A visit by a group of French senators to Taiwan earlier this month is just the latest sign that European countries are willing to engage with the East Asian democracy even at the risk of angering China, according to regional experts.
The lawmakers from the Taiwan Friendship Group, led by Senator Alain Richard, arrived in Taiwan on October 6 for a five-day trip. They met the following day with President Tsai Ing-wen, who awarded Richard with a national medal during a brief reception. Richard is a former French defense minister.
Richard, who previously visited in 2015 and 2018, praised the friendship between France and Taiwan. He notably referred to Taiwan as a “country,” in an unusual move for a sitting parliamentarian as France does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taipei. China maintains that Taiwan is a wayward province that will one day be united with the mainland.
News of the French senators’ trip to Taiwan, originally planned for March, was met by anger from the Chinese embassy in Paris, which said the group would give support to “pro-independence forces in Taiwan,” according to Taiwan media.
Marc Cheng, executive director of the EU Center in Taiwan, said the trip was a sign that some European countries like France may be less wary of Beijing despite its often angry rhetoric about Taiwan. “This means that even under more pressure from China, European countries are still willing to maintain contact or exchange with Taiwan,” he said.
The trip was also notable for its visibility, as Taiwan’s engagement with non-official allies often occurs with less media fanfare. An estimated 45 French parliamentarians visited Taiwan between 2017 and 2020, according to Mathieu Duchâtel, director of the Asia Program at Institut Montaigne in France, including study groups and a delegation from the French National Assembly.
“If the Chinese embassy had not politicized the visit, it would have gone completely unnoticed,” Duchâtel said of the recent trip. “It’s symbolic but overall what really made it important and unusual this time was the harsh reaction of the Chinese embassy.”
Duchâtel said China’s representatives may have been particularly sensitive because in May, the French Senate passed a resolution calling for Taiwan to participate in U.N. agencies like the World Health Organization, the World Health Assembly, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and Interpol.
Due to Taiwan’s disputed political status, it lacks representation at the U.N. and affiliates at the behest of China. In years past, Taiwan has participated in organizations like the World Health Assembly as an observer but it has been blocked since 2016 by China.
Taiwan’s successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, and experience with SARS, brought fresh attention to its lockout and led to a first-ever statement of support from the “G-7” countries – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.
European countries have also begun to pay more attention to Taiwan as part of a greater pivot toward Asia. Earlier this year, the European Union passed its first strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which makes plain concerns about the rise of China in the region and the future security of the Taiwan Strait.
The EU policy follows in the footsteps of France, Germany and the Netherlands, which all have drafted individual Indo-Pacific strategies in recent years. French President Emmanuel Macron considers France an Asia-Pacific player due to its territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, according to the EU Center in Taiwan’s Cheng, and has worked to raise its visibility in Asia.
Beyond western Europe, Lithuania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic – all former Soviet bloc countries with limited investment from China – have also warmed to Taiwan and even become outspoken advocates for the democracy. They are also three of Taiwan’s major COVID-19 vaccine donors alongside the U.S. and Japan.
On Wednesday, a Taiwan trade delegation of more than 60 representatives departed for Europe to boost its trade with the three countries as well as Central and Eastern Europe.