BRUSSELS — Europe is increasingly wary of China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong crackdowns, widespread censorship and pervasive social control, let alone technological advancements, industrial espionage and aggressive rhetoric.
Nor are Europeans very happy with the ‘no borders’ partnership that China and Russia proclaimed shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
But Europe does not support Taiwan’s independence and recognizes Beijing as the seat of Chinese power.
And what is more important for Europeans is to keep open trade with China and its huge market, while working with Washington to prevent military aggression against Taiwan. No European country, no matter how pro-democracy, has shown great willingness to travel halfway around the world to help defend Taiwan militarily, as President Biden has sometimes sworn to do (before the White House corrects him).
So European leaders have been largely silent about President Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan.
“This is not their fight, this is America’s fight, and the Biden administration has been clear for the past year and a half that the Indo-Pacific is its priority,” said Philippe Le Corre, a China scientist at Harvard University. “Taiwan has been pretty quiet, and most Europeans think the trip was a mistake,” raising tensions when “there is a war going on in Europe itself.”
If Europe is wary of new investment in China, Taiwan is considered a US issue, as is the greater Pacific, where Europe has few military resources.
“The continued US support for Taiwan has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with geopolitics and credibility,” said Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to both the United States and the United Nations.
The only country in the European Union that openly supports Mrs Pelosi’s visit is Lithuania. Through a Twitter message, the Minister of Foreign AffairsGabrielius Landsbergis, said that now that “Speaker Pelosi has opened the door to Taiwan much wider, I am sure that other defenders of freedom and democracy will walk in very soon.”
Perhaps. But Lithuania and Beijing have an ugly fight over Taiwan; Vilnius allowed Taiwan’s new unofficial embassy to use the word Taiwan in its name, and Beijing retaliated with trade restrictions. Other countries of the European Union were angry that Lithuania, without consulting them, had created what they saw as an unnecessary problem.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has been an outspoken critic of China’s domestic policies and human rights violations. Without supporting the Pelosi trip, Ms. Baerbock China for rising tensions with Taiwan.
“We will not accept it when international law is violated and a powerful neighbor attacks its smaller neighbor in violation of international law – and that includes China, of course,” she told Der Spiegel news magazine before the visit. “Given the brutal Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, it is important to make it clear that the international community does not accept such behavior.”
But Europeans – and German businessmen – know that China and the European Union are huge partners in reciprocal trade.
Yet increasing criticism of China has fueled Europe’s increased interest in the fate of Taiwan, which, like Ukraine, is another small democracy facing a nuclear-armed authoritarian.
Last October, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu went on a charm offensive in Europe, stopping in Brussels for informal meetings with European Union lawmakers. 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”.
Then parliament sent its first-ever formal delegation to visit the island, defying Beijing’s threats of retaliation and imposing sanctions on a number of prominent lawmakers.
But Parliament is largely powerless in foreign policy and does not speak on behalf of the European Commission, let alone Member States.
Britain, which is no longer a member of the European Union, has been more open in its criticism of China than other European countries, and a visit to Taiwan by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has long been on the agenda.
Still, the British trip would come in November or December, after the Communist Party Congress. Before that, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, wants to put in some effort to ensure he gets another term in office. It is Ms Pelosi’s timing that many analysts believe has angered Mr Xi and led to such a strong response.