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How Can the US and Europe Cooperate More Effectively on the Taiwan Issue?

How Can the US and Europe Cooperate More Effectively on the Taiwan Issue?
 Larry Diamond
William L. Clayton Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

In June 2023, the Hoover Institution and Institut Montaigne co-organized a transatlantic dialogue entitled “Ukraine and Taiwan: A Two-Front Test of Wills for America and Europe.” The dialogue was moderated by Larry Diamond, the William L. Clayton Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and François Godement, Senior Resident Fellow at Institut Montaigne for Asia and America. The discussions revealed both shared perspectives and also significant points of divergence between the EU and US policy communities on Taiwan issues, including on the framing of rising tensions, the stakes of the threat, and the appropriate responses. These summary reflections identify the key elements of consensus and divergence between the two policy communities and propose productive paths forward.

The Transatlantic Consensus

The principle shared understanding on both sides of the Atlantic is around the "One China" policy, especially the condemnation of any use of force to change the status quo.

Transatlantic differences over the specifics of this position have receded in recent years, especially with increasing governmental and societal awareness in Europe that a Taiwan crisis—whether from a blockade or a full-scale military conflict—would also have devastating consequences for European economies.

Most notably, this increasingly shared US-EU understanding has manifested in efforts to preserve Taiwan’s international space. Both parties continue to pursue governmental and parliamentary exchanges with Taiwan.

The increasingly shared US-EU understanding manifests in efforts to preserve Taiwan’s international space and continued exchanges with Taiwan.

Despite increasingly strident PRC objections, informal visits from Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs to the EU continue, as do stopovers in the United States by Taiwan’s president. In recent years, informal diplomatic ties, mentions of the Taiwan issue by Member States, and representations on this issue to PRC authorities by Europeans have increased in number and intensity. The EU Parliament and several European governments have taken a stand advocating for Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization (WHO). And the EU has adopted an anti-coercion instrument due to the PRC’s sanctions against Lithuania over the issue of naming a new Taiwan representative office.


The Transatlantic Divergence

Beyond this common foundation, however, there is notable distance between European and American assessments of the Taiwan issue.

On a practical level, this is evident in Europe’s lack of involvement in assistance for Taiwan’s defense, including arms sales, following well-known diplomatic brushes with the PRC.  The US, by contrast, maintains a robust policy of arms sales to Taiwan, as per the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the August 1982 Third Communiqué between the US and the PRC. President Biden’s statements on four occasions regarding American military support for Taiwan, in case the PRC uses force against it, have no equivalent or near equivalent in the EU.

At the foundation of this divergence in policy is the underlying idea (usually unspoken-but implicit in European mentions of "Sino-US rivalry") that it is also incumbent on the United States to do whatever it can to defuse that conflict. However much European views may align with the US on the authoritarian regression of Xi Jinping’s regime, many Europeans still consider "realism" to disincentivize the CCP from launching a military conflict.

However, there is notable distance between European and American assessments, evident in Europe's lack of involvement in Taiwan's defense.

It remains that while Europeans often complain of being "takers" of decisions made across the Atlantic, they do not put forward propositions on how to deal with China, other than advising restraint, with the implicit belief that the US acts otherwise.

This is not a unitary European view. But no EU Member State comes out in full support of US military deterrence. At the same time, however, neither does any European government deny freedom of navigation principles in the region or support the use of force by the PRC to achieve unification. France is a special case - simultaneously more engaged than any other Member States in Indo-Pacific security, up to and including navigating the Taiwan straits, while consistently resisting any form of NATO expansion towards East Asia and increasingly alluding to a "third way" in the region.

Europeans do not put forward propositions on dealing with China, other than advising restraint, implicitly believing the US acts otherwise.

Contrary to the US, Taiwan is not at the top of the European-China agenda. The wrangling over decoupling or de-risking takes priority instead. In Europe, beyond the lobbying influence of companies that would suffer immediate losses from publicly mandated measures, there is a perception that delinking the economies would increase the risk of a military conflict, with the CCP having less to lose economically than to gain politically from a conflict in this situation.

