EU and China: Is Taiwan really Europe’s problem?

The French President may have caused upset by saying the EU should be more independent in its China dealings. But analysts suspect other EU leaders may feel the same — even as pressure to side with the US increases

French President Emmanuel Macron
Deutsche Welle

During his speech on the “future of Europe” in the Netherlands on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron remained supremely unflustered: neither an impromptu protest over the French leader’s fiercely contested domestic pension reforms nor intense global attention following an explosive foreign policy interview seemed to upset his groove.

Those who tuned in expecting him to elaborate on poorly received recent comments about Europe’s need for greater independence from the United States in dealing with China were disappointed.

“I’m a dreamer,” Macron said in the Hague, spelling out his vision for a more economically and industrially autonomous European Union.

This time, however, there was no mention of the word “Taiwan.” Over the weekend, Macron caused international consternation by stating in an interview with French outlet Les Echos that Europeans should not simply be “followers” of the US amid escalating tensions with China over the east Asian island, nor get caught up in “crises that aren’t ours.”

His words prompted backlash in Washington and raised eyebrows in EU capitals, most notably in Warsaw.

Macron, along with other EU leaders, has long extolled the need for Europe to build up its “strategic autonomy” on the world stage but many saw his exact choice of words as ill-advised given the US’ role as Ukraine’s biggest backer in its battles against Russia.

With war now next door, the EU is highly dependent on the US for security, as US Republicans, including prominent Senator Marco Rubio, were quick to point out

With war now next door, the EU is highly dependent on the US for security, as US Republicans, including prominent Senator Marco Rubio, were quick to point out. It seems unwise to call into question the transatlantic bond, which has recovered under the administration of US President Joe Biden after a trying period under his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Macron: Good analyst, bad diplomat?

But the controversy Macron’s comments caused doesn’t mean Macron is wrong, said Jeremy Shapiro, research director for the European Council of Foreign Relations.

“I suspect that the vast majority of [European leaders] agree in terms of wanting to maintain some independence from the United States, to have a relationship with China, and in fact, how Taiwan isn’t really their problem,” he told DW.

The problem, Shapiro explained, is that Macron said that publicly — and without consulting allies. It also didn’t help that he made his comments in the context of a high profile visit to China, accompanied by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, potentially giving the impression that he was speaking for the EU.

As a result, Macron’s statements have created a headache for France’s partners. US Senator Rubio hinted that if the EU didn’t see Taiwan as its problem, then Washington might take a similar approach to Ukraine. This kind of threat “sends a shiver down the spine” of most EU countries, Shapiro said, although apparently not Macron.

China conducted major military exercises near Taiwan again
Deutsche Welle

It’s not the first time the French president has been in hot water for his comments. He caused a similar ruckus by declaring that the NATO military alliance was suffering “brain death” in 2019. “I’m surprised that the President of France hasn’t learned… that this stuff isn’t really getting him anywhere,” Shapiro said.

“He’s a very good analyst. If he wants a job at a think tank we will take him on,” added Shapiro, a former US State Department advisor. “Oddly, he doesn’t seem to be as good as a diplomat.”

‘China will be the next transatlantic crisis if this doesn’t get fixed’

While Macron’s comments may have ruffled feathers, it’s hardly the demise of transatlantic security architecture as we know it, Bruno Lete, a fellow from the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, told DW. “I don’t think that this was an existential issue… Most of the correction will be done behind the scenes between diplomats,” he said.

Macron’s comments will likely blow over, but escalating tensions between the US and China won’t, Lete warned — and the EU will be increasingly called upon to take sides.

China regards the self-governing island of Taiwan as a breakaway part of its territory that should eventually rejoin it. Tensions between Beijing and the leaders of Taipei are on the rise, as are fears of military escalation. Washington has close but unofficial relations with Taiwan, including the sale of defence equipment, according to the US Council on Foreign Relations.

For the second time in less than a year, Beijing has launched a large military exercise around Taiwan. The three-day “Joint Sword” exercise saw warships and fighter jets simulate targeted strikes on Taiwan.

Beyond the question of Taiwan, Biden has long pushed his European allies to take a harder line on Beijing for, among other issues, alleged unfair economic and industrial practices and human rights violations.

When it comes to Taiwan, the US expects the support of its close allies in Europe. “I don’t think I would expect Europe to, I don’t know, send fighter jets or frigates,” Lete said. “But the US needs the diplomatic backing of Europe, for instance, inside the United Nations.”

Ultimately, he added, the EU and the US will need to come to some kind of agreement on how they approach China. “I do think that if the EU and US do not streamline their views on China, [then] China will be the next transatlantic crisis if this doesn’t get fixed,” Lete said.

EU under pressure

Many EU countries might like to keep a lower profile on China, Shapiro suggested, but that won’t be possible.

“In fact, European China policy is moving in their [the US’] direction,” Lete said. Both the EU and NATO have toughened their official lines on China in recent years. “I think that at the moment… they [the EU] are simply too dependent on the US, and the US cares too much about the China issue,” he concluded.