In a previous article, we spoke about the role of Taiwan in the confrontation between China and the US. As we saw it, Taiwan is not a State, properly speaking. It suffers from a lack of recognition on the international scene due to the will of China to marginalise it. However, since the 1990’s Taiwan has set up a strategy to gain more influence on the diplomatic field. One of its main partners was then the EU, and it was seen as a way to defend Taiwan’s position against China.
During the Cold War, the EU was not supporting the ROC (Republic of China, the formal name of Taiwan). Indeed, the West favourited Beijing in its fight against the Soviet Union. Moreover, the dictature imposed by Chank-Kai shek from 1949 gave a good reason to the EU for not backing the regime. With the beginning of democratisation in the 1980’s and the end of the Cold War in 1991, the EU progressively changed its mind about Taiwan.
However, many EU countries did not want to take the risk of weakening their ties with China, especially regarding opportunities offered by its giant market. Therefore, in order to avoid likely disagreements with Member States, Taiwan preferred targeting EU institutions, which were not considered as leading a power strategy although their influence was significant. Moreover, because the EU was a confederation, the “irresponsibility” of its organisation enabled a more controversial foreign policy. Hence, the European Parliament (EP) was defined by Taiwan’s authorities as the weakest body because it was widely opened to external influence networks and less dependent on Member States foreign policies.
If Taiwanese officials knew that the political gains would be unsignificant, they thought that their actions could improve the awareness about Taiwan and make a Chinese military offensive less acceptable. For Taipei, the aim was not to be seen as the true China anymore but to endorse the division and get a double recognition, as for East Germany and West Germany, or North Korea and South Korea. Therefore, Taiwan would be able to reintegrate the international organisations, especially the UN, where it has been evinced from.
The first step was the creation of the European Parliament Taiwan Friendship Group in 1991. This informal group sought to improve Taiwan’s representation in international organisations. Then came the Task Force for Guiding European Union Affairs in 1992. Its mission was to coordinate the policy of all Taiwanese agencies towards the EU. This work group had to set up the strategy, reinforce the links between the EU and Taiwan, hire experts on European affairs and organise visits in Taiwan with influent EU officials. These actions were supposed to multiply the signatures of agreements, memorandums and protocols, that would strengthen the reality of the Taiwanese entity.
Then, from 1996, the European Commission started to implement economic round tables that gathered manufacturers and officials of the EU and Taiwan. If these meetings were mainly focused on trade, they were also used as a vector of influence by Taiwanese officials. By institutionalising the economic relationship with the EU, they wanted to strengthen the unofficial recognition of the island. These consultations are still hold annually and comprise four key themes: intellectual property rights, technical barriers to trade (including automotive), pharmaceutical and sanitary, and phyto-sanitary rules.
In the middle of the 1990’s, the Taiwanese influence on the EP began to bear fruits. It adopted several resolutions to back Taiwanese democracy that were obviously condemned by Beijing, perceiving them as a way to interfere in its affairs:
- In 1995, an EP report called for the strengthening of the links with Taiwan.
- In 1996, two resolutions denounced military exercises led by China in the strait that were aimed at intimidating the Taiwanese before the first democratic presidential election. The same year, a resolution asked for strengthening Taiwan’s representation in international organisations.
- In 2000, the EP acknowledged the election of independentist President Chen-Shui bian.
- In 2002, the EP adopted a resolution that asked once again for deepening the relations with Taiwan, backed Taiwan’s membership in the World Trade Organisation, pronounced itself in favour of a softer visa policy for Taiwanese officials, asked for strengthening Taiwan’s role in the Asia-Europe Meeting, and demanded the withdrawal of Chinese missiles pointed at the island.
Even if these resolutions had low political effect, some Chinese analysts were concerned by their influence on the European Commission that could badly impact the EU-China relationship.
Finally, Taiwan’s strategy was based on the defence of common values. Taiwan claimed that the EU had to protect the democratisation engaged by Taiwan in the 1980’s to counter the communist regime of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as it did with Central and Eastern European States when the USSR collapsed. Taiwan thus uses the EU’s ideology which is based on the defence of democracy and human rights to take advantage of it. On the other side, China considers that the EU should act as a counterbalance to the negative role played by the US on this issue if it wants to maintain multipolarity.
In 2003, a new step was taken with the creation of the European Economic and Trade Office in Taiwan. However, this first EU permanent representation in Taiwan mainly targeted economic relations, no political talks were provided for: “The Office will mainly cover economic and trade relations, economic co-operation as well as cultural and information activities. It will contribute to the strengthening of communications with the Taiwanese authorities and other economic and social partners as well as promoting and boosting opportunities for collaboration in areas of mutual interest. In line with the EU’s « One China » policy, the Office will not be engaged in relations of a diplomatic or political nature.”
However, could the recent Hong-Kong events and Taiwan’s influence strategy change things? On 14 September 2020, a group of nine experts and Members of European Parliament called the EU to update its policy towards China. Arguing that Beijing has been getting too aggressive with their neighbours for many years, they said that Taiwan should be more strongly supported. If the status quo must be respected, the EU should clarify its position by warning China that any military action against the island would not be without consequences.
Even though the EP seems to have embraced the cause of Taiwan through punctual resolutions and declarations, the reality is quite different. Beijing has always been seen as much more important for the EU than its little neighbour. Today, China’s power makes unlikely any substantial change in the EU’s policy to adopt a clear support in favour of Taiwan. Moreover, the UE shows by its frequent divisions that it can’t act as a true geopolitical power, leaving China indifferent to its actions.
Back in 2003, Valérie Niquet-Cabestan already wrote: “Obviously, the backlash of this support strategy is the weakness of the concrete results, despite, as we have seen, sensitive developments in favour of the Taiwanese authorities. However, it can still be concluded that the eventual failure of Taiwan’s influence strategy towards the EU could be seen as a sign of the failure of a true rise in power on the world stage of a European power that is independent from the triangular games, in which the two major poles – as Beijing wishes – would be the PRC and the United States, the EU being confined to a role of « utility » from which it is invited to stay this way.”
 Rayane Aït Haddou, Taiwan and China: between confrontation and cooperation, EU-Logos Athena, https://www.eu-logos.org/2021/01/25/taiwan-and-china-between-conflict-and-cooperation/
 Valérie Niquet-Cabestan, « La stratégie d’influence de Taiwan auprès de l’Union européenne », Revue internationale et stratégique n° 52, no 4, 2003, p. 129, https://www.cairn.info/revue-internationale-et-strategique-2003-4-page-123.htm?contenu=article
 Ibid., p. 127
 Ibid., p. 129
 Ibid., p. 126
 Taiwan, European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/countries/taiwan/
 Ibid., p. 130
 Ibid., pp. 130-131
 “European Commission establishes European Economic and Trade Office in Taiwan”, European Commission, Press Release, 10 March 2003, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_03_347
 « Des députés et experts européens appellent « l’Union européenne à revoir sa “politique d’une seule Chine” et à soutenir Taïwan » », Le Monde, 14 septembre 2020, https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2020/09/14/des-deputes-et-experts-europeens-appellent-l-union-europeenne-a-revoir-sa-politique-d-une-seule-chine-et-a-soutenir-taiwan_6052044_3232.html.