Lessons from the war in Ukraine for Europe’s stance towards China & Taiwan

poster: “We must liberate Taiwan 我们一定要解放台湾 Women yiding yao jiefang Taiwan”, 1958, September. Publisher: Renmin meishu chubanshe (人民美术出版社). A peasant with a fork, a soldier with a rifle and a steel worker with a puddling rod attack a crouching Chiang Kai-shek and an American soldier with a torch, standing on the island Taiwan. The poster was one of many images to be produced in the aftermath of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958. © No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners https://chineseposters.net/posters/e15-426

April 1 2022_As Russian troops have relentlessly bombed Ukrainian cities and killed innocent civilians, Xi Jinping’s China has been trying to walk a tightrope: refraining from condemnations of Moscow, maintaining trade with its big neighbor, and professing a rather bland sympathy for the thousands of victims thus far. However, China is learning the hard way that it’s now too big, and too globally important to remain effectively neutral in geopolitical conflicts. Moreover, if it decides to  prioritize its strategic partnership with Russia over improving ties with the West, China’s already strained relations with Europe and other Western countries risk going into a free fall.  

Over the past years Mijngroeve.nl has described in various articles that economic integration does not happen in a vacuum – ideological differences and security concerns matter. I posed the question if we were reaching the limits of integration with an authoritarian state like the PRC, especially in the context of the fierce geopolitical technology war between the USA-China. Mijngroeve.nl questioned long before the Ukrainian war if the EU strategy of simultaneously seeing and treating China as a partner, economic competitor and system rival would be viable much longer, as Xi Jinping’s China first policies have produced a very combative security-oriented posture, in which Beijing has begun defending its national sovereignty and territorial claims in an abrasive, provocative fashion and made technological superiority and self sufficiency its prime strategic goal.

National security

The war in Ukraine fits into the trend which has been visible for several years: the paradigm shift from economics to national security and geopolitics in international relations. This trend was ignored for a long time by the EU, in essence an economic organization, that clung to Merkel’s wandel durch handel (‘change through trade’) philosophy for too long in its relations with Russia and China. The Netherlands under the subsequent Rutte cabinets also tended to blindly follow and support this German approach. The conflict in Ukraine has now forced a massive change in Germany’s foreign policy, which is likely to have a major impact on the EU and Germany’s neighbors such as the Netherlands.

China’s intransparency about its positioning and choices following the outbreak of the war, should not hold Europe back from learning its own lessons from the conflict in the context of its China relationship. One of the first lessons is that this war on the European continent should not pull all EU’s attention away from its other foreign policy priorities, in particular from its recently launched strategic initiatives in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, the war in Ukraine should serve as another  reminder to the EU member states that Taiwan should be a crucial, if not the central part of this strategy. Mijngroeve.nl already lamented ~1.5 years ago the fact that the Dutch Indo-Pacific strategy completely failed to mention the Taiwan issue, whereas in reality it could turn into the ultimate test for Washington, The Hague and Brussels in their pledges to stronger support democracy in Asia.

Taiwan’s importance

In many parts of Europe there still is little awareness of the economic and technological importance of the island with its 23 million people and its unique and rather bizarre international status. Many in Europe still view a potential Taiwan conflict as purely a confrontation between the US and China in which the EU has few or limited stakes and should therefore aim to remain neutral.

Others are delusional in believing that Europe could act as a mediator between the US and China on the Taiwan topic. It’s extremely important that European leaders and political parties finally educate their citizens that a war over Taiwan would shake the international order and decimate global prosperity even far more than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, if Beijing would bring Taiwan under its supremacy, the entire military balance in the Western Pacific would shift. So far, the PRC has been severely constrained by the fact that the first island chain off its coast consists  of US allies: Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan. If communist China would control Taiwan, it would break through the first island chain and gain much freer entry to the Western Pacific at large.

Xi Jinping

Many European still think that Xi is different from Putin and won’t kick off any invasion of Taiwan or any high risk military adventure in the South China seas any time soon. However, as Putin himself has proven multiple times, we can no longer afford to underestimate dictators like Xi. Let’s also not forget that the great helmsman unilaterally annihilated the Sino-British joint declaration regarding Hong Kong just 2 years ago, when the West was in the middle of the Corona crisis. The EU policy towards China should strongly take into account a scenario in which the PRC plans to invade Taiwan, even though nobody can predict if and when it would happen.

Xi’s track record over the past decade suggests that he sees communist China in a permanent struggle mode against the West, with the year 2049 bringing the ultimate victory for the PRC.  There are many indications that Xi wants to go down in history as the Chinese leader who is bringing Taiwan back into the fold. Xi is 68 years old and does not have the time to wait until 2049 when China’s glorious rejuvenation should be completed, exactly 100 years after the foundation of the People’s Republic. China’s continuous military build-up in the South China sea clearly serves to advance its own great power interests by force in the event of any conflict.  Last but not least, Xi views China as a country on the rise and the USA as well as Russia as great powers in decline.

