Apr 26, 2023

Why Europeans Should Plan More Trips to Taiwan

Where exactly do the European Union and the European public stand on the Taiwan issue? There is an information gap that needs closing, and the most effect method would be to increase the number of quasi-diplomatic engagements.

Taiwan Economy Minister Wang Mei-Hua and the Speaker of the Czech Republic parliament Marketa Pekarova Adamova attend a Taiwan-Czech Joint Business Council Meeting in Taipei, Taiwan, March 27, 2023.
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French President Emmanuel Macron, in his much-criticized remarks to Politico Europe and Les Echos, was widely seen as weaking Europe’s support for Taiwan, even if Macron later stressed that there was no change to his, or the EU’s, stance: the “One China” policy is upheld—which means that the one China diplomatically accepted is the People’s Republic of China—but any attempt on the part of Beijing to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait by military force is “unacceptable” to Europe.

One way of shoring up support for the embattled island are quasi-diplomatic visits, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to their numbers drop considerably. Analysis by China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe, a multinational group of experts run by the Prague-based think tank, the Association for International Affairs, found that the number of visits to Taiwan by EU and European politicians massively declined during the pandemic. They tracked 27 trips in 2016, 23 in 2017, and another 27 in 2018, before dropping to seven in 2019. Just one took place in 2020 (by the Czech Senate president) and five in 2021. The number of trips then increased to 17 in 2022. Already in 2023, there have been several higher-profile visits, including two last month, by the Czech parliamentary president and the German education minister. It’s safe to assume that there will be no drop-off in European politicians wanting to visit the embattled island.

Few cabinet ministers are visiting, however, and the ones that do are junior and constrained by their own government on who they can meet in Taipei. Last month, Bettina Stark-Watzinger, Germany’s federal minister of education and research, became the first German cabinet minister to visit in 26 years. But, according to the Financial Times, Berlin pushed back against Taipei’s suggestion that she meet Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister. Instead, she was welcomed by her ministerial counterpart.

Almost all the other visits were made by parliamentarians. But there are many variables. Visits by the members of the European Parliament are irregular. The first such visit, in late 2021, was only by members from the Special Committee on Foreign Interference and Disinformation (INGE). Nicola Beer, a European Parliament vice-president and a member of the German pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), led a second delegation to Taipei last July, but this time it included just one other MEP (Reinhard Bütikofer, a member of the German Greens and chair of the European Parliament’s delegation on relations with China). The rest were national lawmakers from Germany, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Belgium, and Kosovo. (Bütikofer and Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, a Dutch lawmaker, had been sanctioned by China in 2021.) The third European Parliament delegation to visit arrived last December and, like the first, was composed of members of one committee, this time the Committee on International Trade (INTA).

“Independent in my Travel Decisions”

These visits are often even more irregular in how they are framed at home. It’s not always clear how much discussion there is between the parliamentarians and their national governments before visits take place. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a German lawmaker from the FDP and head of Bundestag’s defense committee, who led a delegation to Taiwan in January, told me that “my colleagues and I organized our visit to Taiwan by ourselves without any consultations beforehand.” She went on: “As a freely elected member of the German Bundestag, I am independent in my travel decisions: I can decide which country I would like to visit and I am independent when travelling abroad.”

Consider two separate trips by the presidents of the Czech Republic’s parliament. In August 2020, the president of the Czech Senate, Miloš Vystrčil, made an eventful trip, which had originally been organized by his late predecessor. It was controversial not only with China, but at home, too. The Czech prime minister and deputy prime minister at the time, Andrej Babiš and Jan Hamáček, respectively, expressed their disapproval. Tomáš Petříček, the foreign minister at the time, did not support it and then-President Miloš Zeman was strongly against the trip. However, in its official resolution, the senators who voted in the plenary “almost unanimously recommended the trip.” There were no official consultations with other European governments, Vystrčil said, because it was a visit “within the framework of parliamentary diplomacy.”

A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry called the visit a “despicable act.” And disagreement at home, in many ways, gave ammunition to Beijing’s narrative that such visits are provocative and aggressive. Beijing’s narrative also thrived after the visit in August 2022 by the former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Norah Huang, in an essay for the Brookings Institution last September, argued that some efforts by the Biden administration “to dissuade the Speaker’s trip not only played into China’s game of intimidating Taiwan into isolation, but also bolstered Beijing’s efforts to paint the visit as a provocation with more credibility than China could amass on its own.” The fact that Pelosi’s Republican successor, Kevin McCarthy, met Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen in California may well be seen as a Chinese success.

A New Type of Visit

But compare Vystrčil’s trip with the one made this March by Markéta Pekarová Adamová, the speaker of the Czech Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, who arrived in Taiwan with a 160-person delegation of government officials, lawmakers, and business delegates. This time, there was far greater coordination within the Czech Republic between the parliamentary body and the government—a general election in late 2021 and a presidential election in early 2023 had brought in a new government and president who were more critical of China and committed to the Taiwanese cause.

