top of page
  • Writer's pictureTatiana Van den Haute

How Different EU Countries Lean Towards Taiwan Strategically

In the realm of international relations, the European Union (EU) stands at a pivotal juncture, facing the delicate task of defining its stance in the complex and dynamic relationship between China and Taiwan. Amidst the shifting geopolitical currents of the 21st century, the EU’s approach to this relationship is not just a matter of foreign policy, but a reflection of its commitment to democratic values, strategic interests, and the intricacies of international diplomacy.

The EU's strategy has evolved significantly in recent years, shaped by the growing assertiveness of China and the rising significance of Taiwan on the global stage. This evolution is characterized by a nuanced understanding that while the EU adheres to the One-China policy, it also recognizes the considerable value of Taiwan as a democratic and economic partner. The multifaceted nature of EU-Taiwan relations reflects not only the complexity of the situation but also the EU's endeavor to balance its engagement with both China and Taiwan.

Member states within the EU exhibit a spectrum of approaches towards Taiwan, ranging from overt support by nations like the Baltic states, which value Taiwan for its democratic principles, to more cautious stances from countries like Hungary and Greece, influenced by their economic ties with China. This diversity underscores the challenge the EU faces in maintaining a coherent policy towards Taiwan while respecting the individual positions of its member states.

In order to unravel the layers of the EU’s policy towards Taiwan, one must examine the implications of the EU’s approach for its broader foreign policy objectives, the internal dynamics within the EU, and the potential paths forward in fostering a relationship with Taiwan that reflects the EU’s vocal commitments to democracy, human rights, and a rules-based international order. 

The EU's Stance on China Evolves

In the evolving landscape of international relations, the EU is navigating a complex triad of roles in its approach towards China. As articulated by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her March 2023 speech, China is simultaneously a “partner, competitor, and systemic rival.” This nuanced stance emerged following the Covid-19 pandemic, which cast a spotlight on China’s stringent domestic policies and its increasingly assertive and authoritarian behavior globally. President von der Leyen notably highlighted China’s shift from an era of “reform and opening” to one defined by “security and control,” evident in its Global Security Initiative, intelligence operations, and burgeoning trade imbalances.

In response to this shift, the EU has actively sought to strengthen its ties with Asian nations sharing similar systems and values. This includes bolstering military and economic relationships with ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines, while striving to reduce reliance on China. This strategy of 'de-risking' has gained momentum, especially in the wake of Europe's over-dependence on Russian gas, exposed during the Ukraine crisis. A key initiative in this regard is the EU's Critical Raw Materials Act, introduced in March 2023, aiming to lessen dependence on imports by boosting internal capacities in extraction, processing, and recycling of rare earth metals.

Amidst these dynamics, Taiwan emerges as a pivotal partner for the EU. The island's robust democracy and economy make it an attractive ally in the de-risking process. The increased frequency of visits by European officials and parliamentarians to Taiwan reflects a growing rapprochement, gradually breaking the long-standing taboo against formal interactions with Taiwan and a redefinition of what those interactions look like for European countries who still formally adhere to the One-China Policy.  A 2021 report describes the dynamic of this relationship as “the European Union [having] an interest in enhancing relations and cooperation with Taiwan, within the framework of its One China policy. Taiwan is a like-minded partner and the European Union will continue supporting its system of governance based on democracy, the rule of law and human rights, its open society and market economy.” This trend is particularly noteworthy at the individual member state level, which will be examined further below.

The significance of Taiwan extends beyond bilateral relations. As has been pointed out before, the EU has become the largest foreign investor in Taiwan, underscoring the strategic importance of the Taiwan Strait, through which 40% of its trade passes through, in the global free trade order. Initiatives like the EU's Global Gateway, a counter to China's Belt and Road Initiative, and a clear, alarmist increase in Western rhetoric warning against China's ambitions to reshape the world order, highlight the EU's commitment to preserving the liberal international trade system. The EU's close collaboration with NATO further illustrates this commitment, and analyses such as that of Center for European Policy Analysis - which links China’s rise to Russian imperialism as a “two-front issue”, calling for NATO to “clearly outline its role and presence in the Indo-Pacific region as well as deepen relations with the EU” - demonstrate the extent to which keeping China’s assertiveness in check has become a priority, first and foremost in the Indo-Pacific.

While maintaining a level of 'partnership' with China, particularly on global issues like climate change, the EU's enhanced engagement with Taiwan suggests a form of informal recognition. This balancing act is a strategic manoeuvre to uphold diplomatic ties with China while supporting Taiwan's democratic values. That being said, Europe’s interactions with Taiwan should not be seen solely in the context of its relations with China: Taiwan in and of itself offers great value as a partner to Europe on several fronts.  For instance, the EU's interest in Taiwan's resilience against disinformation and information warfare, as seen in recent workshops with Taiwanese experts, indicates a recognition of Taiwan's experience in maintaining its democracy and media freedom while battling deliberate sabotage from external powers.  This interaction is particularly relevant for the EU, which itself has been facing increasing threats of information warfare from China and Russia.

