How Germany Can Help Ensure Peace in the Taiwan Strait

Benner 2021 How Germany can help ensure peace in the Taiwan Strait small
A cargo ship enters Kaohsiung Harbour in Taiwan. Source: Chen Min Chun / Shutterstock
10 Nov 2021, 
published in

This May, Friedolin Strack, who is responsible for international markets in the Federation of German Industries (BDI), said that he hoped for greater courage and greater willingness to take risks” when it comes to the China policy of the next German government. To this end, he made a concrete suggestion: How about making Taiwan’s security and inviolability part of the coalition agreement?”

Indeed, the new coalition government that is currently taking shape should courageously invest in relations with Taiwan. It should do so out of economic and political self-interest. Taiwan is not only a fellow democracy but also a high-tech market economy with many opportunities for cooperation between business and science. Taiwanese market leader TSMC, for example, is responsible for more than half of global high-performance semiconductor production.

At the same time, the island, with its 24 million inhabitants, is under increasing pressure from Beijing. Xi Jinping recently reaffirmed the goal of reunification with aggressive military demonstrations of power against Taipei. Given the massive fallout and unpredictable consequences, a military conflict over Taiwan between China and the US is one of the greatest risks to global political and economic stability. Germany and Europe have no military role to play in a conflict over Taiwan. But they can and must make a political contribution to deterring Beijing from trying to change the status quo by coercion or force.

There are clear starting points for intensifying relations with Taiwan among all three coalition partners. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Greens election platforms are both clear on the need to intensify relations with Taiwan. The very short Social Democratic Party (SPD) election platform does not mention Taiwan. But last year the SPD parliamentary group’s policy paper on China clearly advocates expanding relations.

Another blueprint comes from Brussels. In late October, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a comprehensive strengthening of relations with Taiwan — within the framework of the existing one China” policy, which leaves plenty of room for manoeuvre. These include a bilateral investment agreement between the EU and Taiwan as well as a large number of ideas for political, economic and cross-societal cooperation. Last week saw the first ever visit of an official delegation of the European Parliament to Taiwan where it received a warm welcome including from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. In what is also a first, in late October Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu was welcomed to Brussels by members of the European Parliament while holding informal meetings with other European Union officials.

It is remarkable that the heads of the European Commission and the European External Action Service have strongly aligned themselves with the Taiwan agenda of the European Parliament. This unity in Brussels is anything but a matter of course. However, it will only be fully effective if member states vigorously support the
Taiwan agenda through their own actions. A number of Central and Eastern European states have already demonstrated strong initiative. Now it is for the large Western European members to follow suit.

Germany should lead the way here. The German side should continue to press for better representation of Taiwan in international organisations. The World Health Organization and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, for example, would benefit greatly from Taiwan’s experience, but Beijing is doing its utmost to oppose Taipei’s observer status. The German government and the parliament should also intensify political contacts with Taiwan without allowing themselves to
be intimidated by China.

Beijing has been trying for some time to force Germany to reinterpret its one China” policy. When the Bundestag Human Rights Committee held talks with representatives of Taiwan in October 2020, the Chinese embassy published a strong public rebuke. The embassy argued that China was resolutely opposed to any form of official contact” and that it hoped that the German side will continue to honour its commitment and implement the One China’ policy fully and correctly”. 

However, Germany’s one China” policy only excludes encounters between the seven most senior public representatives on both sides. This makes it possible for the majority of ministers and Members of Parliament to meet Taiwanese representatives. So far, the government and parliament have chosen not to make use of these opportunities. That should change. Why shouldn’t the German minister of science meet her Taiwanese colleague in order to advance the intensification of scientific cooperation with a partner that unlike China respects academic freedom?

The last minister for economic affairs to travel to Taiwan was Günther Rexrodt in 1997. After a quarter of a century, it would be high time for the new minister of economic affairs to visit Taipei in 2022, ideally together with other European counterparts. Such a direct line is more promising than sending letters to Taipei begging for prioritising the supply of chips to German industry, as the outgoing Minister of Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier did earlier this year.

Contacts on the part of German business should also be expanded. Heinrich von Pierer, who was CEO of Siemens from 1992 to 2005, is the last prominent business leader to really invest in ties to Taiwan.

There is also great potential for developing cross-societal relations further: exchange programmes between NGOs, think tanks, students and pupils, as well as town twinning arrangements. A good step was the opening of the Global Innovation Hub of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Taipei this spring. Other German political foundations should also open an office in Taiwan where you can learn a lot in the field of digital transformation, innovation and the self-assertion of democracy in the competition of systems with autocracies.

Taiwan is at the forefront of this competition. Xi Jinping promised that the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled”. Beijing is trying to crush Taiwan through psychological warfare and military threats. In 2025, according to the Taiwanese defence minister, Beijing will have acquired the military capabilities to mount a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. A direct attack on Taiwan would entail many risks for Beijing, not least due to Washington’s possible intervention.

Germany needs to think through different scenarios in order to prepare a joint response with partners. At the same time, Germany and Europe should actively contribute to non-military deterrence in order to help preserve the status quo. This should be done in close coordination with the US and other partners interested in maintaining the status quo. Beijing must be clear that these countries stand united and that an attack on Taiwan would mean enormous economic and political costs for China. The US and Europe should identify economic and technological leverage, such as a possible exclusion of Beijing from the semiconductor value chain. Due to Chinese dependencies, this may be an effective non-military deterrence threat.

At the same time, Germany should invest in de-escalation and confidence-building measures between Taiwan and Beijing. A few days ago, the Chinese embassy in Berlin reminded Germans that China had consistently supported Germany’s efforts to achieve national unity” and that it now hoped for German understanding” and support” with regard to Taiwan. At the same time, the embassy claims that reunification is the common desire of all Chinese people in the world, including our 23 million compatriots on Taiwan”.

German foreign policy can take Beijing at his word. It can remind Beijing that West Germany never threatened the German Democratic Republic (GDR) with invasion. And given that Beijing is so sure of the support of the Taiwanese population, Germany should encourage Beijing to offer Taiwanese citizens and their democratic representatives a free vote on reunification, the outcome of which Beijing then pledges to respect.

This commentary originally appeared in ThinkChina Singapore on November 9, 2021. A German version was first published by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on October 282021.

It is part of a project on re-thinking European China policy supported by the Open Society Foundations (OSF).