In late August, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) announced that it would set up a new representative office in Aix-en-Provence, a city in southern France. “France is a core member state of the European Union, and Taiwan and France want to expand trade, aerospace, biomedical, and technology cooperation,” Johnson Sen Chiang (姜森), MOFA’s director-general of European affairs, said at a press briefing on August 25. This development is the latest in a string of diplomatic achievements for Taipei following its recent opening of overseas offices in Somaliland on August 17 and Guam on October 10, Taiwan’s Double Ten Holiday. The opening of the new office in Aix-en-Provence (駐普羅旺斯台北辦事處) also comes as Taiwan and European countries have made significant strides in boosting unofficial relations. Taiwan’s successful model for combating the coronavirus, coupled with growing tensions in China-European Union (EU) relations, has created an opening for Taiwan to expand comprehensive relations with France.
Coronavirus and WHO Politics
The emergence of the global coronavirus pandemic has tested China’s relations with many virus-afflicted countries around the world, including European countries. The global health crisis comes amid growing strains between China and the European Union (EU) over the use of Huawei telecom equipment in 5G networks, access to Chinese markets for European companies, and Beijing’s national security law in Hong Kong, among other issues. To add insult to injury, Chinese diplomats have employed their infamous “wolf warrior” diplomacy (戰狼外交), attacking French and other Western governments over their coronavirus mismanagement, all the while maneuvering to advance Chinese national interests as well as Beijing’s leadership on global pandemic mitigation.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) Embassy in France sparked controversy earlier this year when an anonymous post on its official website claimed that Taiwanese authorities, supported by more than 80 French Parliament members, had launched attacks against World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The post accused the Taiwanese of using racial slurs against Ghebreyesus, a native of Ethiopia, including calling him “Negro.” Taipei subsequently refuted claims that it was behind the attacks on Ghebreyesus. The post went online in April but currently is inaccessible on the Chinese Embassy’s website. The incident touched a nerve, particularly in the broader context of French-Chinese competition in Africa and Paris’ efforts to relaunch its relations with African countries.
Another post on the Chinese Embassy’s website remarked that France was leaving its elderly citizens to die amid the coronavirus pandemic. The post, presumably written by Chinese diplomats in France, criticized Western governments for not protecting the lives of their citizens by pushing for “collective immunity.” This controversial post is reflective of the broader Chinese narrative that its authoritarian model of COVID-19 containment has worked and should be emulated. Chinese diplomats have posted statements criticizing Western democracies, specifically their emphasis on individualism as opposed to concern for the collective society, for failing to curtail the spread of the coronavirus in their countries. In April, French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summoned Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye (盧沙野), concurrently Chinese Ambassador to Monaco, to express disapproval of the PRC Embassy’s posts.
Increased Visibility for Taiwan
At the same time as the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the risks of engagement with China, it is also showcasing the “Taiwan Model” of pandemic management, which encompasses timely border control, smart technology, and open and transparent information. In the lead-up to the World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting in May, more than a hundred French Parliament members called on the WHO to invite Taiwan to participate in the annual conference, while also mobilizing other European lawmakers to put collective pressure on the WHO for Taiwan’s inclusion. In May, France—along with the United States, Germany, the UK, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand—issued a joint letter to the WHO that supported Taiwan’s participation in the global health body.
Taiwan’s coronavirus success, not to mention its worldwide donations of “Made in Taiwan” surgical face masks, has increased the island’s profile around the world, including in French media and politics. Taiwan’s recent media visibility in Europe is historically unprecedented, according to French scholar Antoine Bondaz. There have never been so many articles and radio and TV programs covering Taiwan in the past, he said. Taiwan’s successful containment of the coronavirus has brought new ideas and inspiration to help Europeans manage their own battles with the virus, argued Bondaz.
Furthermore, Taiwan has enhanced its presence in the French Parliament. Taiwan’s Representative to France, Wu Chih-chung (吳志中), also known as François Wu, spoke at a September 9 hearing of the French Senate on Taiwan’s COVID-19 experience. His speech marked the first time that a top Taiwanese envoy had spoken in the upper house of the French Parliament. Wu also became the first Taiwanese envoy to speak before the French Parliament’s lower house, the National Assembly, where he discussed Taiwan’s policy in the South China Sea at a hearing in January 2019. The support for Taiwan among French Parliament members runs deep, as exemplified by the France-Taiwan Friendship Group (友台小組), which has more than a hundred members from both houses of the French Parliament.
