The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, at the start of her five-year long term, proclaimed the new European Commission to be a `geopolitical` one.
This new definition of the new Commission meant that it would be more externally oriented. Metaphorically, it means that the economically powerful European Union would get foreign policy muscles in the new insecure and multipolar world. Without its geopolitical role, the EU as the economic giant would stay very silent in international relations.
In practical terms, it would mean that the EU needs to address every international issue with its own political position. One of these issues is Taiwan and relations with China in the 21st century. US-China relations deteriorated in the past decade and the tensions in the South China sea are rising. Taiwan is set to be a country at the highest risk to be invaded in the next ten years by the Chinese armed forces.
The situation with Taiwan and the European Union
Since the inauguration of the American president, Joe Biden’s global focus shifted to the South China sea. During the past few months, the Chinese airforce broke the Taiwanese airspace with more than 20 fighter planes. American Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken called Taiwan a `state` for the first time, the country that the Peoples Republic of China considers a part of mainland China. Many European navies intensified their presence in the South China Sea as a response to a more assertive Chinese role in the region.
The Chinese authoritarian approach in Hong Kong, oppressive policies against the Uyghur minority in Xingyang, and the threat of invasion on Taiwan are the major geopolitical issues in future relations of democracies and contemporary China. Joe Biden in his presidential speeches framed the competition with China as the competition between democracies and autocracies for the future of the world.
“We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works — and can deliver for the people,” he said during his address on Capitol Hill. “In our first 100 days together, we have acted to restore the people’s faith in our democracy to deliver.” The American political position on China (and Taiwan also) is clear and bold. It means providing support to democratic Taiwan against the authoritarian regime in Bejing.
Democracies and Their Chinese Dilemma
Many Pacific and European countries have the same political dilemma considering relations with China. China, as an economic giant, has deep trade relations with many democratic countries. Many industries in European countries depend on Chinese markets. Also, many Pacific and European customers and industries depend on imported Chinese products and materials. For example, the main trade partner of democratic South Korea, Australia, and Japan is China. All of these countries, because of their deep economic bonds with Bejing, are not that flexible for a more decisive political confrontation with China. Except for political reaction on the issues of Hong Kong, oppression against the Uyghur minority, and threats of invasion on Taiwan, it is harder to expect these Pacific countries to be more hawkish. Taiwan issue is the most controversial because of the reaction to the potential Chinese invasion on this island country must consider a more direct response, that potentially doesn’t exclude the use of force.
On the other side, European Union can soon face the same challenge. EU is geographically far away from China, but their economic bonds are intensifying. Bejing is the central import partner for the European Union, but only the third export partner, first after the United States and the United Kingdom. But these export numbers can increase very soon.
On 30th December 2020, the EU and China reached a deal in principle on a comprehensive investment agreement (CAI) during a prolonged 35th round of negotiations. This agreement is predicted to improve European exports and the level of investments in China. A new investment agreement in 2020 intended to guarantee a stable framework of conditions for trade and investment in each other’s markets. To enter into force, it must still be ratified by EU member states and the European Parliament, where it faces massive opposition. Ratification of this agreement would make these two giant economies more interdependent in practice. Can that circumstance transform the European Union’s position to be similar to Pacific democracies? What can Taiwan expect if this happens?
The European Union and Taiwan
From the political point of view, Taiwan is the most similar Asian country to European Union standards and values. Taiwan is one of the most democratic countries in the world according to The Economist Magazine Democracy Index. It is the only country in the whole of Asia that legalized same-sex marriage, and one of the world’s champions in women’s rights. China is on the other side one-party dictatorship that is becoming even more authoritarian and aggressive to its neighborhood countries. If this European Commission wants to be a `geopolitical` one it needs to be on the side of Taiwan in this dispute. The success of Taiwan as a democratic country is a success of EU values in practice and its position in the multipolar world of emerging autocracies.
But, from the economic point of view, Taiwan and the European Union are not crucial partners. The economy of Taiwan is big but far smaller than the Chinese. The nominal GDP of Taiwan is 21st in the world, Chinese is the second according to IMF. For Taiwan, the EU is the only 6th export partner and 5th import partner. For the EU Taiwan is further down on the list of trading partners, at 15th place. If Brussels would ignore the political factors and only pursue the economic benefits, this dispute would be a no-brainer. China would be a preferable partner according to only these criteria. But if this European Commission wants to have a more significant political role in the world, it would need to pursue political interests, not just economic.
The very rational political interest of the European Union is to export democracy in the world and defend it where it already exists. A world where autocracies set the global rules would be hostile to the European Union and its interests. Supporting democracies all around the world means supporting the world order that benefits Europe.
Sometimes it means sacrificing the economic benefits for political interest. In the Pacific region, defending and providing support to democratic Taiwan is a battle worth fighting. It is the model society that very successfully reformed itself from brutal dictatorship to full democracy. If the Chinese Communist Party occupies democratic Taiwan, it would destroy one functional democracy and it will increase the power of the world’s largest autocracy. The geopolitical European Commission would defend Taiwan at all costs. Time will show if it is a geopolitical one.