As the international community focuses on the long-lasting Ukraine-Russia war and the catastrophic crisis in the Middle East, it is often assumed that European policymakers are devoting too little time to assessing political and security risks in the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite a deteriorating security situation in Europe on several fronts, the European Union (EU) has taken a new interest in Asian security in recent years. One of the key spots for this renewed concern is the situation in the Taiwan Strait.
One event in particular may have prompted a renewed focus on Taiwan — the visit by U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi in August 2022 — and China’s subsequent decision to launch military exercises encircling Taiwan. Since that time, policymakers in Brussels as well as in most European capitals have begun to acknowledge that geopolitical tensions between Beijing, Taipei, and Washington may spill over and affect U.S.-European affairs more than previously thought.
However, a broader focus on Taiwan within the EU has quietly been afoot for a few years. Taiwan was given unprecedented treatment in the EU’s 2021 Indo-Pacific strategy, specifically recognizing that the display of force in the Taiwan Strait may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity. Similarly, Germany’s recently published China strategy addresses the Taiwan issue in clear terms, highlighting the need for peace and stability in the area. The German government says it is “working for de-escalation,” as military conflict would badly affect German and European interests in the region.
To European countries, a potential war in the Taiwan Strait would not only disrupt trade with East Asia, it could also cut global production chains, reshape Asia’s security architecture, and bring severe consequences to the EU economy. For example, 40% of the EU’s external trade and no less than 100,000 trade vessels pass yearly through the Taiwan Strait. In addition, around 30,000 Europeans currently live in Taiwan, which speaks to the significant potential humanitarian crisis that would unfold for EU countries if a conflict broke out in the Taiwan Strait. With Taiwan’s presidential election set for January 13, 2024, concerns are only growing, not just in the Asia-Pacific and North America but also across the European continent. In short, from Brussels to London and Paris, there is increasing unease about Taiwan, its relations with China, and the worldwide impact of a conflict across the strait.
Thus, from an almost complete lack of European interest, this small island of 23 million has now become a focal point for geopolitical analysis and assessment in the EU. While Europe acknowledges the many economic, educational, and technological opportunities with the island, most EU capitals are now also coming to terms with security-related aspects across the Taiwan Strait.
This paper examines past and present European perceptions of Taiwan, and how the island’s future has turned into a new economic and diplomatic issue for the EU, its member-states, and their close neighbor — the United Kingdom.
Background: Europe and Taiwan
Once praised as “Ilha Formosa” (beautiful Isle) by Portuguese explorers in 1542, a Spanish colony from 1642, and a regional trade hub for the Dutch East India Company during most of the seventeenth century, Taiwan has long attracted European powers. Following 50 years of Japanese colonization, which ended with Tokyo’s surrender to end World War II in 1945, Taipei eventually became in 1949 the “temporary capital” of the Republic of China (ROC), thus hosting embassies of many major European nations, most of which had departed mainland China after the Communist Party’s victory in the civil war. Exceptions included the United Kingdom, treaty-bound to China via its British colony of Hong Kong (through the 1898 New Territories 99-year lease); Nordic countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland; and countries that belonged to the then Eastern or Socialist bloc, including Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.
By the late 1980s, the ROC on Taiwan started turning into a new and dynamic democracy. President Chiang Ching-kuo, the elder son and heir to General Chiang Kai-shek, died in 1988 after a decade in office. Months before his death, Chiang junior had made a very significant decision: lifting martial law and paving the way for the island’s democratization. Political parties started to emerge to challenge the ruling Kuomintang, and activists took (peacefully) to the streets of Taiwan to speed up the process.
After the People’s Republic of China (PRC) took over the ROC’s United Nations seat in 1971, all European nations gradually restored diplomatic relations with Beijing. Now, within Europe, the Holy See is the only political entity that recognizes the ROC government as the representative of China.1
Over the past five decades, European countries have built multiple nonofficial relations with Taiwan. From the late 1970s, entities such as the German Cultural Center in Taipei, the Spanish Chamber of Commerce, the French Association for Cultural and Scientific Development in Asia, and various other trade and cultural offices were launched in Taiwan.2 Taiwan likewise established nonofficial relations in Europe, for example, with the opening of the Free China Center in the UK, the Far East Trade Service in Germany, the Asian Center for Economic and Trade Promotion in France, and the Taipei Information Center in the Netherlands.
