Taiwan on Our Minds
Since 2018 GMF’s Indo-Pacific program has convened the Taiwan Trilateral Forum, which gathers policymakers and scholars from the United States, Europe, and Taiwan under the Chatham House rule. I had the privilege of joining the inaugural convening in 2018 and the most recent one in late November. The intervening five years have witnessed a huge uptick in interest in Taiwan due to three significant developments.
First, Taiwan’s pivotal role in producing computer chips and semiconductors became widely known during the pandemic years when shortages of both revealed vulnerabilities in global supply chains. Purchasers of new cars, among other products, faced long waiting lists.
Taiwan’s TSMC—not a household name until recently—is the largest and most advanced producer of tiny semiconductor components in Apple’s ubiquitous products, especially the iPhone. The world relies on Taiwan for chips, and that revelation sparked a scramble for them and secure supply chains for semiconductors. The United States and Europe strengthened cooperation with Taiwan and its companies as part of that effort, signaling that the island’s “silicon shield” means the outbreak of conflict there would extract astronomical economic costs. The fallout would spare no one, not even potential aggressor China. Thus, the EU’s stake in peace in the Taiwan Strait is also clear. Suggestions, such as those voiced, and later modified, by French President Emmanuel Macron during an April visit to Beijing about remaining neutral in a conflict, are illusions.
Second, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and increased Chinese military aggression against Taiwan have put the specter of war back on global policymakers’ minds. As early as 2021, an Economist cover characterized Taiwan as the world’s most dangerous place. The Rhodium Group has estimated that a Chinese blockade of Taiwan could inflict global economic losses exceeding $2 trillion before a single shot is fired. Keeping the peace has become a priority for Taipei, Brussels, and Washington.
Third, Taiwan stands at the forefront of the global battle between autocracy and democracy. US President Joe Biden has repeatedly explained his world view through this prism, and numerous US congressional and EU parliamentary delegations have descended on Taipei with messages of support. Taiwan, led by outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, is at the top of international rankings on democracy and freedom. Under Xi Jinping, whom Biden correctly labelled a dictator, China is becoming more authoritarian. Xi has also sent ominous signs to the Taiwanese by extinguishing freedoms in Hong Kong and demonstrating the hollowness of Beijing’s “one country, two systems” concept.
Against this backdrop of heightened interest in Taiwan, the perspectives and insights of participants at this year’s Taiwan Trilateral Forum were especially interesting. They included:
An assessment of good overall momentum in EU-Taiwan cooperation. Eastern Europe, which a decade earlier developed the 17+1 cooperation forum (now 14+1 and semi-dormant) to fast track relations with China, includes countries—Czechia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and, to some degree, Poland—that now lead the charge for deeper ties with Taiwan. But forum participants underlined that continued political support for Taiwan may shift with domestic political changes. The new Slovak government, for example, could alter its policy on Taiwan. Lithuania holds elections next year.
Discussions also focused on balancing quiet cooperation between Europe and Taiwan with conducting exchanges openly to signal support for the island. Czechia and Lithuania lead the way on publicized high-level meetings with Taiwanese officials. Poland, however, has kept private its increased high-level contacts.
Outside the EU, ties between the United Kingdom and Taiwan have made significant improvement in the past year. Taipei has increased export licenses to UK companies selling dual-use products, and the two sides have inked a new trade agreement.
A desire to broaden cooperation with Taiwan. Starting negotiations on an EU-Taiwan investment agreement remains important, but participants highlight the need for a broader economic cooperation framework. A pact should encompass more areas of collaboration, such as in semiconductors and associated talent training, secure supply chains, artificial intelligence, Chinese disinformation and hybrid activities, and de-risking from China.
On economic security and trade, Taiwan seeks to be included in EU and US initiatives, especially on critical materials. They and their processing to produce chips depend on Chinese supply lines, but Taiwan, among others, is vulnerable to pressure from Beijing. Recent Chinese export restrictions on gallium, germanium, and graphite underscore the need for dependency-reduction measures. In this regard, the interim US-Taiwan Initiative on 21st Century Trade agreement, reached earlier this year, is an important achievement. Finalizing the pact in 2024 is a priority. One European interlocutor mentioned that the EU should not be expected to copy the US template but explore its own ways to enhance trade and economic cooperation with Taiwan.
The EU and the United States already coordinate closely on countering China’s economic bullying but take different approaches. The EU perspective is that its newly adopted anti-coercion instrument (ACI) is intended primarily for deterrence, but its potential retaliatory use remains unclear. Could it be applied retroactively to China’s coercion of Lithuania over the establishment of the Taiwan representative office in Vilnius? The US approach is to support targets of Chinese economic intimidation. An American participant proposed developing a “package” based on the Lithuanian experience that can be used to quickly alleviate the impact of Chinese economic pressure, for example on agricultural products, and help producers find new markets. Taiwan’s pineapples, apples, and mangos have been targeted, and more bans are expected if Vice President Lai Ching-te is elected president in January.
