In the same boat: Why Taiwan is strengthening ties with central and eastern Europe

On 20 May, Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te will be sworn in. A member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Lai is associated with the party’s so-called “deep green” faction, known for being especially hawkish towards Beijing. He has a big job ahead of him: Lai’s inauguration will take place amid China’s growing coercion across the Taiwan Strait, with grey zone tactics, such as disinformation and incursions into Taiwan’s air-defence identification zone, aimed at intimidating the island nation short of direct military conflict. Beijing is also poaching Taipei’s diplomatic allies, with only 12 having official relations with Taiwan. To counteract this pressure, the DPP is focused on strengthening its international partnerships, particularly with the European Union, a close geopolitical and economic partner.

Before Lai’s presidency even began, Hsiao Bi-khim, his vice-president elect, travelled to four European countries – the Belgium, Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Poland earlier this year – the first visit of an incumbent Taiwanese vice-president to Europe. Importantly, three of the four capitals where Hsiao met with parliamentarians, academics, think-tankers, and government officials were central and eastern European (CEE). These developments are a sign of the times: they mark Taipei’s commitment to strengthening its relations with Europeans amid growing international instability. In particular, they demonstrate Taiwan’s willingness to engage especially closely with CEE, a region that has become the engine of growth for Europe-Taiwan ties. This friendship is founded on a growing consensus between Taipei and many CEE governments that Russia’s and China’s revisionism are interrelated and pose a joint threat to the rules-based international order and European security.

Although this perception is not equally pronounced across all CEE capitals, (with Hungary being the starkest example of a Beijing-friendly European state), voices from Lithuania, Czech Republic, and, to a lesser degree, Poland, inform this debate and are slowly but steadily bringing these new sensitivities into the European mainstream. The idea is also close to the hearts and minds of many in Taiwan, albeit seen more through the prism of China’s behaviour and its impact on the situation in the Indo-Pacific. In this way, CEE and Taiwan are becoming unlikely allies – geographically distant yet increasingly aligned in their perception of the negative impacts of international developments, such as the relative decline of the United States and Moscow’s and Beijing’s ambitions to reshape the existing order to their liking. To counteract these trends, they are fully aware of the need to cooperate with like-minded partners.

The issue of Taiwan, together with European strategic autonomy and the Chinese role in Russia’s war on Ukraine, are the three key debates where CEE voices have been increasingly heard by the EU and beyond on how to approach China. Given the growing affinity between China and Russia, CEE countries should use their unique experiences of Moscow’s attempts to weaken the US-led international order, and apply this perspective to shape a more unified, competent, and self-confident European policy towards China. Having gone through a period of dynamic cooperation with China that did not really turn into tangible benefits in the form of Chinese foreign direct investment, and increasingly aware of the interplay of strategic interests between Moscow and Beijing, CEE countries can provide a unique perspective that can help the rest of the EU to recalibrate its China policy. Against the backdrop of growing international tensions, securitisation of China’s industrial and foreign policy, and the spectre of Donald Trump as the next US president, CEE voices should raise the sense of urgency for Brussels to come up with policy solutions that will be beneficial for both Europe’s competitiveness and security, but also the interests of its like-minded partners – even those geographically distant, such as Taiwan, which is a key European partner with a shared interest in upholding the rules-based international order. They can do this in three key ways.

Firstly, when it comes to strategic autonomy, China is a vocal supporter of Europe distancing itself from Washington. This is an unpopular idea for many in CEE, who count on the US as their main security provider. In the context of the Sino-American strategic rivalry, Beijing wants to prevent Europe from coordinating its China policies with Washington. With Donald Trump’s potential re-election, some European decision makers might feel compelled to similarly lower their ambitions when it comes to transatlantic cooperation on China, especially as they see challenges associated with Moscow’s revisionism as more urgent. In this context, CEE countries should remind the rest of Europe that while the EU’s defence capabilities need to be strengthened immediately, the changing trends in EU-China trade, the influx of Chinese investment in electromobility, and the question of China’s industrial overcapacity also bring new challenges to the continent. Many CEE markets are deeply intertwined with German value chains in the automotive sector – an industry that is now under threat from China’s competition. And while the question about the long-term effects of China’s growing advantage in innovative sectors, such as electromobility, on the European market remains open, CEE states will need to find an answer to this challenge sooner rather than later. A debate on the topic is urgently needed across European capitals, and CEE states may be well-placed to initiate it.

Secondly, the impact of Beijing’s continued cooperation with Moscow on the war in Ukraine should not be underestimated by other EU member states. By seeing the war in Ukraine as a proxy war of the US, “provoked” by NATO, China has aligned its own strategic interests with those of Russia – a decision that did not go unnoticed in many CEE countries, as well as in Taiwan. To them, Beijing is not only seen as an economic enabler of the war in Ukraine, but also as an actor with an appetite to indirectly shape the European security architecture by backing Moscow’s perspective on this conflict. As the two theatres on NATO’s eastern flank and on the Indo-Pacific merge in front of our eyes, CEE governments should point out the need to look strategically at the developments around Taiwan in conjunction with developments in Ukraine, as Moscow and Beijing stand back-to-back in the competition to shape the emerging global order. As potentially weaker US security guarantees may encourage Moscow’s aggression, CEE capitals could push for greater contingency planning among European defence policy in the context of a potential escalation on two fronts: in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific.

Moscow and Beijing stand back-to-back in the competition to shape the emerging global order

Thirdly, by engaging with Taiwan despite the dangers of economic and diplomatic coercion from Beijing, many CEE countries have highlighted the importance of normative and economic cooperation with like-minded partners for the stability of the rules-based international order. In an environment dominated by unpredictability, this kind of partnership might be better placed to stand the test of time, given its strong normative and strategic underpinnings. This does not mean that unrealistic expectations, such as the hopes for attracting large-scale high-tech investment from Taiwan to CEE, should become the new norm. Nevertheless, the value of joint efforts, for example to strengthen cooperation to secure supply chains and enhance knowledge-sharing regarding malign interference from third parties, should not be underestimated. Hsiao’s visit testifies to the importance of this kind of partnership.

Bearing all these elements in mind, CEE countries should become more proactive in incorporating their insights into the broader pan-European debate on China, Russia, and Taiwan. Although stating that we live in an interconnected world is a truism, for a long time it was used in a positive way to highlight the impact of economic globalisation and the belief that connections bring more stability and peace. Now, with the kind of tectonic shifts Europe and its partners are experiencing, it might be high time to acknowledge that interconnectivity is also a challenge and a potential threat. And connections that have long gone unnoticed, such as those between Russia and China, should be finally taken seriously.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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