Still, European governments are unwilling to engage in any formalized official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Their diplomatic relations with the PRC and adherence to a “One China” policy restrict official or formal diplomatic contact.3 Long-term pressures from the corporate sector eyeing opportunities in the Chinese market also led government leaders — such as the successive German chancellors or French presidents — to approach interactions and relations with Taiwan with a degree of caution.
It was only in the 1990s that several European countries started to upgrade relations with Taipei by sending cabinet ministers, beginning with the high-profile six-day visit in 1991 by French Industry Minister Roger Fauroux. The visit was later described by Beijing as “unacceptable.”
Later that year, France sold six La Fayette-class frigates for $3.06 billion (€2.8 billion) to Taiwan, followed in 1992 by 60 Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets for $5.03 billion (€4.6 billion). Highly controversial, these defense sales caused furious reactions from the PRC government, which retaliated by closing the French Consulate-General in Guangzhou and excluding French companies from bidding for the construction of the Guangzhou metro system. On January 12, 1994, on the thirtieth anniversary of bilateral relations between France and the PRC, Paris decided to reaffirm its commitment to Beijing and promised “not to authorize French firms in the future to participate in the armament of Taiwan.” Consequently, most European governments decided to limit their relations with Taiwan to the economic and cultural domains.
Recent arms sales from EU countries to Taiwan have been limited. In 2020, Taiwan reportedly acquired the DAGAIE missile interference system from the French firm DCI-DESCO for $26 million and agreed to upgrade its Mirage jets through a renewed “maintenance” contract. Beyond that, no major arms sales have taken place between EU countries and Taiwan.
Rebalancing Ties between China and Taiwan
A major shift came in the following years. The European Parliament increasingly became the EU’s standard-bearer against rising PRC influence and concurrently as a relatively “Taiwan-friendly” institution through individual parliamentary contacts. As early as 1996, the European Parliament condemned the PRC for conducting military exercises in the Taiwan Strait ahead of the first direct presidential election on the island while underlining the need for the PRC to renounce the use of military force against Taiwan.
On the trade front, the ROC became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as the “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu” in January 2002, leading the EU to strengthen bilateral trade relations. Economically, relations between the EU and Taiwan have been getting stronger in the past two decades. In 2020, Taiwan became the EU's fourteenth-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade in goods reaching $54 billion (€49.3 billion), and the EU became Taiwan's largest foreign investor.
The EU-Taiwan “framework of cooperation” reflects the dynamic trade and economic relationship between two “like-minded WTO members.” EU statements usually describe the bilateral relationship in highly positive terms. Within EU-Taiwan consultation mechanisms, three technical working groups deal with issues relating to intellectual property rights, technical barriers to trade (including in the automotive sector), and sanitary and phytosanitary rules.
Despite pressures from Taiwan, the EU remains reluctant to conclude a bilateral investment treaty, and Brussels does not support full Taiwan membership in other international bodies. The UK government holds similar views, supporting Taiwan’s participation in international organizations as an “observer” rather than a full member.
In September 2021, an important parliamentary report to the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy called for an intensification of EU-Taiwan political relations and an effort to “pursue a comprehensive and enhanced partnership under the guidance of the EU’s One China Policy.” It also called for the European Economic and Trade Office in Taiwan to change its name to “European Union Office in Taiwan” to reflect the broad scope of EU ties and encourage increased economic, scientific, cultural, political, and people-to-people exchanges, meetings, and cooperation between the EU and Taiwan.
Following the 2022 Pelosi visit to Taiwan and subsequent live-fire military drills launched by China around the island, the European Parliament adopted a resolution (approved with 424 votes in favor, 14 against, and 46 abstentions) condemning “the recent Chinese aggressive military exercises in the Taiwan Strait.” Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) demanded that the Chinese government refrain from any measures that could destabilize the Taiwan Strait and regional security.
