Leaders in Europe are offering diplomatically isolated Taiwan a sudden chorus of support this year, giving the democratic Asian island welcome international exposure and a morale boost during its spiraling struggles with China.
On Oct. 7, the Prague city council cut off a 3-year-old sister-city relationship with Beijing after China asked his city to uphold a policy that binds Taiwan and China under the same flag. This week lawmakers from France, Germany, the U.K. and the European Parliament launched the Formosa Club to strengthen relations with Taiwan, including trade and investment ties, the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Taipei said.
National governments around Europe are still expected to keep diplomatic relations with China instead of Taiwan. Beijing doesn’t allow both at once, and European countries value their links with the massive Chinese economy.
However, the support of European leaders boosts Taiwan’s confidence by pushing back against China, even if just in words and a run of symbolic deeds, observers say. It also bolsters the reelection campaign of Taiwan’s China-cautious President Tsai Ing-wen over a China-friendly rival, some suggest.
“They might keep up a good front and try to develop the relationship with Taiwan,” said William Sharp, an Asia specialist with the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
“I think most countries in Europe have a group of Taiwan aficionados. I think the world is maybe getting a little bit tired of Chinese bullying.”
China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and threatened to use force if needed to unify the two. Beijing, backed by the world’s second-largest economy and third-strongest armed forces, asks that other countries avoid recognizing Taiwan diplomatically.
Since Tsai took office in 2016, declining Beijing’s precondition for dialogue that both sides belong to a single China, the Chinese government has ramped up military, economic and diplomatic pressure. Officials in Taipei say China used economic incentives to make seven Taiwan diplomatic allies -- Burkina Faso, Kiribati, Panama, Sao Tome and Principe, the Solomon Islands, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador -- switch allegiance to Beijing over the past three years.
Taiwan, recognized now by just 15 small and mostly poor nations worldwide, looks increasingly to informal relations with the more powerful Japan, the United States and countries in Europe for help in resisting China.
Europe, communism and Taiwan
European leaders may favor Taiwan because they resented threats in Europe from the communist former Soviet Union and see China exerting similar pressure on Taiwan now, Sharp said. Taiwan, he said, is “a model for democratic development and economic development, and I think Europeans understand that.”
Lawmakers in Europe help Taiwan most obviously by speaking out -- and doing so where China will hear. They often pitch for Taiwan to enter U.N. agencies and other international bodies where China blocks the Taipei government’s membership.
In May, for example, 80 Czech parliamentarians signed a petition to support Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization's decision-making body. Three months earlier, 155 of the 751 European Parliament members had signed a bill saying Taiwan should be able to join international bodies..
Pro-Taiwan factions in the European, French, German, and British parliaments separately co-signed a letter this year to the WHO head asking that Taiwan get to observe the assembly. China blocks Taiwan from joining.
“We’re talking about like-minded countries, the free and advanced countries,” Taiwan Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said. “Their people, their congressmen, their legislators, they’re coming together to support Taiwan. I think that is something itself.”
Suspicion of China
Although Taiwan representative offices in Europe lobby parliamentarians, much of the support stems from growing distrust of China, analysts believe.
European officials particularly worry about increased Chinese investment in Europe, part of Beijing’s $1 trillion, 6-year-old Belt and Road Initiative to open trade routes by building up foreign infrastructure.
The European Commission, in a March report, called China an “economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”
Increasing numbers of people in seven of 10 European countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center took issue with China this year compared to in 2018, according to a September 30 study.
Boost for Taiwan’s president
Taiwanese people are likely to credit Tsai for the growing support from Europe, said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan.
They have reacted well to similar support from U.S. lawmakers and President Donald Trump. Tsai comes up for reelection in January.
“It’s a very noticeable success on Tsai’s campaign for presidency and these international reactions favorable toward Taipei are counted as her achievements, no doubt about it,” Lin said.