The Romanians Pushing for Enhanced Ties with Taiwan

The Romanians Pushing for Enhanced Ties with Taiwan

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The Romanians Pushing for Enhanced Ties with Taiwan

Several years ago—he didn’t recall exactly when—Constantin Damov received a call from the Taiwan Representative Office in Bratislava. A Taiwanese tourist had suffered a stroke while visiting the city of Timișoara in western Romania. With no official representation in Romania, the nearest port of call for Taiwanese visitors is Slovakia’s capital, over 1,000 kilometers northwest of Bucharest.

Yet, even this de facto embassy is limited in the assistance it can provide. With the tourist critically ill, Taiwanese diplomats turned to Damov as a last resort.

“We helped with hospital arrangements and found a cook from a Chinese restaurant to translate,” said Damov, cofounder and chairman of Green Group, the largest recycler in Southeast Europe. “Unfortunately she passed away after three days.”

Things got worse, as Bucharest balked at having the body repatriated for want of a relevant agreement with Taiwan. Finally, thanks to Damov’s efforts, a compromise was reached. “The body was cremated and sent back in a bottle,” says Damov. “This is something Romanians cannot be proud of as a society.” [1]

A Limited Relationship

Evoking scenes from the absurdist works of Romania’s great dramatist Eugène Ionesco, the incident highlighted the woeful state of the Taiwan-Romania relationship, in which businessmen must press vacillating officials into action. Romania is unique among European Union members in demanding that Taiwanese visitors addend a piece of paper to their passports, which must be stamped instead of the actual pages of the document. Without the page, Taiwanese can be denied entry.

Even senior diplomats are not exempt: A senior Taiwanese trade official I spoke to recounted a recent example of the (de facto) ambassador to another European country being forced to comply with the practice. “It was really embarrassing,” he said. “He complained, but there was nothing we could do.” [2]

While these incidents are often attributed to a lack of official protocol between the two countries, the rules are clear: as a party to the EU’s visa waiver program, Romania should offer 90-day visa exemptions to Taiwanese visitors. There are cases in which China, which itself requires Taiwanese to present a “compatriots” ID, has pressured countries into emulating the charade. For example, at Beijing’s behest, Laos previously required Taiwanese visitors to affix a separate document to their passports. In Romania, however, no such directive has been issued by Beijing; even if it had, it would bear little weight. There simply is no reason for this extra layer of bureaucracy. 

“It’s an antiquated thing to show China, ‘look, we are your servants,’” stated Damov. “You need this paper to get in and out; they stamp it, then take it when you’re leaving, and your passport looks like you’ve never been in Romania.”

Other inexplicable procedures include Taiwanese students being required to get their diplomas authorized by Beijing, and Romanian visitors to Taiwan being told to consult the Embassy of Romania in Beijing for emergency and consular issues.

Growing Taiwan-Romania Interactions

To address such frustrations, the Bratislava office called on Damov to help establish the Association for the Promotion of Economic and Cultural Exchanges with Taiwan (ROTA). This NGO provides a lifeline for Taiwanese in Romania, while striving to promote ties and exchanges between the two countries. Through ROTA and other agencies, Taiwan donated ambulances to Ukraine and supplies to Ukrainian refugees in Romania’s Black Sea port city of Constanța. 

Damov’s connection with Taiwan runs deep. Green Group began life in 2002 as an offshoot of Romcarbon, a plastics processing company, which had been acquired by Taiwanese entrepreneur Clement Hung. Having identified serious waste disposal issues in Romania, Hung saw an opportunity to, in his own words, “restore to the economy the lost value of waste.” Through extensive technology transfer from Taiwan to Romania, Green Group helped to kickstart a new, circular economy-focused industry in Romania.   

After Hung died in 2017, the remaining Taiwanese investors sold their shares. However, Damov has worked to explore opportunities for further cooperation with Taiwanese firms, particularly in the green energy sector. “I was in Taiwan for two weeks this year [2023], talking to major companies about a new joint venture,” he said.

Despite his affinity for Taiwan, he distances himself from cross-Strait tensions. “I’ve never had in mind to enter into or understand the politics deeply,” he stated. “I just see Taiwan as a very good potential partner for the Romanian economy.” This, he believes, is partly because of a “superiority complex” that Western European firms sometimes bring to their dealings with Romania.

