Taipei, Taiwan – When Czech Senate speaker Milos Vystrcil declared “I am Taiwanese” during a speech at Taiwan’s parliament earlier this month, he was met with a standing ovation.
The comment was a pointed reference to US President John F Kennedy’s statement “I am a Berliner”, made in defiance of Communism at the height of the Cold War in a then-divided Germany, and while it drew applause from Taiwanese politicians, it only enraged the self-ruled island’s powerful neighbour – China.
Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its own, had already threatened to make Vystrcil pay a “heavy price” for his visit. And on the day of his parliamentary address, it warned the Czech legislator he had crossed a “red line” with his six-day trip.
Vystrcil’s Taiwan tour was rare for a European politician.
In Europe, Taipei maintains diplomatic ties only with the Vatican City, with China having whittled down the East Asian democracy’s diplomatic allies to just 16 globally. And although the European Union claims a right to “develop its relations with Taiwan“, the 27-member bloc adheres to the One China Policy, a long-standing rule from Beijing that any country wishing to establish ties with it must sever relations with Taipei.
And so, it was rarer still when major European powers jumped to Vystrcil’s defence – France called China’s threats “unacceptable” and Germany urged Beijing to show mutual respect.
While some viewed Vystrcil’s trip as an attempt to make a splash at home ahead of an election, analysts in Europe say the visit and the diplomatic row it caused are the latest signs that European attitudes towards both Taiwan and China are shifting, albeit glacially.
“The default solution in the past decades would’ve been Germany or the other Europeans staying silent as the Czech Republic got bashed, but we saw an actual degree of European solidarity,” said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
In recent years, the EU has largely remained silent when – under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership – Beijing stepped up its diplomatic offensive against Taiwan, squeezing Taipei out of most international spaces, including from its observer seat at the World Health Assembly.
But analysts now say Taiwan’s near-disappearance from Europe’s political agenda may be coming to a halt, thanks to a series of soft-power wins by Taipei, combined with growing Western scepticism of an increasingly assertive China.
Mathieu Duchatel, a policy analyst at the French think-tank Institut Montaigne, says the “political space” for Taiwan has continued to shrink every year since United States President Richard Nixon first visited China in 1972, a landmark visit that later resulted in the establishment of formal ties between the two countries.
In Europe, while some countries have allowed visits by Taiwanese officials, the region “has been overall extremely reluctant [to make moves] that could be interpreted in Beijing as touching the red line,” Duchatel said.
But that trend appears to be on the reverse – one reason being Taiwan’s successful handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
The pandemic brought to light the differences in Taiwan and China’s political systems: Critics accuse China of suppressing news of the disease when it was first detected in the city of Wuhan, thereby allowing the virus to spread across borders, but Taiwan won plaudits for mobilising quickly, closing its borders and setting in place a stringent quarantine and testing system – moves that have kept the island’s COVID-19 cases below 500 and fatalities at just seven.
“The COVID crisis has really put Taiwan in a very positive light. There have never been that many discussions on Taiwan in the European media,” Duchatel said. “It’s amazing how people talk about Taiwan, not for Cross-Strait relations and security; they talk about Taiwan as a successful model of effective democratic governance to manage such a huge public health crisis. The contrast is this creates space for Taiwan.”
Taipei has indirectly benefited, as well, from Beijing’s so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, according to Duchatel.
The term comes from a patriotic Chinese action film and refers to a recent and more aggressive style of diplomacy pursued by Chinese diplomats, including tactics such as lashing out at criticism – not just from the Czech Republic, but also recently from France, Sweden and the Netherlands.
That new “sharper” style, has not gone down well in Europe.
On back-to-back tours of the region in late August and early September, China’s top diplomats found officials and leaders from Italy to France and Germany more willing to raise Beijing’s human rights record – from the internment of more than a million Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang to its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in semi-autonomous Hong Kong were both mentioned.
Concern is also growing over alleged security risks from doing business with Chinese tech giants like Huawei as well as the unequal terms of trading with China, and worries about forced technology transfers and copyright protection – two issues that started the US-China trade war.
“We are where the US was probably five years ago, realising China is not changing the way we expected and deciding on what we should be doing,” said Maaike Okano-Heijmans, a senior researcher at The Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael.
“In Europe, we are now rethinking where do we stand and how.”
Many of Europe’s concerns over China have remained the same for more than two decades, according to EU archives, but many Western countries are finally coming to terms with the idea that growing rich might not – as was once believed – transform China into a Western-style democracy.
A report by the European Council on Foreign Relations released this month found that while much of the EU sees China as an important strategic partner in terms of trade, broad concerns persist about the region’s economic imbalance and “growing wariness of overdependence and exposure to the political and economic risks emanating from Beijing”.
“Member states recognise that China is increasingly adept at dominating bilateral relationships with them, and ever brasher in its violations of human rights and international commitments in places such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong,” the report said. “They acknowledge that this partly reflects the failure of European efforts to stand up to Beijing politically.”
Europe, however, is not expected to see a US-style decoupling from China, but rather a slow rebalancing act that could leave some political room to cooperate with Taiwan, particularly on non-political issues or by the media and among parliamentarians, according to Oertel at ECFR.
“For Europe, these things don’t happen very fast,” she said. “What we have to underline is EU member states have pushed back in what used to be a slightly closer relationship with Beijing, where Beijing managed to squeeze the space for Taiwan even further.”
In a sign of the changing times, this week, a group of parliamentarians and experts including the former German Ambassador to China Volker Stanzel, published an op-ed in the French newspaper Le Monde, calling for Europe to “rethink” its One China policy.
Justyna Szczudlik, head of the Asia-Pacific Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), says countries in Eastern and Central Europe have more room for manoeuvre with China because their economic ties with Beijing are not as strong as the countries of Western Europe.
Central and Eastern Europe only receive about three percent of China’s overall exports, while Chinese investment in EU members in the region is only around $11.2bn combined, according to Szczudlik.
Unfulfilled economic promises have further dimmed China’s once-promising star, particularly with the lack of “any specific tangible benefits” from its “17 1” agreement with the region, according to Szczudlik.
Known formally as the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries, “17 1,” the agreement between Beijing and a collection of EU, non-EU, and NATO states was signed in 2012.
The deal was initially intended to promote China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative in the region and pave the way for expanding Chinese trade and investment. Initially responsible for some diplomatic wins for Beijing, in recent years it has fared less well, says Ivana Karaskova, founder of the Czech Republic-based China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe.
“China’s leverage in the region can significantly influence the policy of both organisations regarding China. It has already happened a few times, when Greece and Hungary blocked EU’s joint position on the South China Sea or human rights abuses,” Karaskova said in an email interview with Al Jazeera.
“But recently the [Central and Eastern European] countries started to shift their focus from promises of economic cooperation from China (with most of them never materialising) towards realising political and security risks stemming from cooperation with China.”
Although Taiwan appears to have finally found a wedge in Europe, its goals remain pragmatic for now, says Marc Cheng, executive director of the EU Centre in Taiwan. Taiwan’s main priority, for now, is to interest European countries in maintaining “good relations with China but to explore the possibility of further relations with Taiwan,” he said.
Taiwan recently opened a new office in the south of France and the island remains a major destination for European renewable energy investment, Cheng said.
“Climate change and renewable energy, these are very good examples [where] Taiwan has the capacity and willingness to engage more with Europeans,” Cheng said.