Strategic ambiguity

Another lesson the EU should learn is that the ambiguity surrounding the status and support for Ukraine led Putin to believe that an invasion would not meet a forceful and unified European response. In other words, the lack of a strong Western deterrence in addition to the Trump government’s ludicrous undermining of Zelensky’s authority and Ukraine’s international status as well as Biden’s originally ambivalent statements on the American response in case of Russian aggression towards Ukraine contributed to Putin’s miscalculations.

The EU should not make the same mistake vis-a-vis Taiwan. It’s becoming increasingly questionable if the strategic ambiquity regarding the (international) status of  and support for Taiwan are best serving the interests of the West. Inside the Republican Party in the USA voices can already be heard that say that it’s time for Washington to diplomatically recognise Taiwan  as “a free and sovereign country”. Beijing’s massive repression in Hong Kong has stripped the “one country, two systems” policy of its final shreds of credibility. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen knows that she can count on the support of the vast majority of the Taiwanese people when she states that Taiwan will never accept “one country, two systems” as still proposed by Xi as the way for a “peaceful re-unification”. The EU can and should no longer deny this reality. It should support Taiwan’s efforts to gain more international visibility and oppose Beijing’s efforts to deny or block Taiwan’s right for international representation.


The key to peace in the Taiwan Strait is deterring Beijing from an invasion. Only if Xi believes that the political and economic consequences of an attempt to conquer Taiwan pose a fundamental threat to his China dream and to the power and legitimacy of the CCP will he refrain from attacking Taiwan.  The EU doesn’t have to forfeit its One-China policy and encourage Taiwan’s independence, but it has to make unequivocally clear to Beijing that Taiwan has a right to exist as a sovereign nation.

This demands a much more pro-active policy of the EU on the Taiwan issue. As China’s key trading partner, Europe, and in particular Germany and the Netherlands, do have a central role to play in the non-military component of deterrence. The military component will primarily fall to the US, though the creation of AUKUS symbolizes other Western countries are now willing to share the military burden. Japan and South Korea are also more likely to seek military co-operation with the USA to contain the PRC. An arms race in the Indo-Pacific could be a major side-effect.

As the EU has no military role to play, it ‘d better concentrate on the economic element: Brussels should repeat in all communications with Beijing, that there would be an extremely heavy economic price to pay in case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Beijing should be  reminded that it will not be treated as leniently as it was after the Hong Kong takeover in July 2020.

The EU should also closely co-work with the US, Japan and Australia to support Taiwan’s entry into international bodies such as WHO and WTO. Furthermore, the EU should collaborate with those same partners to aggressively and publicly counter China’s continuous efforts in international organizations to have Taiwan labelled as “a province of China”, a veiled attempt to claim Chinese sovereignty over the island. There has been a long campaign underway by the the PRC to reinterpret UN Resolution 2758 as based on its “One China” Principle. Beijing has spread the complete fallacy that, via this 1971 resolution, UN member states came to a determination that Taiwan is a part of the PRC.

‘One-China policy’ vs ‘One-China principle

EU officials should keep on clarifying that the EU  acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China but does not accept PRC claims to sovereignty over Taiwan. In passing the UN resolution in 1971, the countries solely intended to assign the seat then occupied by the Republic of China (ROC=Taiwan)  in the General Assembly and the Security Council of the UN to the PRC. The status of Taiwan was left undecided on purpose and the Chinese leadership at the time was fully aware of it.

Yet Xi Jinping has persistently been trying to create ‘faits accomplis’ by manipulating history or even inserting fake history. China has been building a legal framework to have the rest of the world gradually acquiesce into what Beijing already considers faits accomplis and on which it is not willing to budge such as “Hong Kong has never had autonomous rights”, the “whole South China sea belongs to the PRC”, and “Taiwan is an undisputable and inalienable part of communist China.” (i.e. the One China principle)   

We have witnessed how Putin managed to even influence the narrative on Ukraine in parliaments across Europe by invoking fake history. The EU should not allow China to do the same on the Taiwan issue. European governments should pro-actively fight such mis-information and educate its citizens about one of the last unresolved conflicts of the 20th century Cold War, i.e. the status of Taiwan. And the EU should publicly emphasize the crucial difference between its “One China” policy and Xi Jinping’s “One China” principle.  

The urgent need for a unified response

Another lesson learned is that only a unified European response will have any effect on a dictator. The EU should make a much stronger effort to coordinate its China foreign policy among the member states and strongly counter Beijing’s attempts to divide and rule Europe.  Germany and France should take the lead on this and make sure Europe speaks with one voice on foreign policy matters towards Beijing. The so-called 16+1 Forum, the PRC’ initiative to promote business and investment relations between China and 16 countries of Central and Eastern Europe should be completely abandoned as it offers Beijing a platform to split the EU.

