Why Taiwan Matters to Europe
If the European Union and its member states want to offer a deterrence against a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, their populations need to understand what’s at stake and why their support for such a policy is vital.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
“The multitudes remained plunged in ignorance … and their leaders, seeking their votes, did not dare to undeceive them.” So wrote Winston Churchill about the victors of World War 1. As an historical analogy, it isn’t obvious whether, in the face of China’s increasingly aggressive threats against Taiwan, today’s European leaders are behaving more like their counterparts of the interwar period or of the early decades of the “First Cold War.”
The historian Niall Ferguson describes a potential Taiwan crisis on par with the 1961-62 Berlin and Cuba crises—the instances when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union almost turned “hot” during the Cold War—rolled into one. The Taiwan Strait is a key route for global trade, while Taiwan itself is the hub of semiconductor production, the key variable of the 21st century’s tech “arms-race.” As Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, recently put it: “The European Union ... wants to cooperate on strategic sectors like semiconductors; the new oil—as I think many call it—[is] indispensable for [the] EU’s industrial development and digital transition.”
A Taiwan crisis would be the existential issue of this century. If America and its allies fail to even offer up a defense of the island, US primacy will crumble, as would the international order that emerged after 1945. China would rule uncontested in Asia. If a Chinese invasion was to fail, however, President Xi Jinping would be finished. The Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy would be left in tatters.
Why Taiwan Matters
But it matters for Europe closer to home, too. It’s tempting now for Brussels to be distracted by events in its own backyard, focusing on a potential conflict at the Polish-Belarussian border or on Moscow’s continued threats against Ukraine and the Baltic states. But in the event of conflict over Taiwan, American interests would further retreat from Europe, opening up more space for Russia. If Washington refused to act following an invasion of Taiwan it would be even more dire, sending Moscow the signal that it can try exerting even more influence. It would also completely destabilize the Southeast Asia region, now a main focus of EU foreign policy, by signaling further Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. Foreign policy expert Philip Anstrén has done a great job of laying out precisely why Taiwan matters to Europe.
As a result, Europe (and Europeans) have a dog in the fight—or, rather, have a stake in making sure there is no fight. America’s “strategic ambiguity” is inching much closer to strategic clarity. President Joe Biden has spoken of a “sacred commitment” to Taiwan. Late last month, he explicitly said that the US would intervene if Taiwan came under attack. Japan has upped the ante over Taiwan. Australia now seems to be taking its own security interests seriously with the AUKUS deal, much to the detriment of France’s amour propre. The Quad, the group that includes the US, India, Japan, and Australia, is working as it should, and Biden has taken the Trumpian stance against China but done what former President Donald Trump could not: build alliances.
For too long, however, the pope was the only real friend of Taiwan’s in Europe. All the EU could muster in 2016 was a commitment to “use every available channel to encourage initiatives aimed at promoting dialogue, cooperation, and confidence-building between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.” But the tide is starting to turn. A large Taiwanese delegation last month visited Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the latter of which is likely to swing even more toward Taipei under its incoming government. Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu then paid a secret visit to Brussels on October 28. This came after weeks of escalating talk by European officials, as well as a visit to Taipei by European Parliament delegates.
A Threat to European Security
Borrell made his most extensive statement thus far on Taiwan on October 19, asserting that China's threats to the island “may have a direct impact on European security.” He presumably meant European dependence on microchips produced by Taiwanese firms like Foxconn and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which produces around half of the world’s high-performance semiconductors. “We Europeans, we have an interest in preserving the status quo in the Taiwan Strait ... and we will continue voicing our concerns in our contact with China and publicly,” European Commission Vice-President Margrethe Vestager said also on October 19, during a European Parliament session on EU-Taiwan relations.
The European People's Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament, has called on the bloc to start negotiations for a Bilateral Investment Agreement with Taiwan before the end of 2021, quite the reversal as the European Commission only last December wrapped up talks on an investment pact (known as CAI) with China, which is now on ice. The EU’s recently-released Indo-Pacific Strategy states: “The EU will also pursue its deep trade and investment relationships with partners with whom it does not have trade and investment agreements, such as Taiwan.” That strategy paper (which only mentions Taiwan on five occasions, compared to 13 mentions for Indonesia, for instance) also notes: “The display of force and increasing tensions in regional hotspots such as in the South and East China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity.” Brussels may be pressured to offer up a stronger statement at Biden’s democracy summit in December.
Neither the Europeans, nor the Japanese, nor the Australians, and nor for that matter the Taiwanese will decide if things kick off over Taiwan. That decision will be made in Beijing and Washington. It’s very plausible that instead of a full-blown confrontation, Beijing will try to undermine Taiwan through less violent means, via cyber-attacks, diplomatic isolation, and trade wars. And, as it has been said, Washington is unlikely to enter a war unless US servicemen are killed first, which Beijing no doubt knows from its astute understanding of history. As such, Europeans are always going to be on the sidelines watching, a worrying place to be if deterrence is done badly. Too close to the US on security matters and they may be dragged unwillingly into a conflict. Too far away, however, and global deterrence is too weak.
