In this issue of the MERICS Europe China 360° we cover the following topics:
- The crisis in the Taiwan strait: the European front
- Buzzword of the week: 14+1
- Short takes
Pelosi’s visit and the subsequent crisis in the Taiwan Strait has caused a ripple effect that has reached European shores. Milder yet clear warnings from Beijing’s representatives in European capitals ring in the ears of European actors who have been dealing with their own internal battle about what and what not to do about Taiwan.
Europeans were hardly the source of Beijing’s ire in the days that followed Pelosi’s Taipei visit. Yet, the crisis presented an unmissable opportunity to send a clear signal about Beijing’s (changing) red lines regarding engagement with the island. Messages that have become all the more necessary following France, Germany, Italy and the UK’s decision to sign a G7 statement affirming their “commitment to maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”.
Unsurprisingly, the PRC ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, has been among the fiercest and most controversial commenters by publicly claiming in two interviews for French TV that the PRC will “reeducate” the Taiwanese upon “reunification” of the island. The ambassador to the UK, Zheng Zeguang, urged the UK not to follow in the footsteps of the US and condemned their signing of the G7 statement. He rejected “concerns” expressed by London when summoned by Foreign Minister Liz Truss to explain the PRC’s actions in the Strait.
If there were a prize for the best comment, however, it would go to Wang Wenbin, PRC Foreign Minister Spokesperson, who made a meagre attempt to draw parallels between Taiwan and Scotland. Citing the G7 statement itself, the ambassador claimed that London too would not remain “calm, exercise restraint, act with transparency” if Scotland attempted to obtain independence. Well, as many observers pointed out, unless Beijing is ready to permit an independence referendum in Taiwan, the comparison falls flat.
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Messages prior to the crisis in the Strait also reinforced the signal that Beijing is becoming much less tolerant when it comes to interactions with Taiwan.
Europe is also feeling the impact of an emerging new status quo. Exchanges at parliamentary level have traditionally carried much of the relationship between European countries and Taiwan. In early July, Wu Hongbo, the special envoy on European affairs, said that any action taken by European lawmakers would be considered as official EU policy by Beijing.
While that may be the case for EU lawmakers, Beijing however is unlikely to impose repercussions on the whole of the EU for actions undertaken by member states. Take the case of Lithuania. Beijing insists Lithuania’s engagement with Taiwan is not a whole of EU affair to mitigate an EU response to China’s economic coercion against the country. More likely, however, is that Beijing will whittle away at the informal ties that EU member states have with Taiwan by making it as uncomfortable as possible for them to strike a balance between formal ties with the PRC and informal ties with Taiwan. For example, following the visit by the Lithuanian Deputy Transport and Communications Minister Agnė Vaiciukevičiūtė to Taiwan, rather than retaliating against the EU bloc, Beijing pinpointed their sanctions at her and chose to suspend engagement with her ministry.
While European G7 countries may have signed an official statement, it is in fact member states from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) who remain the frontrunners in European bilateral engagement with Taiwan. Lithuania, Czechia and Slovakia have been strengthening their relationship with Taiwan and their parliamentary delegations have the highest number of visits to Taiwan among Europeans, including less high-level visits which are not included in the graphic below. Warnings from Beijing seem to have had little effect, on the contrary, it has reaffirmed their conviction. For example, in December 2021, after China exercised economic coercion against Lithuania, Slovakia and Taiwan inaugurated a Taiwanese-Slovak Commission on Economic Cooperation. At the end of July, both Czechia and France hosted the visit of Taiwan's Legislative Speaker You Si-kun. The Lithuanian government still plans to open a trade representative office in Taiwan in September. And Lithuania’s Foreign Minister may be planning a visit to Taipei later this year.
France too has been displaying high levels of commitment. As the established Indo-Pacific power in the EU, France sees events in the area as a matter of national security. For example, in a bold statement, the French Navy Chief of Staff, Admiral Pierre Vandier, argued: “Against the Chinese navy, we will win if we fight together, in a coalition”. The Admiral’s statement is in line with France’s actions; last week it sent seven warplanes in the area for joint exercises with Australia, Singapore and Indonesia.
The crisis has brought out a resoluteness from some unlikely suspects. A delegation from the European Parliament’s (EP) Committee for International Trade (INTA) still has a Taiwan visit scheduled for December.