“For those big boys, it’s mainly about creating a branch or production facilities, and real technology transfer is difficult,” he said. “With Taiwan, it’s much easier. The people are very fair and very hard working. They’re the perfect partner for developing new business from advanced technology.”

Trade representatives are also optimistic in this regard. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Taiwanese official with experience in Romania echoed Damov’s view of smart agriculture as one potential area for cooperation.

“I think there are opportunities there,” she said. “Romania has been increasing exports to global markets in the last few years, especially since the shortfall from Ukraine, and Taiwanese chips and tech could improve yields.”

She also pointed to Taiwanese know-how in establishing vertically integrated agricultural supply chains to facilitate seamless post-harvest operations, from packaging through to marketing. “They have the raw materials, but haven’t developed the production lines to create added value,” she said. “This is something Taiwan can assist with.” [3]

Rising Distrust of China

Others are less certain. “We’ve touched base with Romania over solar panels and investment in industrial parks,” said Chin Gia-lung, (陳啟順), a consulting partner for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Taiwan. “But for political reasons, things haven’t moved forward – they’re still worried about China,” he stated. [4]

“It’s very strange,” said Damov. “Among Romanian politicians, everyone individually thinks it would be good to make [ties] with Taiwan, but when we ask for changes, they’re afraid to make any step in the direction of normalizing the situation.” 

This reticence is puzzling, given Bucharest’s distancing from Beijing in recent years. Like most members of the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC) initiative—informally known as the “17+1” and now the “14+1” after the Baltic states dropped out—Romania long ago lost enthusiasm for the agreement. In the Balkans and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, the grouping is widely viewed as a soft-power stunt that has yielded few substantive benefits. While some members, such as the Czech Republic, have been particularly vocal in their criticisms, Romania, in the words of academic Horia Ciurtin, is a “foremost example” among “an ample bloc of inertial actors” within the group.

“It has been a failure – just hot air for 10 years,” said Sorin Ioniță, president of Expert Forum (EFOR), a Bucharest-based think-tank that has monitored China’s influence in the Balkans. The impact of the initiative was negligible, as “the Chinese weren’t that interested to invest much,” said Ioniță, who in 2021 organized an online EFOR event in Bucharest on prospects for cooperation between Taiwan and Eastern Europe. “They have a grain terminal in the harbor at Constanța, but I wouldn’t call that critical infrastructure because these are competitive businesses, so they [China] don’t create chokeholds.” [5]   

In 2021, President Klaus Iohannis joined five other CEEC leaders in declining to participate in the China-CEEC virtual summit. According to Romanian sources, Chinese threats to downgrade bilateral relations should Iohannis not attend had backfired. With Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) joining the event for the first time, the snub must have stung: Romania was an eager host of the second summit in 2013, which featured the banner “Win-Win Cooperation and Common Development.” As for Xi’s flagship geopolitical strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as “One Belt, One Road” 一带一路)—of which the “14+1” is essentially an arm—Romania has for years sent no more than ministerial-level representation to the annual gathering in Beijing.

The reality of foundering Bucharest-Beijing relations has been reinforced by the passage of legislation targeting Chinese investments in Romania. In 2019, Romania became the first country to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the United States on foreign investment in 5G. This agreement served as a precursor to the 2020 launch of the Clean Network Initiative, the Trump Administration’s alliance to prevent the involvement of “authoritarian malign actors” in communications infrastructure development. A year later, Iohannis signed a bill into law that effectively banned Huawei (華為) and other Chinese telecom firms from investing in Romania’s 5G network.

Again, Beijing had reportedly employed coercion to sway Bucharest—and again, the heavy-handed tactics had failed. Further legislation followed, as an amendment to Romania’s Foreign Direct Investment mechanism was passed in April 2022, aligning domestic laws with European Union regulations. “In fact, this an area where we’re more advanced than the average European Union state,” said Cătălin Teniță, a member of parliament (MP) for Bucharest who represents the Renewing Romania’s European Project (REPER) party. “Where we’re not so vocal and active is on human rights infringements.” [6]   

He noted that, unlike many EU member states, Romania did not implement a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to suspend extradition treaties with China last year. This followed a resolution by the EU Foreign Affairs Council to suspend extradition to Hong Kong in 2020 in light of the draconian National Security Law (香港國家安全法), passed by Beijing that same year. Interestingly, the ECHR edict was triggered by the case of Liu Hung-tao (劉宏濤), a Taiwanese national who faced extradition from Poland to China on charges of online fraud. (Cases of cyber-crime against Chinese citizens are routinely used by Beijing to have Taiwanese nationals “repatriated.”)        

