TAIPEI – When Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu made an unprecedented trip to Brussels on Friday, it remained unclear whether Europe will face repercussions from China to forge closer ties with the autonomous East Asian island that China claims.
China has previously imposed sanctions on EU parliamentarians after the EU sanctioned Chinese officials linked to Xinjiang, a Chinese province in the far west where millions of ethnic minority Muslims have been detained in detention camps.
Now, as Wu’s travels take him to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania and Belgium, it is possible that China may use the same tactics again, according to Bonnie Glaser, head of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund in the United States.
“Beijing could impose sanctions on EU officials who met with Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu. It could also postpone a scheduled meeting between Xi Jinping and European Council President Charles Michel, and a 27 + 1 meeting that has begun,” she said. aimed at a summit between China and EU leaders.
Beijing sees Taiwan as an idiosyncratic province that will one day unite with the mainland. Under Xi, Beijing has pursued a more aggressive policy of pushing Taiwan out of international space and quickly becomes angry when its government or officials are treated as if they are independent.
Following news of Wu’s trip last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called on Europe not to “undermine the political basis for bilateral relations” with China, according to Reuters.
Undeterred, Charlie Weimers, a Swedish Member of the European Parliament and its rapporteur on EU-Taiwan relations, shared updates about the meeting with Wu on Twitter, as well as the Belgian politician Els Van Hoof, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the country’s House of Representatives, one of the Belgian chambers of parliament and a member of the interparliamentary alliance against China.
While Wu has previously visited Europe, his meetings in the EU’s administrative capital are unparalleled. The journey comes when Taiwan publishes its growing ties with EU member states such as Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The three countries together donated more than 850,000 doses of covid-19 vaccine to Taiwan after previously receiving face masks and other medical supplies donated by Taiwan.
At the same time, Europe has become more cautious about China’s expansion in the Asia-Pacific region, which led the bloc to include China as a potential security threat in its first Indo-Pacific Strategy Report released this year. Germany, France and the Netherlands all have separate strategies for the region as well, which include concerns about China, while NATO also publicly discusses the Asian superpower.
“There is a clear push for the EU to upgrade ties with Taiwan, largely shaped by [European Parliament]”, says Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a PhD student at the European Union Center in Taiwan at the National Taiwan University.
The effort, she added, is not for the EU to recognize Taiwanese sovereignty, but instead to disconnect EU-Taiwan cooperation from EU-China relations.
Driving trade agreement
Wu on Friday demanded a bilateral investment agreement that could get Taiwan to invest more in Europe in a speech at an interparliamentary alliance on the China conference in Rome, which he attended via video link, according to Taiwanese media.
While China has large investments from Western Europe and to Serbia, Hungary and Poland, promises of major projects from China elsewhere in the Baltics, Eastern and Central Europe have not been as fruitful as some nations once hoped.
Earlier this year, Lithuania withdrew from the 17 + 1 regional cooperation bloc of Central and Eastern European countries, as well as Estonia and Latvia, in order to promote closer business relations with Beijing. China had invested an estimated $ 94.7 million in Lithuania – a relatively small amount – in projects since 2015, according to results from the Central and Eastern European Center for Asian Studies.
China stopped trade with the small Baltic state in retaliation for its actions. China has also demonstrated the economic benefits of a closer relationship seen last week in Greece, where China’s state-owned company COSCO raised its investment stake in the Greek port authority in Piraeus to 67%, according to Nikkei Asia.
The carrot and stick approach from Beijing “serves to send a message to member states that may be on the fence that it would have consequences for their” mistakes, “Ferenczy said.” But it also has a domestic consideration, to show that China does not allow countries, such as Lithuania, to respect it, but that China is generous, and its generosity is respected, for example in Greece. “
Earlier this week, however, Wu himself warned European nations that “think twice” about Chinese investment.
“If you think you are dependent on China, your foreign policy may be distorted,” Wu told RFE / RL in an exclusive interview in Prague on October 27. “If you think you are dependent on China, your actions or your policies, your behavior must be [cautious] because you do not want to jeopardize your business opportunities. “
Part of Wu’s diplomatic pitch, RFE / RL reported, is to offer Taiwan as a small, open and democratic alternative to Beijing’s authoritarian policies, “ulf warrior” tactics and so-called “debt trap diplomacy” that has become associated with Chinese investments worldwide, from Africa to Central Asia.
For smaller countries with fewer strategic interests in China, there may be very little that Beijing can do in retaliation – especially if EU states back each other. Lithuania, for example, is not expected to suffer major economic consequences from fewer economic links to China than a country such as Poland or Serbia.