As EU-Taiwan ties deepen, cybersecurity is front and centre

 On paper, Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies appear to be dwindling, with Nicaragua the latest country to switch allegiance to Beijing. Yet in the past year, the island has successfully built up support among democracies worldwide, particularly in deepening diplomatic engagement with Europe – marking an unprecedented shift in EU-Taiwan relations.

This rapid warming of ties can be chalked up to an increasingly belligerent Beijing, whose aggressive influence campaigns have pushed European lawmakers to reconsider Taiwan as a strategic partner in cybersecurity and resilience – much to China’s anger.

China’s ‘Machiavellian’ offensive backfires (in Taiwan’s favour)

Though EU-China relations have long been complex, with a 2019 EU policy paper describing China as “simultaneously a cooperation partner, economic competitor, and systemic rival”, the last two years of the pandemic have seen European views towards China take a turn for the worse.

President Xi Jinping’s increasingly aggressive policy at home and abroad has provoked greater wariness and even outrage in the EU, which has become increasingly aware of the threats from China, particularly in the form of disinformation and influence campaigns.

As the pandemic gathered pace in June 2020, Brussels accused China of running Covid-19 disinformation campaigns inside the European Union – the first time the European Commission publicly named China as a source of disinformation. Later that month, at an EU-China virtual summit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also suggested that China was behind a spate of cyberattacks against European hospitals during the Covid-19 crisis.

A wide-ranging report on Chinese influence operations worldwide by France’s Institute for Strategic Research of the École Militaire published in September also examined China’s disinformation operations targeting Sweden. Researchers say that Beijing views the Nordic country as a strategic Trojan Horse through which to infiltrate and destabilise European institutions.

The report referred to China’s means of exerting influence abroad as “Machiavellian”: increasingly resembling tactics employed by Moscow, with a strategy echoing the oft-quoted phrase from The Prince: “It is better to be feared than to be loved."

Yet these Machiavellian techniques – coupled with Beijing’s crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong, human rights violations in Xinjiang, and routine military intimidation of Taiwan – have caused Europe to take a more hardline approach towards Beijing. 

In turn, the region is also starting to reconsider Taiwan as a strategic partner by virtue of its democratic values, cyber-resilience strategies, and technological prowess.

European Parliament drives pro-Taiwan shift in Brussels

In a signal of Europe’s shifting stance towards both China and Taiwan, the European Parliament adopted an unprecedented report on EU-Taiwan relations and cooperation in October with a sweeping majority of 580 votes in favour, 26 against.

In contrast to the previous caution of European institutions fearful of angering Beijing, the resolution was uncharacteristically bold. Referring to Taiwan as a “key partner” in the Indo-Pacific, it called for a comprehensive and enhanced partnership with the island, with recommendations such as upgrading the European Economic and Trade Office in Taiwan, signing a bilateral investment agreement with the island, and deepening cooperation in confronting disinformation, cybersecurity and cyber-threats.

Though non-binding, the resolution shows increased effort to elevate Taiwan on Brussels’ agenda while remaining within the scope of the EU’s “One-China policy”, which stipulates that there is but one China represented in international organisations.

In early November, the Parliament sent its first-ever official delegation to Taiwan, composed of seven members of the Special Committee on Foreign Interference and Disinformation (INGE). 

The committee met with senior Taiwanese government officials and civil society organisations to learn from Taiwan’s experience in combatting foreign interference. The island is on the front line of China’s influence campaigns, which aim to undermine Taiwan’s democratic institutions.​​​​

“Taiwanese experience is extremely valuable for its uniqueness, in terms of China's interests within Taiwan, their shared language, history and also Taiwan's own development. This has led to an approach from which we can take notes,” Marketka Gregorova, a Czech MEP who was a part of the European delegation, told FRANCE 24.

“We would like to tap closer into Taiwan’s know-how, cooperating with NGOs and experts within the region, and potentially share this with other democratic allies, both in the region and outside,” she added.

Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a postdoctoral researcher based in Taiwan and a former political advisor in the European Parliament, writes that “threats to Taiwan’s democracy and economy are threats to Europe’s democracy and economy … and understanding these links is vital to maintaining the momentum in bilateral ties”.

In its Indo-Pacific Strategy paper, made public in September, “the EU noted that increasing tensions in the Taiwan Strait ‘may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity'", Ferenczy told FRANCE 24. “For the first time, Taiwan is identified as a partner for semiconductors, in building resilient and diversified value chains and data protection."

In March, the European Commission announced its plan to grow its share of the global semiconductor market to 20% by 2030, after a global shortage during the pandemic dealt a blow to its automobile industry. Brussels has been trying to persuade Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturer TSMC, whose cutting-edge chips powers everything from iPhones to artificial intelligence and fighter jets, to set up a factory in Europe.

“With the European Chips Act, Europe will step up its efforts to increase production, but we also want to cooperate with our like-minded partners including Taiwan,” said Sabine Weyland, director general of the European Commission’s trade section, during a virtual Taiwan-EU investment summit in October.

Weyland added: "Not only because Taiwan excels in the production of semiconductors, but also because technology is ultimately a question of security. We want the EU's digital agenda to be shaped together with our like-minded partners and according to our common values.”

Uncowed by China

Predictably, the European lawmakers’ trip to Taiwan last month provoked anger in China, which accused the European Parliament of “seriously violating the EU’s commitment to the One-China policy” and threatened “further reaction in accordance with the development of the situation”.

Raphaël Glucksmann, the French MEP who led the delegation, is among 11 EU individuals who were sanctioned by Beijing in March for their advocacy regarding abuses in the Xinjiang region. As he set off for Taiwan, he wrote on Twitter that, “Neither threats nor sanctions will intimidate me. I will always stand by those who fight for democracy and human rights."

Following the Taiwan visit, the EU Parliament said its delegates had agreed to explore more avenues of partnership, including the possible creation in Taipei of a joint hub to counter disinformation. The Parliament’s EU-Taiwan report also called on the European Commission to “urgently begin an impact assessment” on a bilateral investment agreement with the island. 

But although the Commission had specified in a joint communication on EU strategy in the Indo-Pacific in September that “it will pursue deep trade and investment relationships with partners […] such as Taiwan”, it has so far refrained from striking such a deal, concerned that the move would further fray Europe-China relations.

Indeed, further cooperation between the EU and Taiwan will also depend on the foreign policies defined by its member states, especially as Germany’s new government comes into power and France gears up for presidential elections in April 2022.

In a shift from Germany’s economics-driven China policy in the Merkel era, Germany’s Greens, who now lead the foreign ministry, have pledged a more “value-based” approach and tougher stance towards Beijing. In turn, all three coalition partners in the new government have advocated expanding relations with Taiwan.

“The EP’s [European Parliament] work has contributed to seeing cooperation with Taiwan as ‘normal’ and pushed the EU to take ownership of the pro-Taiwan language,” said Ferenczy.

“Taiwan has been successfully building up international support, with democracies more comfortable to engage in Taiwan in practical workarounds […] and this is happening because of an aggressive China. Beijing is in fact contributing to more, and not less, Taiwan in Europe."



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