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Taiwan: Baerbock, Macron comments raise questions on EU ties

William Yang in Taipei
April 14, 2023

First, France's Macron said Europe shouldn't follow the US on Taiwan. Then, Germany's top diplomat said France's China policy reflected the policy of the EU as a whole. How are these comments seen in Taiwan?

Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock touches her shoulder during a press conference in China
Germany's Baerbock has tried to present a united front in ChinaImage: Suo Takekuma/Pool via REUTERS

France's Emmanuel Macron has prompted backlash by saying that Europeans should not be "followers" of either US or China when it comes to Taiwan and urging for more EU autonomy in international policy.

His statements came as China was conducting a massive three-day military drill around the self-ruled island, which Beijing sees as a part of its own territory. On Wednesday, Macron said he was standing by his comments and that "being an ally does not mean being a vassal" of the US. At the same time, he emphasized that France supported "the status quo in Taiwan" and was in favor of solving the situation peacefully.

Then, Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock tried to present a united front during a visit to China. Baerbock said that Macron's response to criticism "once again emphasized that France's China policies reflected EU China policies one-to-one." While she did not clarify where Berlin stood on issue of the EU's autonomy from the US, Baerbock said EU nations "pursue common strategic approaches," and she focused on the economic dangers of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

"A military escalation in the Taiwan Strait ... would be a worst-case scenario globally and affect us as one of the biggest industrial nations in particular," Baerbock said.

EU 'doesn't think this is their business'

For Anthony Yang, a 35-year-old Taiwanese pilot, Macron's comments are a "sign of weakness."

"While Europe seems to be struggling with their own internal problems, as the war in Ukraine continues, they are also too far away to offer any substantial support if China ever decides to invade Taiwan," Yang told DW. "He seems to try to express goodwill to Beijing by making those comments."

Following his trip to China last week, Macron also told the French business daily Les Echo that Europe shouldn't be caught up in "a disordering of the world and crises that aren't ours." He added that Europe should ask itself whether an acceleration on the topic of Taiwan is in its interest and why Europe should "go at a rhythm chosen by someone else."

Other Taiwanese people told DW that while Macron's comments may have come as a surprise, they aren't particularly disappointed by the position presented by the French president, as they have "never put too much faith" in Western European countries as real allies against China.

"It seems like no country is sincerely trying to help maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, as they are all prioritizing their own interests," said Ariel Yin, a 34-year-old Taiwanese woman. "European countries seem to view Taiwan as valuable due to the semiconductor supply chain and their own economic interests."

This angle was also mentioned by Germany's top diplomat Baerbock, who noted that "50% of global trade passes through the Taiwan Strait, 70% of semiconductors pass through the Taiwan Strait, so the free passage is in our economic interest as well."

"Conflicts must be solved peacefully," Baerbock said during a press conference with her Chinese counterpart Qin Gang.

Ming-Wei Lai, a Taiwanese engineer in his early 40s, said that European countries only realized the strategic importance of Taiwan to the world since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The global health crisis caused a shortage of semiconductor chips.

"While they've become a bit more aware of the potential risks that could come with a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the EU still doesn't think this is their business," he told DW.

China will be 'a problem for Europe'

And while the Taiwanese public is skeptical towards Europe, Taiwanese politicians sound more optimistic. Alfred Lin, the spokesperson of Taiwan's main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), told DW that the KMT has "never doubted President Macron's support of Taiwan democracy and peace in the strait."

Kolas Yotaka, the spokesperson of Taiwan's Presidential Office, emphasized that Taiwan has been guarding the peace and "status quo” across the Taiwan Strait, and this, according to Yotaka, is what Macron and most leaders from democratic countries want.

"If there is any country trying to change the status quo, you have to be careful," she said, adding that China won't only be a problem for Taiwan and Asia, but it'll also be a problem for Europe.

"Working together is the only solution for all," she said.

Macron's comments 'understandable'

Some experts say that Taiwan has traditionally been viewed as an American issue, with Europe wary of appearing in the shadow of the US "as a sidekick."

"It's understandable for a European leader to argue that Europe shouldn't blindly follow the US' lead on a primarily 'American' problem," said Chieh-Ting Yeh, an adviser to the International Taiwan Studies Center at the National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU).

"Yet, the degree to which Macron tried to diverge from the American stance seems trying to be different just for the sake of being different, rather than coming from a well-defined, principled stance on China," he told DW.

Should Taiwan reconsider its ties with Europe?

Taipei has been trying to deepen its ties with the European countries in recent years. But the latest comments from European leader cast doubt on that course.

"Their diplomatic actions gave Beijing a chance to not only exploit the differences among European countries' stance on China but also sow division into the trans-Atlantic alliance," said Chiaoning Su, a Taiwanese academic living in the US.

Taiwanese engineer Lai told DW that Macron and Baerbock's comments make him believe that Taiwan should focus its diplomatic efforts on countries in East Asia and Eastern Europe, as well as partners like Canada, Australia and the UK.

"I don't put too much hope in countries like Germany, France, and Italy, but I think we can expect countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the UK to be potential allies that Taiwan can rely on," he said.

Yang, the Taiwanese pilot, added that since there are too many countries in the EU, it seems difficult for their member states to agree on a challenging issue like tension across the Taiwan Strait.

"In an emergency, I think we should look to allies nearby," he told DW, adding that Taiwanese people can get a sense of what European countries may do in an event of a conflict across the Taiwan Strait based on how they respond to the war in Ukraine.

In contrast, Yeh from NTNU argued that European leaders' comments show that Taiwan should keep working to strengthen ties with democracies in Western Europe.

"As Eastern European countries become more vocal about support for Taiwan, there is a momentum in Europe to look at Taiwan and China in the larger context of maintaining the liberal world order against authoritarian regimes," he said. "This is a crucial time for Taiwan to be an active part of those conversations."

Edited by: Darko Janjevic