Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Le Monde: The EU should support Taiwanese democracy

Published 24 December 2020 — The warning signs are growing that China may make a move on Taiwan. Europe can no longer afford to be asleep at the wheel.  For a few years Beijing has shifted its stance with Taipei, from tacit co-existence to a campaign of international isolation, coercing global forums like the WHO to exclude Taiwan […]

Published 24 December 2020 — The warning signs are growing that China may make a move on Taiwan. Europe can no longer afford to be asleep at the wheel. 

For a few years Beijing has shifted its stance with Taipei, from tacit co-existence to a campaign of international isolation, coercing global forums like the WHO to exclude Taiwan despite its exemplary Covid-19 response. It bullies any country that even talks to Taipei’s democratic leadership, most notably threatening ‘a heavy price’ when the President of the Czech Senate visited Taiwan in September. However, this campaign has reached a new level since the summer, after the People’s Liberation Army’s air force refused to accept the Taiwan Strait median line, a line established in the Cold War to ensure there are no mistakes made between Chinese and Taiwanese militaries that could plunge the region into open conflict. In October alone, China invaded Taiwan’s air identification zone in 25 of the 31 days. Even if an attack is not pre-meditated by Beijing, the scope for a world-changing accident is high. 

A Chinese invasion remains unlikely. However, a number of factors could shift Beijing’s calculus. Despite a sustained campaign to sway the last election via trolls and disinformation, support for reunification is low and falling while Taiwan’s liberal democracy is widely celebrated. China’s President Xi has faced domestic tensions with the regime’s response to Covid. Beijing’s decision to steam roll Hong-Kong’s special status and rule of law was no more than an attempt to fuel the nationalistic flames at home. President Xi has also explicitly set reunification with Taiwan part of his legacy.

Officially Washington follows a policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan but we can predict how the USA would respond. The Taiwan Relations Act mandates Washington to provide arms to Taipei. This support has stepped up in recent months with the US approving sales of coastal defense systems and upgrades to Taiwan’s F16s.  This hard power has also been backed up by the unblocking of negotiations on a US-Taiwaninvestment agreement. 

Geopolitically, for the United States, losing Taiwan has been compared to Britain’s 1956 Suez Crisis, which accelerated the decline of the British Empire. US power and credibility in the Pacific would lie in tatters. The bi-partisan pressure from Congress to act militarily would be overwhelming. 

The US response may be deliberately ambiguous but it’s easy to predict; yet Europe’s response is likely to be confused, disorganized and – ultimately – flaccid. We need only look at how the EU responded to events in Belarus to see how slow and painful foreign policy decision-making has become under the EU’s rigid structure of unanimity. EU unity on China is already difficult to maintain.

Rather than dodge the issue and wait for the crisis to unfold, European leaders should do everything they can to prevent it. This is why Europe should agree on a plan of soft deterrence.

First, Europe cannot continue to allow Beijing to co-opt it in its efforts to rewrite the One China Policy into complete isolation of Taiwan. Europe should restate its one China policy on its terms – not Beijing’s. That entails continuing to develop links with Taipei.   If European leaders are too afraid to even meet with Taiwan’s leaders, we send an early signal of surrender to Beijing.   

Second, Europe should step up its trade and investment talks with Taipei. These talks have been in the freezer as the EU negotiated a larger deal with China. But Covid has triggered a rethink of the vulnerability of our supply chains and the need to diversify or shorten them. Taiwan – especially with its highly-digitized economy – can form part of the solution. By building stronger economic links we show China that we will have more than just diplomatic and moralistic skin in the game should Beijing attack. 

Finally, the EU is developing its own Indo-pacific strategy. It’s about time. But such a plan cannot be a Christmas tree of platitudes about connectivity and values from each of the 27 Member States. It needs teeth through a military component. Here, the EU and UK have shared strategic interest and, apart from France, the UK is the only other European hard power with capabilities and interests in the region. Already, the UK is planning to deploy one of its two new aircraft carriers to East Asia in 2021. It should be brought into these discussions.

The EU wants to be geopolitical. But the true test of the EU’s geopolitical commitment is not long-term strategies but how it responds to hard power crises. So far it has not excelled at the tests in North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. If China attacks Taiwan and Europe sits idly by, any claim of being a global actor, or a defender of freedom and democracy, will ring hollow. 

Anders Fogh Rasmussen was NATO Secretary General (2009-2014) and Danish Prime Minister (2001-2009)

To read the original article in French click here

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