The West needs a more collaborative approach to Taiwan
On the same day last month that transatlantic leaders gathered virtually for the Munich Security Conference, eight Chinese fighter jets and an electronic warfare aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in a robust show of force not far from Taiwanese territory. Tensions in the Taiwan Strait may seem a distant concern to Europe’s leaders, but they cannot afford to ignore the consequences that may arise from escalating frictions half a world way.
President Joe Biden has made clear his intentions to mend frayed relations with allies and to coordinate closely on tackling the China challenge. As capitals on both sides of the Atlantic look for a more collaborative, integrated effort to champion human rights, defend democracy, counter malign foreign influence, and remain at the forefront of technological innovation, they would do well to consider a more collaborative approach to Taiwan.
Aside from the Vatican, not a single European country maintains formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
The transatlantic community is marked by a patchwork of “one China” policies, with each country managing ties with Taipei in slightly different fashion. Beijing has made clear its displeasure when Europeans treat Taiwan more akin to a normal diplomatic partner. When Czech Senate President Milos Vystrčil led a delegation to Taipei last year, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi described the trip as “an unendurable provocation for which there will be retribution” and said that China would make Vystrčil “pay a heavy price.”
Many European capitals may believe they have good reason to keep Taiwan at arm’s length, especially since the United States has long taken upon itself the job of ensuring peace in the Taiwan Strait.
But that peace is getting harder to maintain. Since Tsai Ing-wen was first elected president of Taiwan in 2016, Beijing has executed an unrelenting pressure campaign, in which it has stripped Taiwan of diplomatic allies, sought to further isolate Taipei on the international stage, meddled in Taiwan’s domestic politics, and resorted to the frequent use of military intimidation. In recent months, Chinese military aircraft have conducted near-daily incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. In China, Xi Jinping is facing significant economic headwinds and rumblings of elite dissatisfaction with his leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Meanwhile, he has made clear that unification with Taiwan is a key aspect of his promised “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” There is little reason to doubt Xi’s intentions and good reason to worry that growing problems at home will lead to greater aggressiveness abroad.
War in the Taiwan Strait — should it come to that — might at first blush appear to be a local affair. Consequences for Europe, however, would be significant.
A conflict and its aftermath — especially if China were to emerge victorious — would force the United States to concentrate more of its forces in the Pacific, leaving it less able to deter Russia and contribute to the defense of NATO. A high-intensity and possibly sustained conflict, moreover, would wreak havoc on the global economy.
But working together, the United States and its European partners can do more to force Beijing to think twice about making a move on Taiwan. The goal should be to weave Taiwan more deeply into the community of nations and to ensure that more countries have a greater interest in Taiwan’s ultimate fate, thereby making Chinese decision-making vis-à-vis Taiwan more complicated.
At a minimum, the Biden administration should invite more countries to co-sponsor Global Cooperation and Training Framework workshops. These workshops bring together officials, scholars, practitioners, and civil society leaders to take advantage of Taiwanese expertise in a variety of subjects. Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry and the American and Japanese representative offices in Taipei are formal cosponsors of the series, and last year Sweden cosponsored a workshop for the first time. Other European countries should consider following suit. It is a low-risk means of building both official and people-to-people ties with Taiwan in a way that is conducive to regional stability.
The United States should also seek to work more closely with European partners to secure Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations. The events of the last year have made obvious what should have been clear all along: that Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and INTERPOL is a national security issue for member states.
Beijing would rather a highly infectious disease run rampant across the globe than Taiwan be seen or heard in international forums. Other countries should no longer abide such a state of affairs.
Perhaps most crucially, the United States should seek to put Taiwan on the agenda for bilateral discussions with NATO allies and at multilateral NATO forums. Discussions should focus on threat perceptions and potential responses. NATO partners should have a solid understanding of how the United States might react in the event of a cross-Strait conflict and of what sort of support Washington might hope for from its North Atlantic allies. Washington, in turn, should strive for a better understanding of the aid it can reasonably expect.
Finally, Washington and its NATO partners — whether bilaterally or as an organization — should consider whether there are steps they can take in the meantime to enhance Taiwan’s security. Coordinating to ensure a regular naval presence in the waters around Taiwan would be a good place to start. NATO allies should also consider cooperating with Taiwan on cybersecurity, intelligence sharing, and space monitoring.
All of these steps will contribute to more effectively deterring Chinese adventurism, whether by conveying to China wide-ranging interest in Taiwan’s continued existence as a democratic polity or by meaningfully enhancing Taiwan’s security. With Xi Jinping likely aiming to consolidate support for his leadership ahead of a Party Congress in 2022, time is of the essence.
Michael Mazza is a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a senior nonresident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
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