Europe and Strategic Ambiguity

Amnon Free Press

There is an interesting dispute brewing in Paris over Taiwan. The controversial and acerbic Chinese Ambassador there is objecting to the next visit to Taiwan by the French Senate’s Taiwan Caucus. So far, the president of the caucus, former Minister of Defense Alain Richard, is sticking by his guns.

This is good news. A legislative delegation from France—or from most other countries in the world—is largely symbolic. As symbols go, however, it is powerful. On the other hand, canceling the trip at the demands of the Chinese—who claim to have simply stumbled across it in the minutes of a meeting posted on the caucus’ website—would be a blow to Taiwan’s international profile.

The health of that profile is crucial to Taiwan’s security.

In a recent piece in War on the Rocks, myself and an old friend from the other side of the political spectrum, Frank Jannuzi, president of the Mansfield Foundation, defended the American concept of “strategic ambiguity” in cross-straits policy. We made arguments about the sufficiency and track record of that policy. We also suggested, however, that any alternative to scrapping “strategic ambiguity” must include vigorous diplomatic support for Taiwan from other capitals—particularly in Europe.

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Making clear European interest in Taiwan would help foster stability in two ways.

First, it lets Beijing know that if it makes a move on Taiwan, even on its outlying islands, the world will not continue business as usual with China. Taiwan is not Hong Kong, where the CCP’s takeover is proceeding apace, despite Washington’s—and especially London’s—best efforts. The battle for Hong Kong was lost decades ago when the handover was negotiated. Since 1997, Hong Kong has been a part of China. Its autonomy has been on borrowed time ever since.

By contrast, Taiwan is, for every practical purpose, independent. Beijing should know that armed aggression aimed at it will spark massive international blowback, in addition to provoking a concerted armed response from Washington. European countries can make this clear through their ties to Taiwan. They can also lead Beijing to believe that, even if they are unable to contribute forces to Taiwan’s defense, they will openly side with Washington and do what they can to support its response.

Second, clear signals about the importance of Taiwan from Paris, Berlin, London, Rome, Brussels, will take pressure off the U.S. policy debate. For the last five years, China has used extraordinary methods to intimidate Taiwan. This has accelerated criticism of “strategic ambiguity” and, at the margins, the American one-China policy. Abandoning those positions would aggravate already tense relations with Beijing, perhaps escalating into conflict, before the U.S. is best prepared for it. Greater international concern for Taiwan expands the policy space. It makes Taiwan’s security less about the efficacy of “strategic ambiguity” and the last resort of a U.S.-led defense.

European countries are already making their presence felt. It is happening no faster or slower than the general European awakening to the China challenge that began in 2016, and accelerated in 2019 with Brussels’ designation of China as a “systemic rival.” But it is happening nevertheless.

Before the blow-up over Senator Richard’s plans, the most remarked upon recent delegation was one last year led by Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil, who declared himself “Taiwanese” in front of the Legislative Yuan. Before that, in 2019, the British-Taiwan All-Party Parliamentary Group made one of its regular visits to Taiwan.

Europeans and Taiwan are also looking to upgrade permanent representation in one another’s countries. Taiwan, last year, opened a new branch representative office in the south of France. Lithuania is poised to become the 23nd European country—including the Vatican, which operates the equivalent of an embassy—to be formally represented in Taiwan.

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Then there are the naval demonstrations in the Taiwan Straits. In the last couple of years, both the British and the French have transited the Taiwan Straits in defiance of Chinese threats. The Europeans don’t have anything approaching the capabilities of the U.S. Pacific fleet. But that is not what these transits are about. They are about exercising the international right to sail in the Straits, showing in the process that it is not sovereign PRC territory.

Following the Czech legislative delegation to Taiwan, the country’s own president slammed the leader of it—no doubt, delighting the Chinese. The Macron government in France is taking a near opposite approach. The French foreign ministry reacted to Chinese objections to Senator Richard’s prospective visit by saying legislators are free to make their own travel plans and contacts.

We’re going to need much more government support, as well as new initiatives from parliamentarians like those from France, the UK, and the Czech Republic, if we are going to protect Taiwan and avoid a conflict in the Taiwan Straits.

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