The Parliament also urged the European Commission to consider enhanced EU-Taiwan connectivity projects and co-investment partnerships, including between the EU’s Global Gateway infrastructure program and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy. The European Parliament insisted such collaboration would not only help foster EU-Taiwan trade and political relationships but also help stabilize the Indo-Pacific region.
In addition, numerous visits by MEPs to Taipei have shown the increasing solidarity between the Parliament and Taiwan. For example, seven members of the Special Committee on Foreign Interference and Disinformation of the European Parliament visited Taipei in September 2021. In November 2023, four members of the European Parliament’s Taiwan Friendship Group met with President Tsai Ing-wen during an official trip. Following these trips, several MEPs of various nationalities have expressed strong support for Taiwan.4 Taiwan’s immediate past representative in Brussels, Yui Tah-Ray (俞大㵢), asserts that most MEPs are receptive to Taiwan values. “Mutual concerns include the humanitarian situation of Ukraine, trade standards, norms over fishing in high seas, world health and supply chains” insisted Representative Yui, who has since relocated to Washington, DC, to serve as Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador.5
Meanwhile, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of visits to Taiwan by national parliamentarians. From France to the Czech Republic and Germany, dozens of elected politicians paid visits to Taipei, subsequently becoming informal Taiwan advocates vis-à-vis their own governments. Since October 2022, Germany alone sent four separate delegations — three of them parliamentary — to Taipei. The most significant visit was a delegation led by Federal Minister for Education and Research Bettina Stark-Watzinger, a prominent figure in the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The minister signed the Germany-Taiwan Science and Technology Agreement, which will expand collaboration in areas such as artificial intelligence, batteries, hydrogen energy, and most importantly semiconductors.
Although parliamentarians have been at the forefront of improved relations with Taiwan, views are shifting within the European Commission and individual European governments. Lithuania is a case in point, as the Baltic state agreed in 2021 for Taiwan to open a Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius. Until then, other EU countries had been using the name “Taipei,” which led to some internal debates within the Lithuanian political elite and inside the EU. Lambasting the opening of the office as an “egregious act,” Beijing downgraded its relations with Lithuania to the level of chargé d’affaires, halted freight trains to Lithuania, and cancelled food export permits. Stepping in, Taiwan started encouraging its companies to invest in Lithuania, albeit with limited success thus far. Meanwhile, Lithuania became the seventeenth EU member-state to open a representative office in Taipei.
The German government released the country’s first-ever China strategy in July 2023, stating that Germany has “economic and technological interests” in Taiwan and that any military escalation in the Taiwan Strait would negatively affect German and European interests. Such a direct statement represents a clear shift in Germany’s approach toward both China and Taiwan: Berlin intends to expand its relations with Taiwan while trying to preserve its strong economic ties with the PRC.
While a One China policy remains the foundation for relations between European countries and the PRC, in several European capitals it is becoming increasingly clear that there will be consequences if China chooses to forcibly unify Taiwan. “What we are telling China is that a Taiwan attack would have major international consequences,” said a senior European diplomat.6 Jorge Toledo Albiñana, the EU’s ambassador to Beijing, went as far as saying, “In the event of a military invasion, we have made it very clear that the EU, with the United States and its allies, will impose similar or even greater measures than we have now taken against Russia.”
The current British conservative government has remained cautious, but former Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has warned China of the “global impact from any conflict over Taiwan,” while the head of the British Parliament’s Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), former Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith, called for “the free world to support Taiwan.”
Other Key Factors Contributing to Improved Relations with Taiwan
Taiwan’s Appeal vs. China’s “Wolf Warriors”
Much has been written about the new self-confidence that Taiwan has acquired over the past decade, especially since the reelection of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2020. Tsai — who was partly educated in London — is Taiwan’s first female president and has arguably adopted pragmatic and moderate policies during her time in office. Her steady and cautious approach has been an important ingredient underpinning stability across the Taiwan Strait.
