Taiwan: Embarrassing questions for EU
Can you guess which global leader issued a 48-word statement on the latest elections in Taiwan (Republic of China)? The answer is the European Union. It may not be a surprise that countries which have diplomatic relations with mainland China (People’s Republic of China) play it safe when responding to political issues in Taiwan. However, the EU’s reaction should be considered as an overly cautious approach, coming close to downplaying the importance of Taiwan.
While the international community congratulated President Tsai Ing-wen for winning a second term, the EU’s statement mentions neither her name nor the word “President” or any synonyms. The response from the United States and the United Kingdom, both of which recognised the election as a Presidential one and named Tsai was significantly different. More importantly, these announcements were delivered on a secretarial level with the position of the Secretary of State and the Foreign Secretary respectively. The contrasting picture between signifying and lessening the island is profound.
Exploring beyond the EU’s “better than nothing” statement, bilateral trade and investment predominate EU-Taiwan relations. The EU has experienced overall a trade deficit here. The EU has imported more total value of goods from Taiwan than it has exported to the island. The majority of products are in the information and communications technology sector, ranging from machinery, crucial components and to final consumer electronics. The case of foreign direct investment is also important in understanding the relationship, as EU is the largest foreign investor in Taiwan, even bigger than its neighbouring economic superpower – mainland China.
More than just sharing economic prosperity, common values which are shared among the EU and Taiwan are a distinctive feature in Asia, particularly within Greater China. Taking freedom and democracy as examples, Taiwan ranked 2nd in “Freedom in the World 2019” and 3rd in Democracy Index 2018 in Asia, where it performed considerably better than Hong Kong and mainland China. Some may describe the island as the sole remaining free land in the Chinese society.
For a long time, “One China” policy which recognises the government of People’s Republic of China as the only legal government of China has been the backbone of the EU-Taiwan relations. It implicates that the cooperation between both partners is limited to non-political fields and excludes any diplomatic elements. On the surface, there is not much room for the EU to manoeuvre.
Thinking strategically and combining economic and value-oriented analysis, the EU should revaluate its relations with Taiwan. Identifying the island as an opportunity to counter-balance the growing influential role of the Chinese government in Asia, should be mutually beneficial for both EU and Taiwan. The former could maximise the protection of vast European interests present on the island and the region, while the latter could defend its self-ruling government and have a robust position in cross-strait relations. It would ultimately strengthen the “Taiwan Way” of breaking the taboos of discussing, institutionalising and exercising freedom, democracy, rule of law, human rights, human dignity and equality in Greater China. These values are also deeply rooted in the EU.
Despite the fact that the EU and Taiwan have cooperated in various policy fields, such as consultations on human rights, judicial exchange programmes, Erasmus+ for education and Horizon 2020 for science and technology, some areas are still waiting to be pursued.
A free trade agreement and bilateral investment agreement should be the next big things. Even though negotiations for EU-China investment agreements are planned, both advancements for Taiwan have yet to be formally recognised in the document from the European Commission. “Parliamentary diplomacy” is another idea worth-noting for synergising supports from Europe. For instance, on 15th January 2020, the European Parliament approved two resolutions regarding the implementation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Security and Defence Policy. In the adopted texts, it “reiterates its support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organisations, mechanisms and activities”. The European Parliament Taiwan Friendship Group can also connect the Taiwan interests to the European institutions.
There is an ironic analogy in Greater China, “Today, Hong Kong. Tomorrow, Taipei”. Cross-strait relations are like a demon-revealing mirror. As an emerging global leader with geopolitical ambitions, the EU should not only maintain its explicit “neutral” policy, but also take an implicit stand for defending both Union values and interests with Taiwan in Asia.
 Greater China includes Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the platform.
Kwan Lok Alan HO – A student from Hong Kong, currently studying the Master of European Studies (Governance and Regulation) at the Centre for European Integration Studies of the University of Bonn in Germany.