countries all identified China as a problematic actor.

These observations were unsurprising when they came from U.S. and Taiwanese participants. More surprising was European participants’ consistent identification of China’s emergence as a major power as not just an opportunity, but as posing significant risks. Indeed, one got the sense that the cost-benefit analysis of engagement with Beijing is shifting and that there are concerns in Europe that over time the costs will come to outweigh the benefits.

Views were perhaps most aligned on questions pertaining to Hong Kong and human rights abuses on the mainland. There was general agreement that Europe could and should do more—though what exactly was unclear, that Taiwan’s existence as a bastion of democracy and human rights put pressure on Beijing, and that Taiwan could provide a safe haven for protesters fleeing Hong Kong.

Also reassuring, from a U.S. perspective, were discussions pertaining to 5G and other technology-related concerns. It is far from clear how these debates in Germany and the Netherlands, for example, will play out, but they are perhaps more robust than has been evident in media reporting. Taiwan was seen as having technical expertise that could be of use in helping the United States and European countries navigate some of the challenges posed by Chinese technology, and perhaps also as having a capacity to provide substitutes for Chinese technology. Recommendations for leveraging Taiwan’s high-tech industries, however, were short on details.

Regarding the EU’s overall approach to China, one speaker pointed to a “hardening” of policy, a sentiment echoed by many. Human rights abuses in Xinjiang, predatory investment practices, and anti-competitive economic policies, it was agreed, can no longer be ignored. Traditional security challenges, however, have not yet garnered the attention they deserve. The EU’s 10-point action plan for China policy, released last year, has little focus on defense and security considerations. To the extent that the EU and its member states are concerned about threats to peace and stability in Asia, they are primarily worried about maritime security—an issue that was specifically raised in the EU’s “strategic outlook” on EU-China relations. Although NATO might feel a strong pull to assist threatened democracies in Asia, as one expert argued, it is unclear whether much consideration is now being given to staving off a threat to peace in the Taiwan Strait.

Whither Taiwan?

Despite consistent recognition of Taiwan’s unique attributes and competitive advantages, and despite its representatives speaking on most of the panels at the Trilateral Forum, the country did not figure prominently in many of the discussions. A perhaps telling moment came during the first panel, which focused on traditional security issues, when a question from the audience about Taiwan’s strategic value went unanswered.

Concerns about China understandably dominated deliberations, and discussions about Taiwan were largely derivative of those China concerns. Whether U.S. and especially European participants saw their respective countries’ relationship with Taiwan as important in its own right was unclear.

There are at least two possible—and not mutually exclusive—explanations for Taiwan not featuring more prominently in this trilateral dialogue and for proposals for trilateral responses to shared challenges seeming in short supply.

It may be the case that the “one China” policies of the EU and its member states are more restraining than the U.S. version. The U.S. one can, of course, be quite limiting. For example, it has led to rules barring Taiwan’s diplomats from entering the State Department building to limits on government-to-government interactions at senior levels, and to a prohibition on visiting Taiwanese military officers wearing of uniforms. But it also allows for regular arms sales of modern equipment, fairly extensive military-to-military engagement, and in-person consultations between national security advisers. There is an open and long-simmering debate in the United States about maintaining the one China policy and about the wisdom of sticking to “strategic ambiguity.”

Put simply, there is an openness to creative thinking in Washington about how to apply the “one China” policy—and, outside of government, whether to continue doing so. Such openness in Europe is not apparent, judging from discussions at the Trilateral Forum.

Another explanation lies in the nature of those attending at the forum. For some of the countries represented, nearly all of the participants worked for or had formal affiliations with the government. To be sure, their participation was vital for conveying official positions and for their deep knowledge of the challenges and opportunities facing their countries. Moreover, it is crucial that government representatives are able to establish and nurture relationships with their foreign counterparts in informal side discussions.

The absence of larger contingents from non-governmental policy communities and from civil society at large limited conversations, however. Whether in Europe, the United States, or Taiwan, it is the independent thinkers and analysts who are likely to have novel, creative ideas for new policy initiatives. Unlike officials, they need not worry about getting ahead of “principals” in the national security or economic policy apparatuses. Advancing trilateral relations, something that may have been considered off limits for all three parties in years past, is going require fresh approaches. Whether governments alone can develop those approaches remains to be seen.

Next Steps

The depths of the discussions and the questions raised at the second annual U.S.-Europe-Taiwan Trilateral Forum make clear it is a worthy—indeed necessary—effort. Here are four recommendations for strengthening future iterations and fortifying broader trilateral cooperation going forward.

Expand expertise on Taiwan.

One European scholar at the forum pointed to the “insufficient” level of expertise on China in Europe. If that is true, Taiwan expertise—which is not the same as China expertise—must be sorely lacking. It is possible that this will change. As China under Xi Jinping increasingly closes itself off from the international community, Taiwan should become a more attractive place for budding Asianists to study Chinese and conduct field research. Future iterations of the Trilateral Forum should make an effort to identify and include young Europeans pursuing Taiwan studies scholarship.

Widen the existing dialogue.

Future Trilateral Forums should make an effort to include a greater variety of voices from Taiwan, Europe, and the United States. Richer discussions with opportunities for multigenerational networking will require diversity in roles and viewpoints. The organizers should work to ensure broad participation across sectors.

Include a public component.

Although the Trilateral Forum provided participants with plenty of food for thought, it may be akin to a tree falling in the forest—neither seen nor heard and with minimal impact on the wider world. If cooperative initiatives are to be sustainable, there will need to be broader understanding of and support for trilateral ties. As such, future dialogues should include a public component aimed at educating citizens on the challenges and interests that Europe, Taiwan, and the United States share.

Build on the GMF dialogue foundation.

The U.S. government should seek to build upon the GMF dialogue with efforts of its own to deepen trilateral ties. Fortunately, a ready-made mechanism for doing so already exists. The U.S.-Taiwan Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) is, according to the American Institute in Taiwan, a “platform for Taiwan to share its expertise with partners around the world,” especially on issues pertaining to “public health, law enforcement, disaster relief, energy cooperation, women’s empowerment, digital economy and cyber security, media literacy, and good governance,” among other fields. Following several years of successful workshops, Japan and Sweden agreed to co-host workshops in 2019. The State Department should prioritize seeking other European partners for future GCTF sessions, as a means of facilitating deeper Taiwan-Europe governmental and civil society ties.

The United States, Europe, and Taiwan have far more shared interests than divergent ones. Finding ways to advance them in a coordinated fashion should be a priority in the decade to come.

Michael Mazza is a non-resident fellow at GMF and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.