Can Germany be a Diplomatic Advocate for Taiwan?

Can Germany be a Diplomatic Advocate for Taiwan?

Can Germany be a Diplomatic Advocate for Taiwan?

Over the past several months as an increasing number of international allies and partners voiced support for Taiwan in the face of China’s intensifying pressure campaign, Germany has played a greater role than expected—one that has gone relatively unnoticed—in providing sympathy and support for Taiwan and its participation in international forums. Specifically, German government officials backed Taiwan’s inclusion in the World Health Assembly (WHA) and voiced opposition to China’s self-proclaimed right to use force against the island to achieve unification. These developments raise questions about the German government’s cross-Strait policy, the extent of German official support for Taiwan’s national security and foreign policy interests, and Berlin’s potential role in broadening Taipei’s public diplomacy.

Unlike many foreign governments that switched recognition from the Republic of China (ROC) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Germany never had diplomatic relations with the ROC after World War II. Following Germany’s division into two states in 1949, the eastern German Democratic Republic (GDR) quickly established diplomatic relations with the PRC. The western Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), however, withstood US pressure to form official relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s government on Taiwan and refused to recognize both Beijing and Taipei. More than two decades later, the FRG established diplomatic relations with the PRC on October 11, 1972, and since then, and after the country’s reunification in 1990, the FRG has strictly adhered to Beijing’s “One-China” policy.

The German government’s official position that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China has not changed over the past four decades. As German scholar Gunter Schubert notes, “Germany’s Taiwan policy is ‘One-China’ policy as defined by the PRC.” By contrast, the United States only “acknowledges” that China claims Taiwan as part of its territory. Berlin is unlikely to change its official position on the “One-China” principle or Taiwan’s legal status, or politically upgrade relations with Taiwan unless the European Union (EU) shifts its stance, lest China plays the European countries off against each other, argues Mr. Schubert.

Meanwhile, Beijing has used its historical support of German reunification to promote unification between China and Taiwan. “China always supports the national unity of Germany, thereby it hopes Germany to take the same attitude to China,” according to the Chinese Embassy in Berlin. Just as China backed Germany’s reunification, “It goes without saying that we will do the same,” German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder told Chinese leaders in 2003. At the same time, Berlin has espoused the peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

German officials rarely speak publicly about Taiwan, but earlier this year a high-ranking German official reiterated his government’s stance on the use of force against Taiwan. In January 2019, German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas told the German Bundestag, the national parliament, that he opposed China’s threat of using military force to achieve reunification with Taiwan. Maas made the remarks in response to a question by Klaus-Peter Willsch, a Christian Democratic Union lawmaker and Chairman of the Germany-Taiwan Parliamentary Friendship Group, on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hardline speech on Taiwan. In a January 2 speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” Xi said, “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.” Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs thanked Maas for speaking for Taiwan and said it would continue to work with Germany to preserve regional peace. The Germany-Taiwan Parliamentary Friendship Group has been a voice for Taiwan in the German parliament by taking a stance on Taiwan’s difficulties vis-à-vis China and reminding German lawmakers of the importance of supporting democratic countries. [1]

In another uncharacteristic German public statement on Taiwan, Germany’s top envoy to Taipei spoke up for Taiwan’s participation in international forums on global governance issues. In October 2018, Thomas Prinz, director general of the German Institute Taipei (德國在台協會), said Germany recognizes the “constructive role Taiwan plays in international affairs,” and voiced support for Taiwan joining the WHA and Interpol. Under intense pressure from Beijing, Taiwanese health officials were blocked from attending the WHA’s meeting in Geneva in May 2019. While the German parliament and government privately hold the position that Taiwan should participate in international organizations, the norm was not to express that publicly. [2] Yet, Prinz’s public statement does not indicate any change to German policy, said Mr. Schubert. [3]

In June 2019, Politico published an article claiming that Germany was considering dispatching a warship to sail through the Taiwan Strait, following transits by the US and French navies. After two Chinese J-11 fighter jets made a brief incursion on March 31 across the median in the Taiwan Strait that divides China and Taiwan’s airspace, the US and France responded by dispatching their respective naval vessels to the Taiwan Strait in April and May. However, the German government rejected this report, in line with the country’s general reluctance to project military power abroad outside of UN peacekeeping missions, while other media reports suggest German ships may also transit through the South China Sea.

