The EU as a ‘normative power’ is delusional, writes Emilie Naulot. Using the example of the diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, this article argues that when economic and security interests are at stake, ideological pretensions tend to be left aside. Indeed, Taiwan ticks all the boxes to be considered as a sovereign nation-state and exhibits good levels of government; yet the EU denies it this status, partly for fear of upsetting China.
It had not been a month since he had been elected forty-fifth President of the United States before Donald Trump almost caused a diplomatic crisis – and once again with a tweet:
The origins of the controversy: Taiwan’s delicate international status‘
The President of Taiwan’ – it was this very expression that made headlines all over the world. In official international politics, there is no such thing as a ‘Taiwanese State’, let alone a ‘Taiwanese President.’ What was going on in Trump’s mind when he accepted the phone call of the Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen and then publicly boasted about it?
“Founded on the mainland in 1928, the KMT moved to Taiwan with Chang Kai-shek in 1949 and remained the only authorised party until 1986. In the 1990s, KMT leaders realised the impossibility of re-conquering the mainland so they shifted to a policy of normalising cross-strait relations.”
The controversy revolves around Taiwan’s political status: is it a sovereign state as it claims to be; or is it a mere satellite of China, as Beijing and most international actors treat it? This question has been taboo since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when Mao Zedong created the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland and Chang Kai-shek fled to the island of Taiwan to continue the former the Republic of China (ROC) there in exile. Both sides pretend to be the only real China, each having its own constitution, state administration, currency, army, flag and national anthem.
Consequently, for more than fifty years Chinese and Taiwanese leaders would not meet. When they eventually did in 2015, it was under the Presidency of Ma Ying-jeo in Taiwan, who belongs to the Kuomintang (KMT). Founded on the mainland in 1928, the KMT moved to Taiwan with Chang Kai-shek in 1949 and remained the only authorised party until 1986. In the 1990s, KMT leaders realised the impossibility of re-conquering the mainland so they shifted to a policy of normalising cross-strait relations. Yet this policy gradually evolved into one of rapprochement with the PRC, and that cost Ma Ying-jeou the 2016 elections. For the first time in January 2016 the opposition party, the ‘pan-green’ Minjintang (DPP), won both the presidential and the legislative elections.
This means there is an elephant in the room now; the Minjintang is set on preserving Taiwan’s independence…
President Tsai Ing-wen’s strategy: between audacity and hopelessness
The first months of President Tsai’s mandate have shown how delicate her position is: on one hand, her ‘pan-green’ government irritates the Chinese President Xi Jinping, who in short order ended communications across the strait, curtailed tourist visas to the island and paraded aircraft carriers on its shores; on the other hand, her lack of enthusiasm unnerves the most radical of her supporters.
In this context, her phone call to Donald Trump was a daring yet strategic bet – a way to test the limits of Beijing’s patience and Washington’s support. But did she only target Beijing and Washington? Or was she indirectly addressing the broader international community?
Of course, Tsai’s phone call was not a cry for international diplomatic recognition – it could not have been, because it would have meant that Taiwan had declared its independence. And such a declaration is, for the time being, almost impossible since Beijing passed an anti-secession law in 2005, enabling Chinese forces to invade the island to repress pro-independence movements. But Tsai’s phone call still may be interpreted as a cry for international support, in her struggle to resist the Chinese grip.
‘One-China’ policy: the disillusions of normative Europe
In Europe, her plan fell through. Despite wide media coverage, the EU institutions decided not to officially take a position themselves, as any declaration would have either upset Washington or Beijing. Their silence did nothing but reiterate the EU’s ‘One China’ policy, a line that was reaffirmed in the 2016 Elements for a New EU Strategy on China.
“The EU’s adherence to the ‘One China’ principle should not come as a surprise. It is much more rewarding to flatter Beijing, for commercial opportunities are just incomparable. It is also safer, as Chinese leaders are not averse to issuing threats and retaliating.”
‘One China’ means that the EU, like most international actors except a handful of African and Latin American states, does not conduct diplomatic relations with the Taiwanese authorities. The only partnerships accorded to Taipei entail cooperation in the fields of trade, technology, research and development, and education. Political dialogues are excluded, in spite of Taiwan’s good governance. And if today the EU demonstrates a fair level of support to the island, with its delegation in Taipei, its annual consultation summits and numerous cooperation agreements, this has not always been the case. Quite striking in this matter was the particularly strong reluctance of the Commission to consent to the Taiwanese membership in the World Trade Organisation when it first applied. However, in the end, economic considerations proved more persuasive: Taiwan was one of the four ‘Asian Tigers’ in the 1990s; its potential as a trade partner could not be overlooked. So it eventually entered the WTO in 2002 under the name of ‘Separate customs territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu.’ Nevertheless, it remains excluded from most international organisations like the United Nations and the World Health Organisation.
The EU’s adherence to the ‘One China’ principle should not come as a surprise. It is much more rewarding to flatter Beijing, for commercial opportunities are just incomparable. It is also safer, as Chinese leaders are not averse to issuing threats and retaliating. A perfect illustration of this is the sudden stop that the African island of Sao-Tome and Principe put to its diplomatic relations with Taiwan shortly after Tsai Ing-wen’s phone call.
Most analysts have pointed at Donald’s Trump volatility and unpredictability and he seems, at least with his accepting Tsai Ing-wen’s phone call and subsequent tweets, to be willing to depart from the mainstream Western policy towards China. But the EU is not willing to follow suit, in spite of the strong normative emphasis of its external policy. Democracy, Human Rights, self-determination, all those principles stated in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and reiterated in each and every one of the EU’s Global Strategies; what role do they have in the EU’s policy towards China? The EU is struggling to be a strong, independent international actor and bases its uniqueness on its values – so why not act accordingly? Recognising Taiwan, an independent, democratically organised nation, as a genuine state would only reinforce the credibility of the EU as a normative power.
But it would be at the risk at least of upsetting China and risking other economic and security interests. If normative power works on paper, in the end it cannot compete with influence of money and weapons.1989 Generation