EU and US sanctions on China in case of a conflict over Taiwan. A recent report by Rhodium, a research group, on the topic was the basis for another core forum discussion. Conversations and contingency-planning among governments are by nature confidential, but sanctions on Russia have highlighted the need for deeper research and dialogue, including between governments and companies and with the so-called Global South.
The appropriate threshold (e.g., quarantine, blockade, invasion, election interference, cyber, gray-zone tactics) for triggering sanctions was debated. China’s salami-slicing strategy that erodes the status quo in the Taiwan Strait has made such contingency planning more urgent. As one senior European participant exclaimed, “We need a salami-defense strategy!” The consensus was that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the short term is unlikely, but variants of a maritime quarantine or blockade could arise after Taiwan’s January elections. Chinese military exercises since 2022 have demonstrated increased capacity and intent, and all participants agreed on the need for continued and clear messaging to China as part of deterrence. This should include references to economic costs and sanctions.
European contributions to hard security in the Taiwan Strait. European militaries are unlikely to play major roles in a Taiwan conflict, but their political bosses can contribute to deterrence by signaling that Europe has a stake in preserving peace and stability. One US interlocutor remarked that, in this regard, “one European ship was worth 10 American ships”. Other participants called for increasing Taiwanese supplies of dual-use equipment. This met with general agreement, as did the stipulation that such steps should be small and discreet, and decided at the member-state level. European companies could sub-supply US systems.
Another expert proposed that Europe do more to help Taiwan enhance its whole-of-society defense by, in part, drawing on its deep experience in broad societal resilience to provide civil defense training for officials and experts.
Support for Taiwan after the 2024 European Parliament elections. One current member of the European Parliament (MEP), forecast that support for Taiwan, which about 85% of MEPs back, would remain rock solid across party groups in the new legislature.
Forum attendees underscored the importance of continued public signals of diplomatic and economic support for Taiwan from the parliament. One participant proposed including member-state parliamentarians in European Parliament delegations to Taiwan. This could shield individual countries and parliamentarians from Chinese ire.
Increasing Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. The island’s contributions, especially to UN agencies such as the World Health Organization, was an important forum topic. The UN is failing in its mission by legitimizing the aggressor in the Taiwan Strait and ignoring Taipei, as I recently wrote in Politico.
A pressing need exists for greater pushback against Beijing’s UN campaign to present Taiwan as a Chinese province, an issue supposedly “legally resolved” by UN General Assembly Resolution 2758. GMF has documented this in its report,“The Distortion of UN Resolution 2758 to Limit Taiwan’s Access to the United Nations”. Beijing could use at the UN its distorted interpretation of the resolution to categorize military action against Taiwan as a domestic matter.
Europe should commit more to supporting Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. Options proposed include campaigns for meaningful Taiwanese participation that occur outside times just prior to UN meetings and stronger bilateral interactions on the issue with UN member states, particularly those in the Global South. Campaigns should mobilize associations of European physicians to support Taiwan’s observer status in the World Health Assembly. The EU and the United States should insist that Taiwan’s voice is included in the World Health Organization’s discussions on a pandemic agreement.
Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election. 2024 is a pivotal year for elections worldwide. More than 2 billion people in Asia, Europe, and the United States will head to the polls. Taiwan starts the year with a pivotal general election on January 13, although voting in the United States, Europe, and India will receive wider media coverage.
The political reality show in November at Taipei’s Grand Hyatt, which ended any hope of a joint Nationalist Party (KMT)-Taiwan’s People Power (TPP) ticket, demonstrates Taiwanese democracy’s dynamism and vibrancy. Two more surprises followed: the withdrawal from the presidential race of former Foxconn CEO and independent candidate Terry Guo and the rapid slide in the polls for the TPP’s Ko Wen-je. The campaign’s final weeks will feature a return to a traditional race between the KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Each will appeal to its base before shifting efforts to win over the centrist voters, especially undecided young voters disillusioned with the parties that have ruled Taiwan in the past and initially attracted to Ko and the TPP’s promise of better governance.
The DPP’s message is that this election is a choice between democracy and autocracy, which hints that the KMT will lead Taiwan to autocracy by getting closer to China. The KMT claims that the election is a choice between war and peace, which hints that the DPP will lead Taiwan into conflict and become another Ukraine by siding with the United States.
Most estimates and polls predict a narrow win for Vice President Lai of the DPP and his running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim.
The margin of victory could be small and, if so, Chinese disinformation on social media could prove consequential. As one Taiwanese participant quipped, some consider the Chinese Communist Party to be a fourth party running in the election. Indeed, China’s sudden tax investigation into Guo’s Foxconn reflects the many tools at Beijing’s disposal to influence Taiwanese politics. The potential for Chinese election meddling is so concerning that Biden raised it directly with Xi when they met last month in San Francisco.
Regardless of the election outcome, Taiwan is certain to remain high on the transatlantic agenda in the coming year, which will undoubtedly bring more opportunities for trilateral US-Europe-Taiwan collaboration.
Jonas Parello-Plesner is executive director of the Alliance of Democracies Foundation and a GMF non-resident senior policy fellow.