There should also be a pan-european, ‘country-neutral’ standard screening procedure of investments or acquisitions in Europe made by authoritarian states as well as a framework with criteria to evaluate joint R&D projects (in sensitive technologies) with universities of non-free countries, which would enable EU member states to better judge, coordinate and monitor Chinese activities in the EU and share intelligence. In addition there should be a pan-European framework and initiative to better manage and coordinate student exchanges with authoritarian countries such as the PRC.

The EU should perhaps also consider to set up an outbound investment screening mechanism to prevent European companies from creating seperate entities in the PRC through which EU export controls could be circumvented and sensitive technology still be sold or provided to China.

This will be a major challenge for the EU as China’s economic leverage over several European countries is much stronger than Russia’s. Many European countries don’t consider China a military threat due to its remote geographical location. Others are afraid to lose access to the vast Chinese market, to Chinese capital and economic aid. In some European countries and especially on the Balkan and in Hungary, local politicians and media have already taken on an extremely pro-PRC stance, uncritically accepting and distributing Beijing’s propaganda.

But the EU cannot be effective towards China unless it gains unity, which implies that the political and business communities and Europe as a whole should be willing to absorp pain if this is needed to deter China. National governments and Brussels have a duty to make their local governments and business communities very aware of the national security aspects and risks of dealing with an increasingly assertive China.

Escalation path

Brussels should be prepared for an escalation path in case China f.e. does not tone down its aggressive stance towards Taiwan or helps Russia to evade Western sanctions or choses to support Moscow militarily. Bullying of an individual EU member state by Beijing should no longer go unanswered by Brussels: an immediate, first reaction should be that in all European capitals all residing Chinese ambassadors should be summoned simultaneously to express European anger and outrage. A possible sanction path should be communicated to the Chinese counterparts as well. But such a path can only be talked about if there is the willing- and readiness to implement.

A powerful sanctions regime against China will require the EU to bear significant economic hardship and possibly withstand Chinese economic retaliation. In short, the EU should already prepare risk mitigation plans to compensate for such potential economic reprisals.

The Ukrainian war could turn out to be the forebode of a wider conflict between authoritarian states and democracies, and democratic countries must stick together if they are to prevail. The EU should harbor no illusions about the PRC under Xi: the Chinese President for life will not hesitate to fully exploit any European overdependence on China and blackmail individual member states into submission to Beijing’s political positions.

The EU should of course continue to have a dialogue with China, pointing out the value for the PRC of its trade ties with Europe and the importance and benefits of international detente. Despite all the Chinese PR bluff about technological superiority and self sufficiency,  the PRC in reality can still not do without western technology, know-how and capital. It needs continued access to the big European market. Last but not least, there is a common interest in fighting climate change together, though even on this issue realism has to prevail in the European capitals: if climate agreements or policies risk to undermine the CCP’s power, the Party will always put the CCP’s well-being first, not the planet’s.  

The EU should  conduct the dialogue from a position of strength, not weakness. Europe is China’s biggest trading partner, not Russia. The EU should also ignore all the fatalistic and defaitist noises that the West is in decline and China is bound to take over. It should try to outcompete China wherever and as much as possible by using its creative strenghts and by increasing economic and technological co-operation with likeminded countries. While communist China’s rise is a given, it’s in no way guaranteed it will gain dominance in every field and in every corner of the world. Perhaps China’s communism, authoritarianism and current obsession with self-sufficiency will turn out to be its biggest vulnerability…

At the same time Europe should speed up its efforts to rely less on China in critical areas and expand its economic ties with other countries in the Indo-Pacific, including Taiwan. To deter China as much as possible from invading Taiwan and to avoid miscalculations in Beijing a la Putin, it should be fully clear to China where Europe’s loyalty and fundamental interests lie: not with the People’s Republic of China, but with likeminded democratic countries around the globe such as Taiwan.

April Fool’s Day 2022

The long anticipated EU-China summit will take place today April 1 2022. It will be up to the Chinese government to decide if it wants to play a positive role in helping to end the conflict in Ukraine or side more and more with Russia. Most likely the Chinese would just like to avoid talking about the war and focus the summit on economic topics and the revival of the comprehensive agreement on investment (CAI) with the EU, whose ratification has been blocked by China’s human right abuses in Xinjiang and Beijing’s sanctions on members of the European parliament.

It is truly to be hoped that the EU does not want to signal to China that in return for Beijing’s eventual willingness to exert pressure on Putin, Xi’s “best friend”, to end the Ukrainian war the EU would be willing to revive the CAI….

April 1 2022 shouldn’t be turned into such a fool’s day. There is absolute no reason to offer the PRC any reward at this point in time and as long Xi’s regime still has not understood that its moment of truth as a global power has arrived and that it is in its own self-interest to make a positive contribution to end the bloodshed in Ukraine and help restore the international order. The April Fool’s Day summit will also give us a first indication whether the EU is already able to apply the lessons learned from the Ukrainian war to its China and Taiwan relations.

Mijngroeve.nl will be watching closely.

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