But questions remain over what Europe can actually do to help deter a Chinese invasion. As Stuart Lau of Politico Europe put it recently: “Europe has no interest in echoing America’s security guarantees to Taiwan ... in the face of a Chinese invasion.” He went on: “With neither the military capability nor appetite to defend a faraway island, the EU is nonetheless under pressure to come up with tougher rhetoric on China.” That may be the case, but in September the United Kingdom sent a warship through the Taiwan strait for the first time since 2008. Germany sent a frigate through the South China Sea this year, for the first time since 2002. Military support from Europeans, namely the UK and France, may be necessary if America wants to show it can defend Taiwan. NATO’s backing would be useful. (The likely reason for a Chinese invasion would be if Beijing reckons America and its allies have little nerve for a fight.) Taiwan’s defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, says that Beijing will acquire the military capabilities to mount a full-scale invasion of Taiwan by 2025.
But any serious security deterrence would need to be coupled with other measures. Signing an investment pact with Taiwan—as many European parliamentarians are now demanding—would tie European prosperity to Taiwanese peace. It would also compel the continent’s businesspeople and politicians to pay more attention to the issue. The EU could push for Taiwanese representatives to be given seats on international bodies, like the World Health Organization and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Brussels, and member states, must make it clear to Beijing that it cannot interfere with their sovereignty when it comes to which foreign politicians they wish to converse with. And it should be made perfectly clear to Beijing that any glimmer of the sword against Taiwan would immediately result in meaningful EU sanctions. An action plan is necessary now—and its recommendations should receive approval from all relevant parties, from member states themselves to the European Commission, well ahead of time.
Writing in The Diplomat last month, Joris Teer and Tim Sweijs argued that a European “decision on this must ... be taken long before a crisis erupts, with broad political and social support, and should be coordinated by European states.” If Western governments want to offer a deterrence, their populations need to understand what’s at stake and why their support for such a policy is vital. Indeed, Beijing is aware that democracies tend not to go to war when their populaces are against it (or, worse, ignorant of the implications.)
Educating the Public
A survey, conducted this year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, found that only 53 percent of Americans support using troops to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion of the island, although 69 percent favored US recognition of Taiwan as an independent country. The survey’s authors noted it is “unclear how the [American] public would react to a serious crisis in the Taiwan Strait involving the US military given the public's relative unfamiliarity with the issues at hand.” Interestingly enough, while a majority of Taiwanese don’t think there will be conflict with the mainland, some 65 percent of people polled said they thought America would protect the island against invasion, and 58 percent said Japan would do so, according to a recent Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation survey.
There are hardly any similar surveys of public opinion in Europe, which says something in itself. Only 17 percent of people in the UK approved of intervention if China invaded Taiwan and the US decided to intervene, according to the 2020 annual report by the British Foreign Policy Group. Newspaper editors clearly don’t think the European public properly understands the situation. In recent weeks, both Le Monde in France and The Guardian in the UK have published simplified explainers on what exactly is going on over Taiwan.
Still, survey after survey makes it clear that European public opinion of China has worsened markedly in 2020-21. Some 71 percent of Germans had a negative image of China in 2021, compared to just 56 percent in 2019, according to Pew Research Center surveys. In France, unfavorable views of China went from 54 percent in 2018 to 66 percent this year. For the Dutch, it rose from 45 percent to 72 percent. Granted, this was largely because the Chinese Communist Party’s incompetence and malice allowed a localized epidemic in Wuhan to become a global pandemic. Most Europeans held more unfavorable opinions of China in 2020 than in 2021, which suggests their anger over the COVID-19 pandemic is waning somewhat (Germany was an exception).
The public’s question in the face of any potential war is always the same: Why should we make sacrifices for the sake of others? This isn’t an easy question to answer, especially when the threat is of a potential conflict with China, a superpower with a first-rate military and nuclear arsenal, and the territory in question is hundreds of miles away from home. And deterrence isn’t an easy policy, especially if it is miscommunicated to the public at large. On the one hand, it could be lose-lose for European governments; offering up deterrence now will certainly anger Beijing and, should an invasion never materialize, then Europeans may have needlessly burned bridges with Beijing, which would then affect their own country’s finances. China is a top-five trading partner of almost all European states. It is a major investor in most. It is no coincidence that the European countries that have most closely aligned with Taiwan in recent times (Lithuania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) are not overly reliant on Chinese trade or investment.
A Threat to European Values
Neither is Taiwan a “domino” as the “New Cold War” appellation mistakenly conjures up. It is not the case that if Taiwan isn’t defended then China will want to invade others. It is not the equivalent to the Nazi Anschluss of Austria that came before the invasion of Czechoslovakia or Poland. For some democracies, that might be a motivation not to speak up for Taiwan. After all, Beijing would likely stop at Taipei and the South China Sea. So why risk international war over Beijing’s limited territorial aims, especially when Russia’s territorial aims are more threatening to Europe?
But the threat is also to values. Allow Beijing to gratify its irredentist goals and say goodbye to international law, a global system that has allowed Europe to end its own fratricidal conflicts. And say goodbye to one of Asia’s most democratic and progressive systems. Taipei's democratic policies, its respect for minority rights, and its liberal values should make it a comrade of progressive forces across the world. Don’t liberals see something in Taiwan worth defending, just as much as national-security hawks are invested in maintaining the geostrategic status-quo in the Indo-Pacific?
Explaining deterrence is hard. No one wants a European public that is war-hungry, nor one that sees conflict with China as inevitable. Neither, however, does one want a public that is ignorant of the implications of doing nothing.
David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom, covering European foreign affairs and Europe-Asia relations.