In Europe, Taiwan’s representatives have behaved similarly. While the COVID-19 pandemic led some PRC diplomats to make controversial statements about European domestic policies (such as by Ambassador to France Lu Shaye (卢沙野), often described as one of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats), Taiwanese diplomats have appeared as the “smiling face” of Taiwan’s public diplomacy in the media, highlighting the island’s democratic and economic achievements.
Taiwan chief representatives to Germany Shieh Jhy-wey (謝志偉) and France Wu Chih-chung (吳志中) — both former senior government officials close to President Tsai — enjoy higher profiles than their predecessors. Their skilled diplomacy and reassuring media appearances have arguably enhanced a positive image of Taiwan in Europe. For example, Taiwan quietly opened its second French representative office in the city of Aix-en-Provence in the summer of 2020, using it as a window for Taiwanese cultural and educational projects. Between 2021 and 2023, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) also visited European countries including Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belgium, and Italy.
Successful Public Health Policies
In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic helped the Taiwanese government demonstrate its public management skills as well as national cohesion, both of which have reflected favorably on the island’s global image.
Collective efforts by the Taiwanese population and government helped minimize the impact of the pandemic on people’s daily lives and contributed to Taiwan’s international reputation. Its response to the pandemic was indeed highly effective in the early detection of the virus, the adoption of transparent information sharing and protection of human rights in the processing of epidemiological data, and the proactive involvement of civil society.7 Compared to many Western countries, Taiwan seemingly managed to contain COVID-19 by screening visitors from Wuhan from the end of 2019 as soon as the virus emerged, while avoiding closures of schools and private businesses. During 2020, Taiwan shipped personal protection equipment, such as masks, to several European countries, such as Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. A year later, some of these nations reciprocated by sending COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan.
Promotion of the Electronics Industry
Electronics account for a third of Taiwanese exports globally, and those have continued to grow during and after the pandemic. Taiwan Semi-Conductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is a case in point. Taiwan produces more than 60% of the world’s semiconductors and more than 90% of the most advanced ones. This fact has not escaped Europeans, as they have been watching the United States and China compete to control the most sophisticated chips crucial to the global semiconductor industry.
In Europe, media reports on the weight of Taiwan’s chip industry and the TSMC have multiplied over the past years. As many supply chains were affected during the pandemic, Europeans took notice of Taiwan’s key role in essential technologies. The Hsinchu science and industrial park and other high-tech zones near Taipei, for example, have become some of the most-visited sites by foreign dignitaries. Spurred by the 2023 Taiwanese Chips Act passed by Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, which offers tax subsidies worth 25% of research costs, foreign chipmakers are investing in Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, including ASML, the Dutch company that makes advanced lithography machines for cutting-edge chips. ASML will open its sixth factory in Taipei by 2026, investing $948.6 million (NT$30 billion) manufacturing fab in New Taipei City’s Linkou District (林口區).
Some Taiwan experts have rightly noted that democratization did not prevent Taiwan from losing diplomatic partners between 1990 and 2020.8 The number of governments maintaining official diplomatic relations with Taipei has actually fallen precipitously, down to 12 partners in 2023. At the same time, unofficial forms of diplomatic ties have increased. In January 2020, Prague established a sister city agreement with Taipei, driving Beijing City to suspend its official links with the Czech capital. Visits have also multiplied between Taiwanese and Czech officials, such as the Czech science minister meeting with his Taiwanese counterpart Wu Tsun-tsong (吳政忠) in Prague to launch the Supply Chain Resilience Center. Embedded in the prestigious campus of Charles University, the center is part of the Taiwanese government's efforts to support the development of the semiconductor environment in the country. It is 100% funded by the Taiwanese government.
Improving Public Perceptions: Taken together, the developments described above have contributed to a significant shift in the perception of Taiwan in Europe. First, Taiwan, which had no image at all across European public opinion, has increased its visibility. Second, as shown in Figure 1, European favorability ratings toward Taiwan, while mixed, tend to be much stronger when compared to European views toward China. China’s image in Europe has been in free fall due to a combination of human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet, the crackdown against civil liberties in Hong Kong, and PRC disinformation campaigns through social media in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of these and other factors, European citizens now tend to hold an overall negative perception of China.