Taiwan’s Second Office in France
On August 25, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) posted on Facebook: “Tonight, I want to have some…Aix-en-Provence stew!” Tsai stated that the new representative office in Aix-en-Provence would help to better serve Taiwanese people traveling in Europe, while also promoting exchanges and cooperation between Taiwan and France. Indeed, Taiwan’s second office in Aix-en-Provence—located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of southern France—is in close proximity to other key science and technology centers. These include Montpellier, a major center for global environmental research; the Sophia Antipolis technology park; and Toulouse, an aerospace hub. MOFA Director-General Chiang said that the Aix-en-Provence office will strengthen bilateral economic, trade, and technological industry exchanges. The cooperation between Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology (科技部) and its French counterpart is quite robust, and is second only to Taiwan’s science and technology exchanges with the United States, according to Representative Wu.
Taiwan’s main representative office, the Bureau de Représentation de Taipei en France (駐法國台北代表處), is located in Paris in the northern and central part of the country. With a staff of more than 50 people, Taipei’s Paris office is one of Taiwan’s largest representative offices in Europe, stated Representative Wu. Several of Taiwan’s ministries have stationed personnel there, demonstrating the island’s close relations with France, Wu said. According to Director-General Chiang, planning for the opening of Taiwan’s office in Aix-en-Provence has been going on for some time. Taiwan’s government initially considered setting up a second office in Marseille or Lyon, but later decided on Aix-en-Provence. However, the opening of the office has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. MOFA recently announced that the new office will open in early December and will be headed by Taiwan’s former Ambassador to Haiti Hsin Chi-chih (辛繼志).
Economic, Military, and Cultural Exchanges
The impetus for opening the second office has come from Taiwan’s deepening relations and a broad range of exchanges with France in the past few years. According to MOFA, the number of Taiwanese citizens traveling to France jumped 62 percent between 2016 and 2019, while French visitors to Taiwan grew nearly 30 percent over the same period. Meanwhile, France is Taiwan’s fourth-largest trade partner in Europe after the Netherlands, Germany, and the United Kingdom. France is also Taiwan’s 19th largest trade partner in the world. In 2019, bilateral trade reached USD $4.7 billion, with Taiwan importing USD $3.2 billion from France and exporting USD $1.5 billion to France. Taiwan’s major imports from France include commercial aircraft, high-tech satellites, fighter jets, and frigates, as well as wine and luxury products. France, whose bulk imports from Taiwan consist primarily of electronic products, is now considering purchasing mask-manufacturing machinery from Taiwan to produce face masks domestically.
In the 1990s, France became a key European supplier of military aircraft, frigates, and weapons to Taiwan. In a recent move that angered Beijing, France refused to cancel a contract to sell arms to Taiwan, including upgrades to the missile interference system of six French-made La Fayette-class frigates that Taipei had purchased for USD $2.8 billion in 1991. Taiwan is also reportedly seeking to spend nearly USD $27 million on Dagaie decoy launchers for its navy from the French firm DCI-DESCO.
Moreover, France is a major cultural power in Europe, leading Taipei to seek deeper cultural exchanges with the French. The Taiwan Cultural Center in France (Centre culturel de Taïwan à Paris, 駐法國台灣文化中心), under the Ministry of Culture (文化部), is Taiwan’s highest-level cultural institution stationed abroad. The French also view Taiwan as a center of cultural creativity, scientific and technological innovation, and democracy and human rights, remarked Benoît Guidée, former director of the French Office in Taipei (法國在台協會) in 2018. He expressed his desire to see Taiwan become a platform for French development in Asia, while Paris could play a corresponding role as Taipei’s gateway to Europe.
Tensions in EU-China relations have sharpened in the COVID-19 era, while Taiwan’s democratic model of coronavirus management has enhanced the island’s soft power among European democracies. Taipei-Paris relations will continue to draw on shared democratic values, robust economic and trade relations, and cultural linkages, while also expanding bilateral collaboration in science and technology and pandemic management. Taiwan’s “parliament diplomacy” (國會外交) with the French and other European parliaments will be key arenas to enhance Taipei’s unofficial yet growing profile in Europe. Although Taipei has sustained the loss of a handful of its diplomatic allies to Beijing over the past few years, it has also made important strides this year with the reopening of its Guam representative office and a new office in Somaliland. The opening of the second office in southern France is yet another positive diplomatic development for Taipei, potentially signaling a new era of expanded cooperation with Europe more broadly.
The main point: In the COVID-19 era, France-Taiwan relations have taken a positive turn, with enhanced, comprehensive cooperation and a greater French willingness to withstand Chinese pressure regarding Taiwan.