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Nathalie Tocci is director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, Europe’s futures fellow at IWM, Vienna, and a board member of ENI. Her new book, “A Green and Global Europe,” is now out with Polity.
During a recent visit to Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-Wen asked a delegation I was part of the following question: “What has Europe learned from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?”
Taiwan has learned a lot. But the truth is Europe still has a long way to go.
The frequent comparison between the conflicts over Ukraine and Taiwan is daunting — but the inherent differences also make it a scary one. Ukraine is an internationally recognized state; Taiwan is not. Furthermore, China boasts an economy 10 times the size of Russia’s.
Scarier still are the similarities. Just like Russia in Ukraine, the People’s Republic of China makes no secret of its intention to take over Taiwan. It has distorted the One China Policy into the One China Principle — most notably through its law-fare at the United Nations — and one only needs to look at the developments in Hong Kong since 2019 to catch a glimpse of what Beijing has in mind.
Much like Ukraine, Taiwan also feels strongly about its liberal democracy, making it the foundational pillar of its national identity, juxtaposed against an increasingly authoritarian China. And just like Ukraine, it’s ready to fight for the hard-earned freedoms it’s won since turning the page on decades of white terror and embarking on its democratic journey in 1992.
Alongside China’s political will, however, is its military power. Over the years, the country’s been progressively upgrading its military capabilities, and by 2027, it could have the capacity to successfully invade and control the island.
Interestingly, despite Russia’s mass mobilization along Ukraine’s border, and United States intelligence regarding the imminent threat, prior to February 24 many Western countries — including Ukraine itself — were in denial about the prospect of a Russian invasion. In the case of Taiwan, however, the opposite is true. Particularly since US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei last summer led to China’s repeated violation of the median line in the Taiwan Strait, no one in the West dismisses the possibility of war. In fact, by suggesting that war in Taiwan is both imminent and inevitable, the West often exaggerates in the opposite direction.
Against this backdrop, Taiwan has already drawn many important lessons. Taipei knows that if it wants to alter Beijing’s cost-benefit calculus and deter an invasion, it must move boldly and quickly to bolster its defense.
Taiwan has to revise its military doctrine to embrace asymmetric defense, upgrade its military capabilities and engage in a whole-of-society push towards full defense. It must do so by walking a thin line, raising the stakes in its domestic communication — notably towards its youth — but without sowing panic among the public.
Unlike Ukraine with Poland at its doorstep, Taiwan is acutely aware of the fact that it is an island. And this means it must have everything it needs to protect itself before China makes its first move — were that to happen.
It must also find the right balance in its quest for international strategic relevance. Taiwan needs to accomplish this by embedding its economy — notably its semiconductor industry — in global supply chains, while ensuring key technological competencies remain rooted in its indigenous industrial ecosystem. In confronting the Chinese Goliath, the Taiwanese David knows its security hinges on being indispensable to the rest of the world.
And while some European countries can, and should, do more to support Taiwan’s defense as well — even more than in the case of Ukraine, where the US does the heavy lifting — the direct defense support Europeans can provide Taiwan is marginal.
Yet, there’s still so much else they could do.
For one, there’s the impact of messaging. Europe has finally started taking China’s threat towards Taiwan more seriously, and the joint statement of United States President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron recently explicitly mentioned peace and security in the Taiwan Strait. Messaging like this should become the norm among European leaders.
As Europe confronts the poison of Russian and Chinese disinformation, it’s also become increasingly aware of the lessons and best practices it could share with Taiwan, which has been confronting the Chinese challenge for decades. Cooperation on disinformation should be enhanced.
Additionally, while France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany have sailed and flown through the South China Sea to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight, these excursions remain few and far between — and generally, they don’t pass through the Taiwan Strait either. Not only should these become more regular, they should involve other member countries too.
Meanwhile, although the European Union has begun discussions with Taiwan over a bilateral investment agreement, these talks seem to be headed nowhere — especially since the bloc suspended ratification of its Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China. Whether through a broad investment agreement or through sectoral agreements, the EU’s economic ties with Taiwan should be boosted and should not be held hostage to the increasingly fraught relationship with China. Hopefully, the European Parliament’s trade delegation to Taiwan this week is a step in that direction.
Finally, the EU and its member countries could be doing much more at the UN to actively contrast China’s distortion of the One China Policy too.
Some Europeans might ask themselves why they should go to pains to support Taiwan, incurring China’s anger. The answer is that they should do so because not only is Taiwan strategic for Europe — 40 percent of Europe’s trade passes through the strait and the EU is the biggest investor in Taiwan — but, above all, the major lesson drawn from the war in Ukraine is that it’s far less costly to act to prevent war than to cope with the repercussions once it erupts.
Taiwan may be much farther away from Europe than Ukraine, but the consequences of war in Asia would be just as devastating for the Continent.