Martin Churavy, Adamová’s press secretary, said that several meetings with members of the Chamber of Deputies as well as with Vystrčil, the Senate president, took place before her visit. Adamová’s team and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also organized a seminar for those who would be part of the visiting delegation at the Chamber of Deputies beforehand. They also included in their delegation the chief of staff of the Senate president and representative of the new Czech president, Petr Pavel, who spoke to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen by phone in January—an unprecedented step by the head of state of an EU member state.

However, any such visit must be examined by asking what is the actual purpose of visiting Taiwan? In part, it’s about forming new relationships. Even if Taiwan weren’t being threatened by China, its economic importance ought to merit greater diplomatic attention from Europe. So, too, must its status as one of Asia’s most successful democracies (and, importantly, one that shows there’s nothing inherent in Chinese “culture” that tends toward authoritarianism).

Normalizing Visits

Put simply, normalization ought to be the driving factor. The desire should be for it to become perfectly normal that a parliamentarian or minister of a European country visits the democratic and economically important island. By this logic, then, more visits should be made. An argument can also be made that this, too, could lead to a reduction in Beijing’s fury.

It’s conceivable that the Chinese government would struggle to show the same degree of opprobrium if there were 100 visits by European politicians each year, for instance, rather than a handful. It wouldn’t just occupy too much of Beijing’s time to respond as forcefully to each visit as it thinks it needs to, an uptick in engagement would also show that Beijing’s threats simply don’t work. If Beijing were to continue its warning that any visit will be met with retaliation, and those visits continue apace, it weakens Beijing’s message. If a “red line” is crossed at increasing regularity, either the line must be redrawn, or the architect looks ineffectual.

If that’s a valid argument, it creates a problem, though. Should Adamová or other like-minded parliamentarians be making annual or semi-annual trips to Taipei? Should the same European Parliament committee be visiting regularly? If the point of making a visit is to (first) form the sort of relationships that are best done in person and (second) symbolically show support for Taiwan against Chinese aggression, it’s questionable whether another visit is necessary, especially since it’s likely to have diminishing returns on actual policy. Indeed, if the same politician visits regularly, it begins to look more obviously like a symbolic stunt to frustrate Beijing.

A research paper published last year by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) advised that lawmakers and government officials should “use virtual formats as a low threshold means to introduce dialogues.” However, those virtual formats are arguably just as important once a visit has taken place and personal relations have already been formed. On the other hand, there is not an overabundance of European politicians wanting to assume the risks associated with traveling to Taiwan. If a pro-Taiwan politician limits the number of visits they’ll make, we could end up with the overall number of visits declining, which Beijing would use to suggest that its hostility to any trip actually works and that Europeans have lost interest in Taiwan.

However, there’s one more good reason for European politicians to become more frequent flyers. It’s unfathomable that the European support offered to Ukraine, in terms of military and economic aid, as well as welcoming Ukrainian refugees, would have been as strong had the European public not been as supportive of the Ukrainian cause. Clearly, European governments felt emboldened to act because they knew they had the public’s backing.

That cannot be said about Taiwan. Last August, the International Republican Institute conducted a poll of 13 European countries about the Taiwan situation. According to the results, and they weren’t far off some other polls, the European public really doesn’t understand the situation. About a fifth said they know nothing at all about China’s effort to gain control of Taiwan, as the survey framed the question. Another 33 percent admitted knowing little about it. Except for a majority who admitted knowing nothing about the question, the next largest cohort (19 percent) reckoned that Taiwan is an “independent and sovereign nation, but the European Union should not be involved in the resolution of the issue.” More than half of respondents didn’t know how their own governments were responding to “China’s effort to gain control of Taiwan.” As one commentator wrote about these findings: “Public opinion is very much up for grabs regarding Europe’s response to Chinese aggression.”

Divided Europe

Perhaps the public is justifiably unknowledgeable about this issue; Europe’s political leaders are hopelessly divided, too. “Stability in the Taiwan Strait is of paramount importance,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she told Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting in Beijing earlier this month. “The threat [of] the use of force to change the status quo is unacceptable.” French President Emmanuel Macron, who had invited her to join him for a day of his three-day state visit, took a different view. “Europeans cannot resolve the crisis in Ukraine; how can we credibly say on Taiwan: ‘watch out, if you do something wrong, we will be there’? If you really want to increase tensions that’s the way to do it,” he told Politico .

If Europeans want to offer up any credible deterrence to Beijing, even just the threat of economic sanctions in the event it invades Taiwan, that requires the backing of their electorates, who, at the moment, appear to have little knowledge about the situation. That could be improved by including in the visiting delegations MPs who are not currently in the pro-Taiwan camp, so as to broaden the scope of discussion. But another method is to make more visits. When do Europe’s newspapers cover Taiwan as much as when a delegation visits? When is the European debate about Taiwan so alive as during a politician’s visit to the island?

If those delegations were sensible, they’d invite as many local journalists to accompany them to Taipei as possible. One way or other, Europeans need to sharpen up about what’s happening over Taiwan.

David Hutt is a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS), and a journalist for several international publications.

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