This week, EU heads of state and government are meeting in Beijing for the first EU-China summit in four years. The meeting is taking place at a time of geopolitical chaos. The barbaric occupation of Ukraine by Russia continues. The war between Israel and Hamas could lead to a wider regional conflict. Domestically, both Europe and China are facing difficult economic conditions. Faced with such challenges, EU leaders may be tempted to take the easy way out in Beijing, avoiding contentious issues and focusing on economic cooperation. That would be a mistake.
In terms of trade, the EU is finally aware of the threat posed by China. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has made improving the EU’s economic security a hallmark of her term in office. She has called on the EU to reduce the risk to China by reducing dependence on critical Chinese-controlled commodities and diversifying supply chains. During recent visits to China, EU commissioners have complained about the lack of reciprocal access to the Chinese market for European companies, which contributed to an EU trade deficit of more than 400 billion euros last year.
Combating unfair Chinese trade practices and excessive dependence on China in critical sectors should be on the EU’s agenda in Beijing. However, the same applies to China’s human rights violations and military provocations. In Hong Kong, the Chinese authorities have shut down the free media, ended the independence of the judiciary and suppressed all forms of protest. In Xinjiang, China has committed systematic abuses against Muslim Uyghurs, including mass deportations. If EU leaders do not raise these issues with President Xi Jinping, they are betraying their own values, writes the Financial Times.
Most critically, EU leaders cannot ignore China’s military provocations against Taiwan. The Chinese navy and air force have intensified their exercises over the past year. Fighter jets simulate attack runs, while Chinese warships show the leaders in Taipei and Washington how they would impose a naval blockade of the island. Xi is making it clear that he intends to invade Taiwan by any means necessary, including a military strike.
Any attempt by China to change the status quo in Taiwan by force would undermine the EU’s values and strategic interests. Over the past 30 years, Taiwan has developed into a vibrant pluralist democracy and one of the most advanced economies in the world. It has become a beacon of freedom in the region and stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly aggressive, autocratic China under Xi. It is clear to Taiwanese citizens that they want to decide their own future without pressure from Beijing. The EU heads of state and government must support this right.
A military escalation in the Taiwan Strait would lead to economic chaos. More than 60 percent of global maritime trade passes through the South China Sea. The outbreak of a major conflict would send shockwaves around the world. Researchers at the Rhodium Group have calculated that a conflict in the Taiwan Strait could jeopardize more than USD 2 trillion worth of economic activity. This would be of greater magnitude than the global unrest caused by the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine and even the pandemic.
If China were to take control of the island, this would cause serious damage to Europe’s economic interests. Taiwan produces over 60 percent of the world’s semiconductors and around 90 percent of the most advanced. If Beijing were to control this production, it would be a burden on the global economy and put European governments and companies in a position of weakness. The EU leaders’ vision of greater strategic autonomy vis-à-vis China would be in tatters.
Preventing a military escalation by China in the Taiwan Strait should therefore be a priority for the EU. The US knows the danger. Congress has increased military support for Taiwan, and President Joe Biden has made it clear that US forces would defend Taiwan if attacked. Strategic ambiguity has been replaced by strategic clarity. The same is not true for Europe.
Some EU leaders, such as Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Shimonytė or Czech President Petr Pavel, have taken a principled stand against Chinese provocations and in favor of supporting Taiwan’s democracy. Others, however, have been less helpful. French President Emmanuel Macron said of Taiwan that Europe should “not get involved in crises that are not ours”. Although he later tried to clarify these comments, the message heard in Beijing was that an attack on Taiwan would be met with a divided response from the democratic world.
This week, EU leaders need to say clearly and with one voice that any attempt by China to change the status quo in Taiwan by force would come at a huge cost. Dealing directly with Xi in Taiwan may make for a more uncomfortable few days in Beijing, but silence will cost Europe far more in the long run.