In recent years, European perceptions of China have increasingly hardened as many European businesses, like their American counterparts, have suffered from China’s unfair economic practices. In April, the European Commission deemed China a “systemic rival.” As a result of converging transatlantic views, US-European engagement on the China challenge has increased as well, despite the overarching irritations in the transatlantic relationship.
Yet, this transatlantic engagement has not extended to a key aspect of the China challenge: Beijing’s increasing efforts to isolate and pressure Taiwan. Under Xi Jinping, China has increased its threatening rhetoric toward Taiwan and stepped up efforts to increase Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation, luring Taiwan’s allies to cease diplomatic relations and blocking Taiwan from even observer status at international organizations like the World Health Organization.
While US policy toward Taiwan, enshrined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, receives significant global attention and often incendiary reactions from Beijing, many European Union member states have their own deep relationships with Taiwan. These ties are likely to receive increased attention as Beijing attempts to assert control over Taipei and are deserving of a more prominent role in transatlantic conversations about the China challenge.
While, except for Vatican City (which is a European state but not a member of the EU), European states do not have political relations with Taiwan, economic ties are deep. The EU is Taiwan’s fourth-largest trade partner and Taiwan is the EU’s seventh-largest trading partner in Asia. Some European states also treat engagement with Taiwanese officials less sensitively than the United States has in recent administrations, allowing senior Taiwanese officials to visit their capitals and meet with their European counterparts. Like in the United States, Taiwan enjoys significant support in national legislatures and the European Parliament in Brussels.
Yet, much more can be done to deepen Europe’s relations with Taiwan and to bring Taiwan more squarely into the deepening transatlantic conversation over the rise of China and its implications for the global order.
First, far too often, Americans and Europeans view Taiwan as a victim rather than the vibrant free-market democracy it is. Commentary across the transatlantic space about Taiwan often focuses on China’s efforts to pressure Taiwan rather than treating the island as an independent actor with global impact. With a population just shy of 24 million people and an economy near the top twenty in the world, Taiwan has much to offer. Deepening Taiwanese engagement in international organizations or deepening Taiwan’s economic ties to Western capitals is not a favor to Taiwanese nationalist ambitions but should be viewed for what it is—involving a significant Asian population and advanced economy into global standards-setting which will reap benefits across the globe.
Second, both Europe and the United States want to deepen their respective trade relationships with the island. The European Union has held talks with Taiwan about a potential investment agreement. The European Commission is currently considering opening formal negotiations, likely in tandem with progress on a similar agreement with mainland China. Meanwhile, with the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the United States has an opportunity to prioritize a Free Trade Agreement with Taiwan. Both Brussels and Washington have long-standing concerns about some of Taipei’s protectionist policies, particularly related to agriculture, and could coordinate more regarding their asks of Taiwan’s government. Europe and the United States are beginning a conversation about the merits or possibility of increased decoupling from the Chinese economy in certain key sectors. It will be essential to include Taiwan in these conversations, for without significant deeper integration into other markets, Taiwan might be caught in an impossible position given its integration into the mainland’s economy.
Third, over the last year, Brussels and Washington have begun to deepen coordination as they, and other democracies, debate the best way to respond to Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road”
initiative (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road Initiative) by responding to the connectivity needs of states in East, Central, and South Asia. Taiwan has emphasized similar opportunities through President Tsai’s New Southbound Policy, yet Taiwan is often left out of the Western conversations about this vitally important region. US and European officials should engage Taiwan more frequently as they also consult with colleagues in Japan, India, and Australia. The European Union should explore opportunities to expand its engagement with Taiwan in Southeast Asia through a program like the US Global Cooperation and Training Framework.
Fourth, much of China’s recent pressure campaign towards Taiwan has focused on limiting Taipei’s access to international organizations. The Trump administration has consulted with other like-minded countries in these fora including the Europeans, Japanese, Australians, South Koreans, among others. Yet, the United States and the European Union should work more closely to develop a united front as part of broader efforts to counteract Chinese efforts to use international institutions to advance Chinese strategic goals. China must realize that if it continues to undermine the effectiveness of key international standards-setting bodies related to global health, civil aviation, and law enforcement cooperation, its ability to serve in leadership positions in these organizations might be threatened. Washington and Brussels should also cooperate more to examine how Beijing has used its personnel in key UN and other organizations to advance its national interests, and Communist Party linked individuals have engaged in corrupt practices at the UN and other institutions. Preventing these abuses at international organizations is one area where, despite the Trump administration’s skepticism regarding the United Nations, Washington and Brussels can agree.
Finally, another key element of Beijing’s pressure campaign against Taiwan has been the use of authoritarian tools of democratic interference. In Taiwan’s midterm elections late last year, authorities documented cases of information operations including social media manipulation, as well as strategic economic coercion supporting pro-Beijing opposition candidates. Many European states have been experiencing similar tactics from Russia for decades. As the European Union continues to grapple with the growing potency of interference across its members, officials should engage in technical discussions and exchanges with Taiwanese experts who are on the frontlines of a challenge from Beijing that may be directed toward Europe and the United States in the years to come.
The main point: The preeminent challenge of the coming decades increasingly appears to be the authoritarian threat to advanced democracies. Despite the lack of official ties between Taipei, Brussels, and Washington, Taiwan is central to this unfolding battle. As Washington and Brussels expand their dialogue regarding China and Asia more broadly, Taiwan should play a key role in that discussion.