Despite this, Europe's stance towards China remains strategically ambiguous, with individual member states often displaying more explicit positions. This multifaceted approach reflects the EU's careful navigation of the complex geopolitical landscape, balancing its interests and values in the Indo-Pacific region.

Taiwan's role in the EU's Indo-Pacific strategy is multifaceted, encompassing elements of democracy, de-risking, and strategic positioning in the face of evolving global dynamics. The EU's approach, while cautious, signals an acknowledgement of Taiwan's significance in maintaining a free and open international order, alongside managing its intricate relationship with China.

In the intricate tapestry of EU-Taiwan relations, the divergent stances of individual EU member states reflect a complex blend of geopolitical, economic, and strategic considerations, leading to a lack of uniformity in their approach to China and, by extension, Taiwan. This varied landscape is shaped by each nation's unique historical experiences, current security concerns, and economic aspirations.

At one end of the spectrum are the Baltic states, meaning Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, whose approach towards Taiwan is grounded in a shared history of striving for democratic values and resisting authoritarian influences. Their support for Taiwan, including advocacy for its participation in international organizations, aligns with their broader foreign policy goals of promoting democracy and human rights. This stance is partly a reflection of their own experiences with Soviet domination, making them empathetic to Taiwan's situation and more willing to take risks in their diplomatic posture, even if it means straining relations with China.

Contrasting sharply with the Baltic states are countries like Hungary and Greece. Hungary, under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has cultivated closer ties with China, viewing it as a vital economic partner. This pro-China orientation often sets Hungary apart within the EU context. Greece, influenced by significant Chinese investments such as in the Port of Piraeus, exhibits a more cautious stance. Their approach is shaped by an awareness of the economic leverage China holds, prompting a careful navigation of their relationship with both China and Taiwan. For instance, Greece warned its public officials last month to avoid Taiwan events, fearing repercussions from China.  Lithuania, in contrast, has boldly opened a Taiwan representative office in Vilnius and has been willing to suffer backlash from China in its more direct engagements with Taiwan.

In the middle of this spectrum are major EU players like France and Germany, whose policies towards Taiwan and China are characterized by a delicate balancing act. These nations oscillate between supporting Taiwan's democratic values and maintaining robust economic ties with China. This nuanced approach reflects their efforts to uphold European values while being mindful of the economic and diplomatic repercussions of their foreign policy choices.

Amplifying Taiwan's role in this diverse landscape are its commendable global and philanthropic efforts, such as the #LetTaiwanHelp campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as its extensive donations towards rebuilding and repairing infrastructure in Ukraine. These actions have enhanced Taiwan's image as a responsible global actor, garnering goodwill and support from populations and governments across Europe.

Overall, the EU's tripartite approach towards China, which categorizes China as a partner, competitor, and systemic rival, allows member states the flexibility to navigate their relationships with China and Taiwan across a spectrum. This spectrum ranges from open support to a more reserved and cautious engagement, illustrating the multifaceted and dynamic nature of international diplomacy in the context of EU-Taiwan relations. The differences between the EU bloc's collective stance and the individual policies of its member states underscore the complexity of balancing national interests with shared European values in the realm of international relations. 

The EU's Diplomatic Finesse 

In synthesizing the complexities of EU-Taiwan relations and the varying approaches of EU member states, it is clear that the European Union stands at a critical juncture.

Firstly, the EU should indeed recognize Taiwan’s value as a democratic state and appreciate its merits outside of China's looming shadow. The EU's support in international bodies for member states like Lithuania, which have faced economic repercussions from China due to their support of Taiwan, demonstrates a solid backing at the institutional level against economic coercion from China and Lithuania’s ability to exercise its foreign policy with Taiwan. This solidarity is crucial in maintaining the integrity of the EU's collective foreign policy and in supporting the democratic values that the Union espouses. It also serves as a beacon for other member states, encouraging them to pursue their foreign policy objectives without undue influence from external powers.  However, it is important to note that Lithuania was only able to withstand such pressure due to its extensive precautions beforehand, slowly but steadily de-risking from China so that the consequences were not felt too strongly.

This actionable example of de-risking being followed across the EU would allow member states to exercise their appropriate level of sovereignty in their dealings with China while ensuring that no member is compelled, due to tight trade dependencies, to lean in to Beijing’s demands.  This, in turn, could play an element of deterrence towards any change in the status quo of cross-strait relations.

Overall, the EU's position offers a roadmap for balancing respect for China's territorial claims with the need to engage with Taiwan as a partner sharing common values. This approach not only respects the nuances of international diplomacy but also aligns with the EU's commitment to democratic principles and the rule of law. With further coordination, the EU's stance could become a model of diplomatic agility in an evolving world order, demonstrating that engagement with Taiwan can be both meaningful and respectful of the broader geopolitical context.

This article was previously published on The News Lens International on January 25, 2024.


bottom of page