The Baltic countries of Estonia and Latvia recently announced their departure from the Cooperation Between China and Central and Eastern European Countries framework, currently also known as “14+1.” Tallinn and Riga followed the footsteps of Vilnius, which left the grouping last year, with Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis asserting that the cooperation program between Beijing and eastern Europe had brought Lithuania “almost no benefits.”
Established in 2013, the framework was aimed at “win-win cooperation and development,” and promised lucrative infrastructural investment and trade deals.
Beijing’s failure to deliver on its promises has put the flagship China-Central Eastern Europe (CEE) engagement initiative in crisis mode — beyond the departure of the three Baltic countries, several other participating states have gradually lowered the level of representation at the mechanism’s summits or refused to send envoys at all. Europeans are clearly growing impatient as even flagship projects in some of the most Beijing-friendly countries on the continent do not meet the grandiose pledges.
However, not all dynamics can be explained merely by economics. In light of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, governments and civil societies in CEE countries are growing increasingly wary of the supposed “no-limits friendship” between Beijing and Moscow. Beijing’s tacit support of Russian atrocities in Ukraine exacerbates the antipathy that Europeans, particularly in the east of the continent, feel toward China.
However, security concerns related to Chinese influence in Europe predate Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Defense and intelligence bodies in Europe regularly point to a broad array of tools that Beijing deploys for its influence operations. The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service public report for this year showed that mutually reinforcing narratives in Chinese and Russian propaganda channels proliferate across the Baltic states. Moreover, the Lithuanian National Threat Assessment highlighted that China’s ambitions to dominate in cutting-edge technologies constitute a crucial threat to Europe and NATO.
This is reinforced by findings by the Czech Security Information Service. Calling China “a complex growing intelligence threat,” the agency’s reports highlight the possible economic and know-how loss through Chinese information and influence operations targeting academic institutions, including through agreements with Chinese institutions belonging to the “Seven Sons of National Defense.”
The growing disenchantment with Beijing experienced across European capitals provides a window of opportunity for Taipei to further assert itself as a reliable and important Indo-Pacific partner. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan effectively capitalized on medical and legislative diplomacy to bolster its relations with Europe, particularly the countries in the east of the continent.
Nevertheless, it is imperative that these efforts go beyond episodic manifestations of goodwill and undergo further institutionalization.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration should expand its actions in the following three areas: foreign investment, subnational diplomacy and fostering connections with partners in Europe across partisan fault lines.
Economic exchanges are at the core of Taiwan-EU relations. In its first-ever standalone report on relations with Taiwan, the European Parliament called on the European Commission to “urgently” commence work on a bilateral investment agreement with Taipei.
European Parliament Vice President Nicola Beer further reiterated the importance of this instrument during her visit to Taipei in July.
However, investment flows between both sides remain highly unbalanced. While the EU remains a major source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Taiwan, Taiwanese investments in the EU only represent about 2 percent of Taiwan’s global FDI stocks. Unlike China, Taiwan cannot dictate the operations of its enterprises.
The establishment of a dedicated fund for investments in CEE by the National Development Council and high-profile investment delegations from Taiwan to the region have provided a basis for increasing outward FDI flows from Taiwan to Europe.
However, close coordination with the private sector at home and key stakeholders in the public sector in Europe will remain pivotal to cultivating more balanced economic dynamics.
To this end, subnational diplomacy also constitutes an important tool for external engagement. The recent signing of a partnership agreement between the Kaohsiung City Government and Slovakia’s Bratislava region has been a positive development.
However, the potential of subnational exchanges with Europe, and CEE in particular, remains underappreciated. Although Taiwan has successfully embraced subnational ties with the US, with several states operating representative offices in Taipei, subnational partnerships between Taiwan and CEE are poorly diversified and clustered in Taipei. Some ties, such as the sister city agreement between Taoyuan and the Polish city of Radom, are effectively dormant.
Beyond promoting people-to-people exchanges, subnational diplomacy mechanisms can also bring positive economic externalities. Subnational economic links could more fully connect internationalizing Taiwanese small and medium-sized enterprises to European markets, maximizing exports and investments, and tapping into job-creation potential.
It is imperative to recognize that one of the reasons behind the recent expansion of ties between Taiwan and CEE countries has been the fortuitous political dynamics in capitals across the region. Coalition governments formed by centrist and center-right parties in Vilnius, Prague and Bratislava have embraced cooperation with Taiwan based on pragmatic and normative considerations.
Taiwan should not fall into the pitfall of relying on political and business elites who represent a single political orientation, avoiding the myopic modus operandi pursued by China in Hungary and previously in the Czech Republic under the government of Prime Minister Petr Fiala. Robust people-to-people exchange programs and multilevel outreach initiatives will be key to minimizing the susceptibility of Taiwan to the negative effects of electoral volatility in its partner countries.
The growing skepticism about Beijing across Europe provides a window of opportunity to Taipei to assert itself as a reliable and important partner in its own right. Taiwan should no longer be relegated to a mere subtopic within broader China-Europe relations.
At the same time, whether the potential of the current moment can be fully realized also depends on wise foreign policymaking of the nation. With economic and people-to-people ties placed at the very core of interactions between Taipei and the European capitals, further institutionalization of relations and tangible project outcomes will determine whether the relations can continue on the current upward trajectory. The story of China in CEE serves as a reminder that lip service will simply not cut it.
Marcin Jerzewski is the head of the Taiwan office at the European Values Center for Security Policy.
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