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Official Taiwan trip won't likely provoke China

William Yang Taipei
October 4, 2022

A parliamentary delegation's visit this week demonstrates symbolic support for Taipei, but experts say it is not a fundamental shift in the status-quo of Germany's stance towards Taiwan.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, center, poses for photos with a delegation from the Germany-Taiwan parliamentary friendship group led by Klaus-Peter Willsch and other Taiwan officials at the Presidential Office in Taipei
China opposes official contacts between countries and Taipei and has tried hard to stop international recognition of the islandImage: ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

A delegation of six German lawmakers arrived in Taiwan on Sunday for a five-day official visit and met the island's president, Tsai Ing-wen, on Monday.  

In comments to Tsai, Klaus-Peter Willsch, chair of the German-Taiwan Parliamentary Friendship Group, said China's threats against Taiwan were unacceptable.

"In Europe, we have been experiencing a big neighbor invading a small neighbor and trying to impose its will with military force since February 24," he said, referring to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"We do not consider it acceptable that you are threatened by a neighbor with military force, to be forced into unwanted cooperation," he said. "The German Bundestag is clear in its rejection of that."

Tsai said she was grateful for Germany's support of Taiwan's participation in international organizations, and for raising concerns over rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

Berlin's balancing act with China 

Despite the lack of official diplomatic relations, Taiwan ranks fifth among Germany's trading partners in Asia, with bilateral commerce in goods exceeding €20 billion ($19.78 billion) last year, a new record.

China views self-governing democratic Taiwan as part of its territory and vows to annex it by force if necessary. 

Beijing also opposes official contacts between Taipei and other countries and has tried hard to stop any international recognition of the island.

The Chinese government has protested the German lawmakers' visit and urged them to abide by the so-called One China policy, under which the Beijing-based People's Republic of China (PRC) is the sole legitimate government of China. 

Noah Barkin, managing editor of the New York-based independent research outfit Rhodium Group's China practice, said that Berlin doesn't want its interactions with Taiwan to jeopardize its economic ties with China.

"There is little appetite in Berlin for a forward-leaning approach to Taiwan that might be seen as provocative in Beijing," he underlined.

"I do not see this visit by members of parliament as a sign that the German government's approach has changed in any fundamental way. The Bundestag has sent delegations to Taipei in the past and they will continue to do so."

China is Germany's largest trading partner. However, in September, Economy Minister Robert Habeck declared "naivety towards China is over" and pledged to rethink trade relations, reducing dependency on Chinese goods and taking human rights into greater consideration.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also sharply criticized Beijing's military aggression towards Taiwan in August.

During the chancellorship of Angela Merkel, Germany was criticized for not doing enough to condemn alleged Chinese human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, where several major German companies operate factories

However, analyst Barkin said there is a risk that Germany is unprepared for the fallout of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

"Russia's war in Ukraine has been a shock to the German government and triggered an intense public debate about the relationship with China," he pointed out.

"But there is a risk that Germany is just as unprepared for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait as it was for Vladimir Putin's invasion. There is a lot more work to do at the national and European levels to prepare for Taiwan scenarios," he added. 

Germany's symbolic support for Taiwan

The German delegation's trip comes amid increased tensions between China and the West over Taiwan following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's controversial visit to the island in August.

The German delegation's visit this week carries both symbolic importance and substance, said Marcin Jerzewski, head of the Taiwan Office of the Center for European Values, the EU's official representation in Taiwan.

"The fact that the German delegation coming to Taiwan is a cross-partisan delegation sends a message that it is normal to engage with Taiwan and it is normal to foster people-to-people relations because this is inherently what parliamentary delegations do," he added.

"While this visit stops short of a more explicit engagement between executive branches, I think it's important to consider it as a substantive contribution to the overall, albeit gradual change in the foreign policy of Germany towards Taiwan," he said.  

'Nobody can blackmail us'

Yu-Chung Shen, a political science professor at Tunghai University in Taiwan, shares a similar view.

"While the lawmakers don't represent the German government's official position, the cross-partisan nature of the delegation shows there is cross-party support for Taiwan in the German parliament."

During the remainder of the trip, the German delegation is expected to visit Taiwan's parliament, hold meetings with local security think tanks and visit Tainan Science Park in the southern part of the island.

"I expect the German parliamentarians to discuss the full range of issues with their Taiwanese counterparts, including China's threatening behavior, what Taiwan is doing to defend itself, and where Germany and Taiwan can work more closely in the economic and technology spheres," said Barkin.

Chih-Mei Luo, a European studies expert at National Taipei University in Taiwan, hopes there will be more emphasis on trade and economic affairs, as collaboration in these areas generally creates fewer risks for Taiwan.

Cooperation in these areas "usually creates fewer problems" and "can be more sustainable," she said.

"Pelosi's visit to Taiwan seemed like a big event, but it led to a shaky situation for US-Taiwan relations. Things that are more controversial often can't be that sustainable," she added.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru