As Europe’s China scepticism grows, a glimmer of hope for Taiwan
Taipei, Taiwan – When Czech Senate speaker Milos Vystrcil declared “I am Taiwanese” during a speech at Taiwan’s parliament earlier this month, he was met with a standing ovation.
The comment was a pointed reference to US President John F Kennedy’s statement “I am a Berliner”, made in defiance of Communism at the height of the Cold War in a then-divided Germany, and while it drew applause from Taiwanese politicians, it only enraged the self-ruled island’s powerful neighbour – China.
Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its own, had already threatened to make Vystrcil pay a “heavy price” for his visit. And on the day of his parliamentary address, it warned the Czech legislator he had crossed a “red line” with his six-day trip.
In Europe, Taipei maintains diplomatic ties only with the Vatican City, with China having whittled down the East Asian democracy’s diplomatic allies to just 16 globally. And although the European Union claims a right to “develop its relations with Taiwan“, the 27-member bloc adheres to the One China Policy, a long-standing rule from Beijing that any country wishing to establish ties with it must sever relations with Taipei.
And so, it was rarer still when major European powers jumped to Vystrcil’s defence – France called China’s threats “unacceptable” and Germany urged Beijing to show mutual respect.
While some viewed Vystrcil’s trip as an attempt to make a splash at home ahead of an election, analysts in Europe say the visit and the diplomatic row it caused are the latest signs that European attitudes towards both Taiwan and China are shifting, albeit glacially.
“The default solution in the past decades would’ve been Germany or the other Europeans staying silent as the Czech Republic got bashed, but we saw an actual degree of European solidarity,” said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
In recent years, the EU has largely remained silent when – under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership – Beijing stepped up its diplomatic offensive against Taiwan, squeezing Taipei out of most international spaces, including from its observer seat at the World Health Assembly.
But analysts now say Taiwan’s near-disappearance from Europe’s political agenda may be coming to a halt, thanks to a series of soft-power wins by Taipei, combined with growing Western scepticism of an increasingly assertive China.
Mathieu Duchatel, a policy analyst at the French think-tank Institut Montaigne, says the “political space” for Taiwan has continued to shrink every year since United States President Richard Nixon first visited China in 1972, a landmark visit that later resulted in the establishment of formal ties between the two countries.
In Europe, while some countries have allowed visits by Taiwanese officials, the region “has been overall extremely reluctant [to make moves] that could be interpreted in Beijing as touching the red line,” Duchatel said.
The pandemic brought to light the differences in Taiwan and China’s political systems: Critics accuse China of suppressing news of the disease when it was first detected in the city of Wuhan, thereby allowing the virus to spread across borders, but Taiwan won plaudits for mobilising quickly, closing its borders and setting in place a stringent quarantine and testing system – moves that have kept the island’s COVID-19 cases below 500 and fatalities at just seven.
“The COVID crisis has really put Taiwan in a very positive light. There have never been that many discussions on Taiwan in the European media,” Duchatel said. “It’s amazing how people talk about Taiwan, not for Cross-Strait relations and security; they talk about Taiwan as a successful model of effective democratic governance to manage such a huge public health crisis. The contrast is this creates space for Taiwan.”