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Prospects of Taiwan-EU relations — Taiwan's strategic culture and role in between hegemonies

An interview with the former Deputy Foreign Minister and current Taiwan Representative to the EU and Belgium, Dr. Roy Chun Lee, has provoked deep thoughts in terms of Taiwan's political tensions with China as well as making sense of the presidential election results, which ended up with a victorious Lai from the Democratic Progressive Party.  


In the interview, Lee elaborated comprehensively on the European perspective of cross-strait relations and how they mutually influence one another despite lacking geographic proximity. Moreover, Lee concluded that as a newly appointed representative to Brussels, his ultimate mission was to increase the viability and sense of acceptance of Taiwan and enhance mutual sharing between the EU and Taiwan.


Laura Chappel(2010) developed two theoretical frameworks, strategic culture and role theory, in order to better understand Poland's perspective concerning security and defence. In addition, explaining how these perspectives impacted Poland's engagement with the EU and the compliance to its law. Therefore, in this article, I intend to apply Chappel's frameworks to examine the current EU-Taiwan relations and how Taiwan stands in the Indo-Pacific region, based on the interview with Lee. 


Strategic ambiguity: The strategic culture of Taiwan


Chappel(2010) defined strategic culture as "the central role played by the interpretation of historical events in the formation of how a country's policymakers view the use of force." Chappel's definition emphasises a 'unique historical experience' experienced by a security community that influences their beliefs, attitudes, and norms concerning the use of force, which would often be projected onto the expected roles of the community from policymakers.

Lee began the interview by highlighting the strategic change in the EU since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. According to Lee, the EU used to function under the belief that mutual commercial trading introduces peaceful dynamics with third countries. Despite the principle, Russia weaponised its energy supply due to the EU's energy dependence, disregarding the mutual respect overtrading. Therefore, it only made sense that the current EU strategic agenda prioritises security and resilience, encompassing diversification, sustainable development and green energy. 


Similar to the current hardship the EU has been facing since the War, Taiwan has been facing political and economic coercion from China. Lee provided the example of the Taiwanese trade restriction, which has been converted to an intentional economic blockage in the Chinese narrative. According to Lee, the current 'economic blockade' resulted from miscommunication between China and Taiwan that was supposed to be resolved 20 years ago; however, it was being set aside. Beijing thus politicised the narrative of an economic blockade as a tool of coercion. Lee then added that by establishing such an accusative narrative, Beijing adopted a strategically ambiguous measure, leaving the Taiwanese government no choice but to respond with a similar approach of ambiguity. 


Looking at the cross-strait relations from retrospect, it is not difficult to observe that the relation has been built upon such ambiguity, such as the interpretation of the '92 Consensus' in which the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claimed that there is only one China – though both sides define China differently.


Taiwan has also been subject to measures of strategic ambiguity regarding the naming of international events. The term 'Chinese Taipei' has been used in international organisations, such as the WTO or any international sports events, to refer to the Taiwanese delegation. Thus, the term is the byproduct and compromise of such ambiguity to avoid China's aggression or coercion. 


In terms of Sino-U.S. relations, a spill-over effect spread to hegemonic countries such as the U.S. to prevent the escalation of a cross-strait conflict. Instead of agreeing upon the 'one China principle', the U.S. and most EU countries have been operating upon the 'one China policy', which acknowledges that there's only one China. At the same time, non-diplomatic interactions and cooperation with Taiwan have been simultaneously ongoing. 


Apart from Taiwan and China's strategic ambiguity, China's undeniable market and economic value are major factors why the U.S. and the EU choose to prioritise one China policy despite China's breach of democratic values, said Lee, explaining a stereotypical Taiwanese perspective that Europe has always been pro-China. 


Taiwan's security and defence roles, based on its strategic culture 


Taiwan's role as a territorial defender with a passive use of force and proactive use of 'soft power.'  

Taiwan's perception of threat has been plain and simple — China. Whether it be military coercion or economic coercion, as mentioned above. As opposed to the older generation, the new Taiwanese generation values their newly found national identity as well as territorial integrity more than anything. Consequently, Taiwanese people hold a rather conventional view of national security, which explains the increased budget for military apparatus in the newly elected government agenda. Nevertheless, acknowledging the strategic ambiguity with China and its ongoing empty threats, the Taiwanese have since experienced societal fatigue from the Chinese threat, resulting in a collective passive view concerning the use of force. On the other hand, the tool of 'soft power' has been applied by governmental officials as well as on a societal level, whether it be a technical or academic exchange of resources or non-official events involving a variety of fields. 


Taiwan's effort on soft power has not been in vain. Moreover, according to Lee, the War in Ukraine conveniently brought the cross-strait crisis to the table, having the EU understand their pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific and the potential repercussions if they remain indifferent. Hence, the geopolitical intensity in the Indo-Pacific corresponds with the EU's current Indo-Pacific strategy. 



Taiwan's role as a reliable ally 

Due to the multi-crisis, the EU member states have been experiencing, the most prominent would be the COVID-19 crisis and the energy crisis in light of Russian aggression in Ukraine. The EU has been transforming its narrative, prioritising strategic autonomy and economic security, developing themes such as resilience and 'de-risking' in order to shed away from the grip of systemic rivals such as Russia and China. 


In the interview, Lee specified three levels for the concept of 'de-risking’. First of all is to decouple, which is a tool for de-risking. However, understanding that a 100% decoupling would only backfire, the following steps would be prioritising internal production and establishing an alliance with a trustworthy partnership. 


Taiwan then possesses such trustworthy characteristics as most values and legal systems correspond with the EU's emphasis on democratic freedom, human rights, economic freedom and the rule of law. According to Lee, Taiwan is closer to the EU than most people realise. Significant societal and industrial development follows the EU regulations regarding food security, environmental agenda, security and cyber security. 



Taiwan's role as a promoter of international cooperation 

Like most democratic countries, Taiwan also faces new waves of challenges apart from the Chinese threat due to globalisation, such as the economic crisis, COVID-19 crisis, climate and energy crisis, internal structure crisis and the misgoverning of authorities. Discouraged by the cross-strait relations and stagnant international status, the Tsai administration began a path of diversification that included a 'New Southbound Policy' to not be over-dependent on the Chinese market. 


Moreover, owing to the success of Taiwan's semiconductor industry, Taiwan managed to develop bilateral economic relations with European countries, from France and Germany to Central European countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia. Baltic countries such as Lithuania and Nordic countries have also shown interest in establishing such agreements. Despite a stagnant response towards a bilateral investment agreement with the EU, there seems to be more room for future coordination in the semiconductor and AI industries. 


Edited By: Josh Reidelbach

Photo: TFIGlobal 

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Tags: #Cross-strait relations #EU-Taiwan #Strategic culture #De-risking


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