The current crisis in the Taiwan Strait— ignited by US Senate Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August — is the latest and most serious escalation of tensions so far. Unprecedentedly large live military air and sea drills, intimidation tactics, and increasing grey zone activities are, in a way, already changing the status quo in the Strait. The question of international support to Taiwan in this context has never been more acute, and Europe can hardly remain idle. The European Parliament’sSeptember 15th resolution condemning China’s military exercises in the Strait is a significant step in the right direction. However, can the EU walk the talk, too? While staying within the limits of Beijing’s ‘One China policy’, Europe’s position on Taiwan will need to be rethought for the sake of securing its own interests, maintaining trust of its key regional partners, and gaining credibility as a player and protagonist in international security.
A longtime distant observer, the EU stepped up its ambition to play a more proactive role in Asia with the publication of its ‘Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’ in September 2021. Regional partners and observers from both inside and outside Europe welcomed Brussels’s newfound interest in the region, provided it is constructive, sustained, and —especially — followed by action. The main reasons for skepticism had generally less to do with the lack of Brussels’ military capabilities, as with its capacity to deliver on its promisesgiven internal divergencies on China and security challenges at Europe’s doorsteps – a concern accentuated since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Yet, the dramatic deterioration of China’s image in Europe over the past years has led to deeper unity among Europeans. Human rights abuses, 5G scandals, mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis, and Beijing’s support of Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine have put China among Europe’s least trusted partners — to the benefit of Taiwan. Valued for its democracy, its importance in the global supply chain, and successful management of the Covid-19 health crisis, the interest in engaging Taipei has never been stronger. Albeit at a lower political level, the latest aforementioned EP resolution, which encourages Member States to improve relations with Taipei and warns of negative consequences of Beijing’s actions on bilateral relations with Brussels, is a first of such kind.
At the same time, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the subsequent military, economic, and political rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow have made the Europeans more sensitive to China as a traditional security challenge. Speculations about the possibility of a high-intensity conflict in the Strait of Taiwan have been numerous, bringing a sense of empathy and urgency to European discussions on East Asia. The Russia-China connection not only highlights the deepening divide between autocratic and democratic regimes, but also the interconnectedness between Asian and the European security landscapes.
Finally, Europe’s say in the Taiwan crisis is also a matter of narrow self-interest as a maritime power. Beijing’s contestation of the international status of the Taiwan Strait has a major impact for freedom and safety of navigation in the region, which is a vital interest for the world’s largest trading bloc. Maritime security in the Indo-Pacific has indeed always been at the heart of Europe’s interest, which is not only rhetorical, but also practical – as demonstrated by the regular deployments of the French navy, and recently by the German and Dutch naval vessels too — in the region. If defending the rules-based order is part of the EU’s DNA, as is often heard, it should start at sea.
Partnerships with trust
Cooperation with like-minded partners is at the core of the EU’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific. If the EU’s many existing ‘Strategic Partnerships’ are to be operationalized and followed up by action and actual policies, they need to be two-way streets where both partners understand each other’s concerns and tend to each other’s needs. Japan’s and South Korea’s resolute reaction vis-à-vis the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a show of support for European security concerns, but it also revealed a high degree of anxiety over a similar type of event occurring in the region. Opening up to serious discussions on the Taiwan contingency with partners is without doubt an investment in enhancing mutual trust.
Japan is a point in case. Prime Minister Kishida’s administration has been outspoken about its concerns over the deterioration of the situation in the Strait and about Japan’s readiness to take a proactive stance. The landing of five People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ballistic missiles in Japan’s maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ) on the 4th of August amongst military drills were meant as a reminder to the international community that a “Taiwan crisis is a Japan crisis”, as stated by the late Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in 2021. As bilateral ties with Beijing sink to new lows and the US-Japan alliance grows stronger, Tokyo’s involvement in a potential conflict — should the worst-case scenario occur — is likely to be expected in one form or another, marking the end of Japanese strategic ambiguity. While the 2018 EU–Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) provides an overarching political framework for closer security cooperation, it would benefit from a more concrete strategic direction. Greater clarity from Brussels on key issues of concern to Tokyo would be instrumental in that respect.
Transatlantic relations are another example. US support in the case of an attack on Taiwan has been made explicitly clear on several occasions by President Joe Biden. The recent Taiwan Policy Act would, were it to turn into a bill, de facto elevate Taiwan’s status as a ‘diplomatic ally’ of Washington. Without speculating about whether this measure will deter a Chinese invasion or further escalate existing tensions (which are both equally likely), the US is — and will remain — the central actor in the Strait. Europe is firmly enmeshed within the US-led alliance system, whether through NATO membership or through long-standing bilateral ties. In light of NATO’s shifting attention towards Beijing and the renewed US-EU consultations on China, Taiwan will inevitably become a key topic in the transatlantic discussions that the EU should be ready for.
The multiplication of security partnerships with key Indo-Pacific countries, be it Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, or India has made the EU part of the new emerging regional security architecture, increasingly defined by interconnections between like-minded democratic middle powers. The participation of France, Germany, and the Netherlands in recent multinational military exercises — such as the Super Garuda Shield or the Pitch Black— along with all the above-mentioned countries as well as others, shows that there is an operational layer behind the rhetoric of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ and that Europeans can be part of it.
A test of credibility
As European countries shift their attention to the Indo-Pacific – both individually and as a group – the latest Taiwan crisis puts their policies to the test. Finally, a subject that is traditionally carefully avoided by policymakers in most European capitals is making its way up to the mainstream debate, inevitably leading towards the need to take a stance.
Ever since the emergence of the Indo-Pacific concept, discussions have evolved around the values it embodies, opposing democracy vs autocracy, freedom vs coercion, and cooperation vs unilateralism. The Russia-China rapprochement represents a trend that extends well beyond the Indo-Pacific region and requires unity among all democratic actors.
If Europe wants to be part of the solution and deliver on the promise of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, it may need to start considering its options for action.