Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 2 September 2020



How western democracies can help Taiwan

Milos Vystrcil is greeted by Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu. China said the Czech senator’s arrival in Taiwan 'crossed a red line' for which there would be a 'heavy price'
Milos Vystrcil is greeted by Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu. China said the Czech senator’s arrival in Taiwan 'crossed a red line' for which there would be a 'heavy price' © Chiang Ying-ying/AP

Milos Vystrcil, president of the Czech Senate, is not commonly compared with John F Kennedy. On Tuesday, however, making a rare visit by a senior European official to the Taiwanese legislature in Taipei, he echoed the US president’s 1963 boast in Berlin by declaring to lawmakers in Mandarin: “I am Taiwanese.” Mr Vystrcil’s remark reflects a growing pushback by western democracies against Chinese pressure on the de facto independent island that Beijing insists is part of China. It came hours after a senior US official pledged a new economic dialogue with Taipei. The US also declassified documents providing more detail on its security assurances to Taiwan.

The moves met predictable fury from China. Foreign minister Wang Yi, himself on a visit to Berlin, said the Czech senator’s arrival in Taiwan “crossed a red line” for which there would be a “heavy price”. But the US and European allies are right to signal carefully calibrated support to Taipei.

China has for months been stepping up aggression in its neighbourhood. Chinese soldiers have clashed with Indian troops on the border. Beijing has escalated efforts to assert control over the South China Sea, and imposed a draconian security law in Hong Kong — torpedoing the “one country, two systems” arrangement it once proposed as a model for Taiwan. Chinese military aircraft and ships have repeatedly menaced the island’s airspace and waters.

Despite Beijing’s sensitivities, Taiwan deserves western support. Three decades after throwing off authoritarianism, it is a vibrant democracy of 24m. Its tech sector forms a backbone of global supply chains and an economy on the verge of the G20. Its notable success in suppressing Covid-19 means it has important expertise to share.

Full recognition of Taiwanese statehood is not on the cards — it would risk triggering a Chinese attack. Most countries have policies that acknowledge Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of a single China, though without recognising its claim of sovereignty. Democratic allies must strike a delicate balance, providing support to Taiwan without triggering Chinese retaliation. Steps could include more frequent visits such as those by Mr Vystrcil and last month by Alex Azar, US health secretary — the highest level US visitor in four decades.

If dozens of countries simultaneously upgraded their interaction with Taiwan, Chinese attempts to “punish” them all could instead leave Beijing isolated. Western governments could also push back against Chinese intimidation. German foreign minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday warned his Chinese counterpart over his language on the Czech visit. Mr Wang’s threats should have met a united European response.

Western democracies should encourage Taiwanese participation in international organisations, and counter Chinese objections. Before being excluded under pressure from Beijing in 2016, Taiwan for eight years took part as an observer in the World Health Organization’s decision-making body — showing flexibility is possible, and could be applied by other multilateral bodies. Taiwan should also be welcomed into non-governmental forums on relevant issues, from public health to tech supply chains to cyber security.

With a US presidential election looming, there are mounting concerns that the Trump administration will escalate the confrontation with Beijing for electoral gain. So far, despite signs that China hawks are in the ascendancy in the White House, recent policy on Taiwan has been carefully balanced. It is in the best interests of the US, Europe and Taiwan that it remains so until election day and beyond.

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