European Views on EU-Taiwan Relations and Taiwan's Economic and Geostrategic Importance

By Cabestan, Jean-Pierre | AEI Paper & Studies, June 2012 | Go to article overview

European Views on EU-Taiwan Relations and Taiwan's Economic and Geostrategic Importance


Cabestan, Jean-Pierre, AEI Paper & Studies


Introduction

The time when Europeans confused Taiwan with Thailand or Tahiti is probably over. Yet Taiwan is situated in a part of the world that has long been closer economically to the United States than to Europe and remains strategically so. No European nation or the European Union (EU) has any strategic responsibility in East Asia. Having said that, in the last twenty years, most European countries, as well as the EU, have taken advantage of East Asia's and particularly China's economic dynamism to become more present and active in this part of the world. Europe has growing economic, diplomatic and security interests in East Asia, a part of the world where European expatriate communities have increased very rapidly and European companies have become much more important suppliers of dual technologies and, to some extent, military equipment.

Before looking at EU views on both EU-Taiwan relations and Taiwan's economic and geostrategic importance, we should consider two obvious realities or specificities:

The first is that the EU is an atypical, complex, and partly post-Westphalian political animal. In spite of the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, its foreign policy is carried out by three top officials and services that sometimes compete with one another: the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy; the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso; and the high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, who is also vice president of the commission. As far as China and Taiwan are concerned, Ashton seems to have the upper hand, but when it comes to economic and financial issues, Barroso has a bigger say once he has a mandate from the European Council (the head of state and government meetings).

Moreover, while the EU common foreign and security policy (CFSP) represents the shared view of, and often the smallest common denominator among, the twenty-seven EU countries, each member state has kept a large degree of foreign and security policy autonomy and initiative. This is particularly the case for the large EU nations--the United Kingdom, France, and Germany-which have a long diplomatic tradition, including in East Asia. The 2011 war in Libya, led by London and Paris but opposed by Berlin, offers a good illustration of the constant risk of divisions or disconnections among member states on the international stage. Finally, the EU is split into two areas--the eurozone and the rest--confusing a bit more the priorities, decisionmaking process, and operation of the union, particularly these days. In other words, the EU is not always a unitary actor: it is a complicated and changing two-level and two-area international actor. (1)

The second reality is that although Asia includes three of the European Union's nine "strategic partners," the EU CFSP in this part of the world is dominated by China. The EU concluded with China a "comprehensive partnership" in 1998 that was elevated in 2003 to a "comprehensive strategic partnership." While the relationship has become more problematic since 2006, for a number of well-known reasons (trade imbalances, yuan undervaluation, human rights issues, Tibet, the EU arms embargo, Africa), its importance has continued to increase, further constraining the EU relations with Taiwan. To a larger degree than in the United States, the European Union's Taiwan policy is an integral and less autonomous part of its China policy. (2)

In this paper, I will not try to present the whole diversity of EU views about Taiwan. To be sure, many Europeans do not have a view and if they do, it may be affected by their often negative view of China. While many opinion polls have been conducted on Europeans' perceptions of China, there are very few regarding Taiwan. The only one I am aware of was commissioned by Taiwan's Government Information Office in 2005 and included only three European countries (the United Kingdom, France, and Germany). …

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