The proverbial dam appears to be breaking with respect to countries’ view on Taiwan and its security. Throughout this summer, a number of countries and major international groupings have come out in support of “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
The first major breakthrough occurred in April with a joint statement released by US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The statement was followed by a similar one by Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The EU and G7 also addressed the issue of Taiwan’s security in statements and communiques.
After Biden’s first round of major international summits, a US diplomat explained the shift in rationale over Washington’s Taiwan policy.
Then-American Institute in Taiwan deputy director Raymond Greene said: “The United States no longer sees Taiwan as a problem in our relations with China; we see it as an opportunity to advance our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, and also as a beacon to peoples around the world who aspire for a more just, safe, prosperous and democratic world.”
It now appears that other countries are starting to think this way, too.
The veil of fear or reluctance to anger Beijing appears to have been lifted in many capitals around the world: Canberra, London, Brussels and Vilnius, to name a few. Their individual engagements are worth exploring to demonstrate how countries — big and small — are changing their views on how they should approach Taiwan.
The biggest news of this month is the establishment of the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the UK and the US. The grouping is focused on military matters in the Indo-Pacific region, with the main goal of bolstering Australia’s military through the acquisition of US military hardware, principally nuclear-powered submarines and Tomahawk missiles.
The implicit logic of the new pact is to combat China in the region — why else would Australia acquire these submarines — and one cannot have a public or private conversation about competing with China without mentioning Taiwan.
After the AUKUS announcement, Australia’s foreign and defense ministers signed on to a joint statement with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that included an entire paragraph on the importance of Taiwan and strengthening ties. The statement’s details were the most robust of any statement to date.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — when pressed by his predecessor, Theresa May — did not rule out the possibility of coming to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a war with China. Considering the number of pro-Taiwan statements coming from Tokyo and the elevation of Taiwan’s security in the latest Defense of Japan white paper, there are now a number of countries, beyond the US, that have publicly stated their interest in Taiwan’s security.
Apart from military and defense issues, other institutions and countries have announced new policies or tweaks regarding Taiwan.
The EU just released its new strategy for increasing its engagement with the Indo-Pacific region. The document calls for the bloc to deepen its trade ties with Taiwan. It also expresses concern about security issues, saying: “The display of force and increasing tensions in regional hotspots such as in the South and East China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity.”
While that particular sentence does not mention it specifically, the section highlights China’s military buildup. Taipei is eager to begin negotiations for a trade agreement with the EU, which is gaining support within the bloc.
Within one week, new security pacts and strategies were released, all of which have an element that focuses on engagement with Taiwan.
In addition to these major announcements, smaller countries have increased their engagement with the nation.
As I recently wrote in this newspaper, Lithuania is perhaps a new model for countries’ diplomatic engagement with Taiwan (“Lithuania shows blueprint to oppose China,” Sept. 1, page 8).
Vilnius — unsurprisingly — has been targeted by Beijing for “upgrading” its relations with Taiwan through the announcement of the establishment of reciprocal representative offices. Washington has expressed support for Vilnius, and so has Slovenia, which holds the EU Council presidency. A more solid and concerted EU response in support of Lithuania in the face of Chinese coercion is in order, as platitudes of support can only achieve so much.
For its part, the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is showing that it can be a supportive partner to countries that seek to increase engagement — diplomatic or economic — with Taiwan.
The government recently announced that it would late next month send a 65-strong business delegation to Lithuania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Prague previously sent a business delegation to Taiwan, attended by Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil and Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib.
All three countries on Taiwan’s planned trip have donated COVID-19 vaccines to the nation, in addition to Poland, which was left out of this visit.
The Taiwanese delegation sends a strong message that improving ties with Taiwan can result in increased business and trade with the nation, with support of the government.
Interestingly, Taiwan is leading the effort in these countries to enhance economic relations, whereas larger states — the US, UK, Australia and Japan — are focused more on security and military matters.
The administration of former US president Donald Trump and the Biden administration have been pushed by both parties in the US Congress to enhance Washington’s trade ties with Taiwan through the negotiation of a free-trade agreement. Notably, US-Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement discussions were also relaunched after years of stagnation, but the emphasis on economic relations — at least following through with business trips — is coming from Taiwan.
With the EU’s recent call for improving its trade relations with the nation in its Indo-Pacific strategy, it will be interesting to see how Taiwan’s upcoming business delegation plays out in terms of agreements signed and whether dignitaries from countries other than Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia will show up.
Calls for a trade deal between Taiwan and the US have been going on for years to no avail. Will the EU have a different result?
Regardless of what happens during next month’s trip, it is an important time to take stock of the immense developments that have occurred throughout the summer. There is clear movement and momentum in how countries view and treat Taiwan as a true pivot to the Indo-Pacific occurs.
The most important question — in light of Beijing’s recent move to apply to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — is when will the security and military engagement led by major Western powers intersect with the economic push by Taiwan and smaller countries in Europe. A sound strategy must emphasize both pillars for there to be real success in competing with China.
Thomas Shattuck is a research fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is also a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Foreign Policy Initiative and the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program.
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