BRUSSELS – Europe is increasingly concerned about China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, its crackdown in Hong Kong, widespread censorship and pervasive social control, not to mention its technological advances, industrial espionage and aggressive rhetoric.
Europeans are also not very happy about the borderless partnership that China and Russia proclaimed just before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
But Europe does not support Taiwan independence and recognizes Beijing as the seat of Chinese power.
And what is more important for the Europeans is to keep trade open with China and its vast market while working with Washington to prevent military aggression against Taiwan. No European country, no matter how supportive of democracy, has shown much willingness to travel halfway around the world to militarily defend Taiwan, as President Biden has sometimes promised (before the White House corrects him).
As a result, European leaders are largely silent on the controversial visit of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosis to Taiwan.
“This is not their fight, this is America’s fight, and the Biden administration has made it clear over the past year and a half that the Indo-Pacific is its priority,” said Philippe Le Corre, a China Fellow at Harvard University. “Taiwan has been pretty quiet, and most Europeans think the trip was a mistake,” leading to tensions when “there’s a war going on in Europe itself.”
If Europe is suspicious of new investment in China, Taiwan will be viewed as an American affair, as will the greater Pacific region, where Europe has few military assets.
“The continued US support for Taiwan has nothing to do with democracy, everything to do with geopolitics and credibility,” said Gérard Araud, former French ambassador to both the United States and the United Nations.
The only country in the European Union that openly supported Ms Pelosi’s visit was Lithuania. In a Twitter message, his Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that now that “Speaker Pelosi has opened the door to Taiwan much wider, I am sure other defenders of freedom and democracy will step through very soon.”
Maybe. But Lithuania and Beijing are in an ugly row over Taiwan; Vilnius allowed Taiwan’s new unofficial embassy to use the word Taiwan in its name, and Beijing retaliated with trade restrictions. Other European Union countries were upset that Lithuania, without consulting them, had created what they saw as an unnecessary problem.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is an outspoken critic of Chinese domestic politics and human rights violations. Without backing the Pelosi trip, Ms Baerbock warned China of escalating tensions with Taiwan.
“We do not accept it when international law is broken and a powerful neighbor attacks his smaller neighbor in violation of international law – and of course that also applies to China,” she told the news magazine Der Spiegel before the visit. “In light of Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, it is important to make it clear that the international community does not condone such behavior.”
But Europeans – and German businessmen – know that China and the European Union are great partners in mutual trade.
Still, growing criticism of China has led to greater interest in Europe in the fate of Taiwan, which, like Ukraine, is another small democracy confronted by a nuclear-armed authoritarian.
In October last year, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu launched a charm offensive in Europe, holding informal meetings with European Union lawmakers in Brussels. The European Parliament overwhelmingly backed a resolution calling for stronger ties with Taiwan, which it described as a “partner and democratic ally in the Indo-Pacific”.
Parliament then sent its first-ever formal delegation to visit the island, defying Beijing’s threats of retaliation and the imposition of sanctions on some prominent lawmakers.
But Parliament is largely powerless on foreign policy and does not speak for the European Commission, let alone the member states.
Britain, which is no longer a member of the European Union, has criticized China more openly than other European countries, and a visit to Taiwan by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has long been on the cards.
But the British trip would take place in November or December, after the Communist Party convention. Before that, China’s leader Xi Jinping wants to show strength to secure another term for him. It is Ms. Pelosis’ timing that many analysts believe angered Mr. Xi and sparked such a strong reaction.