Domestic politics interferes with policy on both sides of the Atlantic. The specter of “populist” or “MAGA” politics carrying the 2024 election, and even the Biden administration’s assertion of a link between economic defense (on trade and investment with China) and a “policy for the middle class,” scares European politicians. The firm steering of a “geopolitical Europe” by the von der Leyen EU presidency and its command over external coordination with the US and others on trade, and increasingly over technology rules and investment issues, has awakened the suspicion of some Member States that the Commission is interfering with their national prerogatives. This is a boon for Chinese officials and analysts, who are now playing up the European rhetoric of “strategic autonomy” from the United States.

Steps to Move Forward

We must not wait until a conflict scenario over Taiwan brings these divergences to the fore—rather, we must begin grappling now toward more shared understanding and policy alignment across the Atlantic. Both Europe and the US should endeavor to find solutions to existing disputes.  Neither the doctrinaire EU approach, based on multilateralism even when it is proven not to work, nor the often ad hoc coalitions of the American approach are satisfying. We must remember that every act of compromise and coordination helps to dispel the suspicions (largely from the European side) that different interests predominate in US choices on derisking or sanctions.

From the point of view of the US, communication and public diplomacy will matter greatly. The US should emphasize its even-handed treatment of the issue, show readiness to discuss with China even at the cost of restating the same policies and principles, and perhaps communicate more solidly with its partners and allies on Chinese military issues and risks, as it did in the year before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In addition, being more explicit about European participation in Indo-Pacific defense would be a helpful nudge.

Neither the doctrinaire EU approach, based on multilateralism even when it is proven not to work, nor the often ad hoc coalitions of the American approach are satisfying.

The US currently owns the Taiwan issue and feels no need to encourage even a token European participation. Advocacy in the US to move defense resources from Europe to Asia in the absence of these conversations is not helpful in the present context. While more EU-US communication on the Taiwan issue would likely have modest military results, this would push the debate further in Europe.

In the EU, Member States have a responsibility not to undercut the Commission. The von der Leyen Commission has achieved what is likely an unprecedented sharing of information via the US-Europe Trade and Technology Council (TTC). While dealing with the EU Commission through the TTC has been the most practical policy approach, it is now politically insufficient. For better and for worse, the EU is in a balance between the Commission and Member States, with some increased role for the EU Parliament.

Beijing plays a triangular global power game. Narrowing policy divergences is key to a healthy EU-US alliance-and to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

One approach shouldn’t be at the expense of others. In addition, the EU adoption of a new agreement for transatlantic data flows matters greatly for third parties and is a key step to push back authoritarian digital powers. Indeed, the extent to which Xi and the CCP are taking measures towards self-sufficiency while encouraging dependencies by others should be a permanent theme of public diplomacy and knowledge sharing with regard to the derisking and sanctions issues.

Beijing plays a triangular global power game which could become more effective. Proactive efforts to narrow policy divergences are key to a healthy alliance between the EU and the US—and to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

François Godement and Larry Diamond extend their gratitude for the excellent points made during the dialogue and to the participants for their time. The list of participants includes but is not limited to Reinhard Bütikofer, Mathieu Duchâtel, James Ellis, Liana Fix, Francis Fukuyama, Alexander Gabuev, Bonnie Glaser, Gustav Gressel, Bart Groothuis, Robert Haddick, Ryan Hass, Jakub Jakobowski, Michel Duclos, Ivan Kanapathy, Elaine Luria, Michael McFaul, Charles Parton, Yurii Poita, Matthew Pottinger, Orville Schell, Ben Schreer, Kathryn Stoner, Kharis Templeman, Glenn Tiffert, Abigaël Vasselier, Gudrun Wacker, Georgina Wright, and Joel Wuthnow.

Both authors also thank Louise Chetcuti (Institut Montaigne) and Frances Hisgen (Hoover) for their help in organizing this dialogue.

Copyright Image: Sam Yeh / AFP

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