If either scenario is realized, it would be a new step for Germany to take on China over the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Any German decision regarding passage through the Taiwan Strait has more to do with China than Taiwan, said Mr. Schubert. [4] Germany sending a naval vessel to the Taiwan Strait would be a “symbolic act” telling the Chinese that Europe also has a line on certain Chinese practices domestically and internationally, he said, pointing to the European Union’s critiques of Chinese policies on Xinjiang and the South China Sea. [5]

With China’s recent poaching of several Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa, Taipei faces a formidable challenge in its international public diplomacy. Such smaller countries are important sources of Taiwan’s formal recognition and have issued statements of support for Taiwan on various occasions, but in the realm of international politics, it is still the major powers, emerging powers, and key regional actors that hold disproportionate sway in international and regional institutions—and may pave the way for Taiwan to garner more international diplomatic space.

Traditional European powers, such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, represent the older models of Western-liberal democracy, rule of law, and human rights—and, along with the US, are the core of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s calls to like-minded democratic nations to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty. Europeans are attracted to Taiwan’s democratic consolidation, and these shared democratic values undergird European constituencies that support Taiwan. “Germany and Taiwan are united in respect for Democracy and Rule of Law. Based on this, we maintain close economic and cultural relations,” said Mr. Prinz.

Two major international trends will impact Europe’s relations with Taiwan. First, heightened US-China tensions have put Europe in a sandwiched position between the two strategic rivals, and the EU could become an informal mediator and a more prominent actor influencing US-China relations, argues Mr. Schubert. [6] Second, as China continues to consolidate its economic and diplomatic profile in Europe as part of its global ambitions, and courts a large swathe of European states, ranging from traditional democracies and former communist states to Balkan countries and EU and non-EU countries, such extensive engagement will ultimately impact Taipei’s relations with Europe.

The Taiwanese government may be frustrated that Europe tends to be cautious on cross-Strait relations, but that should not deter Taipei from investing in building and fostering stronger relations with European countries. Taiwan may be upset at what Germany says or does publicly, but it should understand that Germany sympathizes with Taiwan on its situation with China and that Taiwan has much support throughout the German government, said Mr. Schubert. [7] Thus, Taipei must be ready to strategically engage European countries including Germany.

President Tsai’s strategic orientation to Southeast Asia, as epitomized by the New Southbound Policy, surpasses the level of attention and diplomatic capital paid to Europe. “The Tsai Administration is focusing more on Southeast Asia and South Asia than Europe now, and Europe has become a little less important,” Mr. Schubert said. [8] Tsai’s approach makes geographic and economic sense, but traditional European democracies merit receiving more attention. Europe is very sympathetic to Taiwan, and even if EU governments cannot express that publicly, the region provides another pathway for Taiwan’s public diplomacy.

Perhaps Taiwan needs a European version of the New Southbound Policy that also focuses on enhancing relations in a number of areas, including trade, tourism, technology, political consultations, and cultural and academic exchanges. Germany is already Taiwan’s largest trade partner in the European Union, while Taiwan is Germany’s fifth largest trade partner in Asia. Around 250 German companies are operating in Taiwan, and Taiwanese smart machinery and technology companies are collaborating with German firms. The German government also has sent numerous parliamentary delegations and ministry officials to Taiwan. [9] At a time when Europe and Taiwan are both facing challenges from China, Taiwan needs a more systematic policy approach to strengthen unofficial relations with the European Union and individual European countries such as Germany.

The main point: Germany, along with the European Union, presents an alternate source of support for Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts, but this requires expanded strategic engagement and regularized consultation between Taipei and Berlin, Brussels, and other European governments.

[1] Author’s interview with Gunter Schubert, July 11, 2019. Mr. Schubert is the Professor and Chair of Greater China Studies at the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies and Director of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen in Germany.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.