Conclusion: Europe Should Continue Bolstering Taiwan’s Democracy while Reassuring China
Among European political elites, media, and societies, there is a rising juxtaposition between Taiwan’s successful democratic and economic model and the impenetrable, increasingly authoritarian nature of the PRC regime. In less than five years, the level of interest in China among the younger generation of Europeans has been falling, while the attraction of Taiwan’s democratic story is rising. Since 2021, more than 10,000 French expatriates have exited China, and according to French Foreign Ministry sources, only about 500 French students are currently living in China. At the same time, the number of Europeans studying in Taiwan is on the rise, in particular (but not exclusively) students of Chinese language and culture.
Taiwan’s image as a vibrant democracy with a thriving civil society also appears to have positively influenced European views. By all accounts, Taiwan is experiencing arguably unprecedented positive media coverage in Europe. As one example, in 2020, the number of European press articles mentioning the word “Taiwan” increased by 50% from 2019 and rose to more than 131% in the case of the French daily Le Figaro alone. Between 2017 and 2020, the increase was even more considerable (especially for selected French networks), measuring more than 149% for Agence France Presse (AFP) and more than 464% for Le Figaro.
Although a great geographic distance divides them, Europe and Taiwan share similar goals when it comes to democracy and human rights. As President Tsai said during a visit by European legislators in 2022, “Taiwan and the European Union are like-minded partners that share the values of freedom and democracy, and we are working together to safeguard our way of life.” Compatible interests in democracy, as well as in areas such as education, technology, public health, and gender equality, are bringing Europe and Taiwan together.
If anything, the Ukrainian situation has made the Taiwan issue more relevant in Europe, which is experiencing more intimately than others the pain and suffering caused by wars of aggression. The struggles of the Ukrainian people against the Russian invasion have only served to enhance the visibility of Taiwan, and the risks of a potential conflict across the strait.
Over the past few years, the breadth of the dynamic in EU-Taiwan exchanges has demonstrated that the foundation of joint cooperation has solidified. But as one Taiwan-based scholar puts it, Taiwan and Europe remain “partners of choice, not obligation.” Remoteness, different strategic interests, and competing economic and diplomatic obligations vis-à-vis China and the United States will continue to impact the Europe-Taiwan relationship in the near future. In this new year marked by multiple elections — including in the EU and the United States — Europeans should tread a fine line between their interests and values.
As for Taiwan, its security remains uniquely dependent on U.S. diplomatic and military support. Taiwanese admit their state of dependency. All three presidential candidates have concurred. On the other hand, there is no clear policy from any candidate to commit to a stronger relationship with Europe. Europe’s diplomatic posture on Taiwan will never match the forceful statements by the U.S. administration.
In recent years, relations between Taiwan and Europe have improved, partly by luck and partly thanks to quiet and savvy public diplomacy by Taiwan. In some European quarters, the Taiwan situation has emerged as yet another potential flashpoint that could affect Europe's economy. For all these reasons, the outcome of Taiwan's general elections will be more closely watched in Europe this time than on previous occasions, while the situation in the Taiwan Strait will generate increased interest in European policy, security, and business circles beyond 2024.
- Françoise Mengin: A functional relationship. Political Extensions to Europe–Taiwan Economic Ties, The China Quarterly, Cambridge University Press: 25 April 2002
- See Mengin, 2002, for a full list of Taiwan-related unofficial bodies in Europe and European offices in Taipei.
- Views and policies within the EU regarding the definition of “One China” differ. See, for example, https://carnegieendowment.org/2023/02/09/many-one-chinas-multiple-appro….
- In an interview for this paper on November 16, 2023, MEP Nathalie Loiseau said, “Taiwan is an excellent place to research foreign interference.”
- Loiseau interview, November 30, 2023.
- Interview, December 12, 2023.
- Corcuff, Stephane, Diplomatie 113, January 2022_Le_pivot_taiwanais_ou_la_democratie.pdf