“We don’t take a political stance on such cases, nor on rights abuses in Tibet or Xinjiang,” said Teniță, who is also a co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an international cross-party group of legislators that focuses on coordinated approaches to relations with China among democracies.

Parliamentary Diplomacy

In March, Teniță was part of a delegation of parliamentarians from the Balkans to Taiwan. The group, which met Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and other high-ranking Taiwanese officials, also participated in the Parliamentary Openness and Monitoring Forum, co-sponsored by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

Outspoken in his support of Taiwan, Teniță opened a speech to the Chamber of Deputies—Romania’s lower house of parliament—in June with greetings in both Mandarin and Hokkien (commonly known as Taiwanese). During the address, Teniță referred to his recent participation in the inaugural meeting of the Formosa Club, a platform for cross-party legislators from Europe and Canada working to bolster relations with Taiwan, and emphasized “the urgent need to strengthen our cooperation with Taiwan […] through the establishment of trade, investment, and sectoral agreements, to enhance the resilience of our supply chains and our democracies.” He also reiterated his intention to “to stand with Taiwan and do everything possible to ensure its democracy,” and called for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations.

While Teniță is an anomaly among Romanian MPs in speaking out on Taiwan, he balks at the suggestion that his standpoint is controversial. “From my point of view, I’m not a rebel,” he said. “It’s Romania that is the outlier – having a very strange stance while most European countries have a totally different approach on Taiwan and China.”

With Romania’s decoupling from China now seeming more inevitable than ever, Teniță expressed his belief that economic engagement with Taiwan should follow. “It’s important to get know-how from Taiwan in manufacturing, agriculture and services,” he stated. “At the same time we should be supporting their vibrant, dedicated, European-compatible democracy.”

For Andreea Brinza, vice president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific, however, the potential for closer ties remains dim. “In the near future, on the political level, I don’t see a U-turn regarding Taiwan, by taking a path similar to the Baltics or the Czech Republic,” said Brinza, who has written extensively about Central and Eastern Europe’s relations with China and Taiwan. “And, without a political framework, economic relations will also be affected, as it is difficult for Taiwanese companies to invest in a country that perceives Taiwan as being part of China and places a variety of limits on cooperation.” [7]   

While Ioniță largely agrees with this assessment of political prospects, he was more optimistic on economic cooperation. “It’s a much more Byzantine policy than the Czechs and the Baltics,” he said. “The state and its institutions are reluctant to engage visibly. Right now, they won’t touch Taiwan,” he added. However, Ioniță argued that “there are obvious complementarities with Taiwan” that do not exist with China. He cited renewable energy and waste management as two such areas. With Romania second only to Portugal in bicycle manufacturing among European countries, Ioniță also thinks local firms could leverage the expertise of world-class Taiwanese brands such as Giant (巨大機械工業股份有限公司) and Merida (美利達工業).

At Green Group’s office in Bucharest, Damov expressed confidence that, while it may take time, changes are inevitable. “When globalization, exchanges, and travel are at their highest levels in history, the [current] way of speaking about a ‘One-China policy’ is becoming obsolete and has to be reevaluated for the good of the people,” said Damov. “We can’t sacrifice people’s rights for a political fight. It’s inhumane.”

The main point: Despite considerable Chinese pressure, economic and political ties between Romania and Taiwan are steadily growing. Bolstered by private sector investment and parliamentary engagement, the relationship between the two is moving in a positive direction.

[1] Author’s interview, conducted in Bucharest on May 4, 2023.

[2] Author’s interview, conducted in Bucharest on May 5, 2023.

[3] Author’s interview, conducted in Bucharest on May 5, 2023.

[4] Author’s interview, conducted online via Google Meet on November 23, 2023.

[5] Author’s interview, conducted online via Zoom on April 23, 2023.

[6] Author’s interview, conducted online via Zoom on April 7, 2023.

[7] Author’s interview, conducted in Bucharest on May 4, 2023.