The geostrategic importance of Taiwan is immense and has the potential to tip the global power struggle between the United States (US) and China into an actual military conflict.[i] A series of developments have taken place in cross-Strait relations that has brought Taiwan to the forefront of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region. Specifically, developments in US-Taiwan and European Union (EU)-Taiwan are of importance. Taiwan’s growing proximity to the US and EU has increased the temperature in the cross-Strait relations.
The paper attempts to analyse the progress in US-Taiwan and EU-Taiwan informal relations that have led to frictions in cross-Strait relations.
The fundamentals of US-Taiwan relations are based on the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA)[ii] and the three communiqués signed between the US and China: the Shanghai Communiqué (1972), the Communiqué on Normalisation of Relations with the PRC (1979) and the August 17 Communiqué on Arms sale to Taiwan (1982). The 1982 communiqué forms the basis of arms sales from the US to Taiwan.[iii] The most crucial aspect of US-Taiwan relations is arms sales.
On 5 August 2021, the US Department of State approved the sale of 40 Paladin M109A6 self-propelled howitzers and 1700 kits to covert projectiles into more precise GPS-guided munitions. This is the first arms deal under President Joe Biden and is worth USD 750 million. The arms sales would “contribute to the modernisation of the recipient self-propelled howitzer fleet, enhancing its ability to meet current and future threats…while further enhancing interoperability with the United States and other allies”.[iv] The proposed sale would upgrade Taiwan’s M109 self-propelled weapons and improve its capacity against Chinese intrusion. The precision guidance kits would change 155m projectiles with GPS navigation for a better target. [v]
The Taiwanese president’s office spokesperson, Xavier Chang, reiterated that this arms sale demonstrates the importance the US government attaches to Taiwan’s defence capabilities.[vi] China reacted sharply, the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned the US to abide by the one-China principle otherwise it may cause harm to US-China relations.[vii]
Earlier, under the Trump administration in 2020, the US had announced USD 5.1 billion in arms sales.[viii] Overall, the Trump administration had approved 18 arms sales to Taiwan as compared to 17 under the Obama administration in 8 years.[ix] Under Donald Trump, US-Taiwan relations had reached their peak. In the post-Trump period, there was some apprehension about the future course of the US-Taiwan relation. In 2020; Joe Biden had published an article in World Journal expressing his views about Taiwan. He expounded that the US and Taiwan are Pacific powers and both should work together to enhance the prosperity of the region. He also congratulated Taiwan for exemplary handling of the COVID-19.[x] According to the Financial Times report,[xi] Taiwan is considering renaming the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” (Tecro) in Washington to “Taiwan Representative Office”.[xii] Seemingly, the US-Taiwan relations under Biden are also on an upward trajectory.
European Union-Taiwan Relations
The member states of the EU do not have formal political ties with Taiwan. The EU adheres to the one-China policy. However, they do support the active participation of Taiwan in multilateral fora.[xiii] There are around 17 representative offices of the EU in Taipei. The European Economic and Trade Office in Taiwan is the official focal point for the EU’s representation.[xiv] In 2020, the bilateral trade between Taiwan and the EU was USD 51.88 billion. Taiwan’s export to the EU was USD 22.92 billion and the import from the EU was USD 28.96 billionIn July 2021, Taiwan showed interest in opening a new diplomatic office in Lithuania with the name “Taiwanese Representative Office”. It will be the first office that will have ‘Taiwan’ in its nomenclature and not the “Taipei Representative Office”.[xvi] Subsequently, Lithuania also announced that it intends to open a representative office in Taiwan.
The respective offices would improve “economic and trade exchanges, cooperation in various fields as well as the friendship between people.” China has reacted sharply calling it an infringement on its “sovereignty and territorial integrity, and severely contravened the one-China principle.”[xvii] Consequently, China recalled its Ambassador and asked Lithuania to recall its Ambassador from Beijing. The Lithuania incident is noteworthy because, since the establishment of the EU, it is for the first time that China has recalled an Ambassador from an EU member state.
From a Taiwanese perspective, Tsai Ing-wen perceives the opening of the office as a “breakthrough” because it is contrary to the trend of Taiwan’s international marginalisation.[xviii]
Yet another development in the EU-Taiwan relations is the proposed signing of the Bilateral Investment Agreement (BIA). On 1 September 2021, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee approved a report and related amendments to boost EU-Taiwan relations. The report advocated for the EU to begin preparing for the feasibility of signing a BIA with Taiwan and renaming the EU representative office in Taipei. The draft report was approved by 60 votes, with four votes against and six abstentions. It also entails a section on the recent Chinese military aggression against Taiwan and stressed that the EU should be proactive “to protect Taiwan’s democracy and the island’s status as an important EU partner.”[xix] The spokesperson of the Chinese mission in the EU has raised objections to the report and stated that it “constitute serious violations of the One-China principle and undercut mutual trust and cooperation between China and the EU”.[xx]
Implications for the Region
Since the Taiwan issue is important in the Indo-Pacific region, with the increasing tension in the cross-Strait relations, there is discomfort in the region. Any upheaval in the region will disrupt the supply chains. Since China is the largest trading partner with most countries it may incur huge economic costs. [xxi]
Reactions from China
Besides issuing strong statements, China has reacted sharply through its military overtures. On 5 September 2021, 19 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft flew into Taiwan’s southwestern air defence identification zone (ADIZ).[xxii] Soon after the arms sale deal to Taiwan was announced, China held a drill near the Taiwan Strait and on 17 August 2021, used its naval and air assets to violate Taiwan’s ADIZ. Also, the PLA Eastern Theater Command conveyed that the exercises at sea and in the air, off Taiwan’s southern coasts, were conducted as a response to the recent “collusion and provocation” by Taiwan and the US.[xxiii]
This is not the first time a drill and violation of Taiwanese airspace has taken place. [xxv] According to analysts in Beijing, such military drills and violations of the ADIZ are a sort of warning to foreign forces and Taiwan’s secessionists who seek to challenge and cause trouble.[xxvi]
Amid the upheaval in Afghanistan, China used the opportunity to compare Taiwan with Afghanistan. In an editorial in China Daily, the author has explained that “Despite the growing doubts on the island, the DPP refuses to wake up. The pro-independence party knows that Washington has been using it as a pawn against Beijing to fulfil its narrow geopolitical goals in the region.”[xxvii]
Taiwan has retorted that “it is impossible to compare Taiwan with Afghanistan”.[xxviii] Further, in an interview aired by ABC News, Joe Biden countered that Taiwan is fundamentally different from Afghanistan. On the US position of defending Taiwan, he clarified: “We have made, kept every commitment. We made a sacred commitment to article 5 that if in fact, anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that.” [xxix]
Overall, the US and the EU are committed to the cause of Taiwan’s Democracy. According to the US State Department, supporting shared values is an integral component of the US-Taiwan relationship.[xxx] The EU is deeply interested in Taiwan’s liberal democratic government and economic ties.[xxxi] Despite all efforts by the US and EU, ever since Tsai Ing-wen led DPP came to power in 2016, the cross-Strait relations have been strained. In the last five years, China has been using its economic and political clout to influence countries such as Kiribati, Solomon Islands, El Salvador, Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, Panama, Gambia and Sao Tome and Principle to sever their diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Taiwan has diplomatic and political relations with only 15 countries.
Xi Jinping in his centenary year celebration speech used the word “smash” for the first time to describe China’s outlook towards Taiwan.[xxxii] It was intended to stress that the historic goal of the Party remains, the reunification of Taiwan. The spokesperson of China’s Defence Ministry has blatantly said that “Taiwan independence means war”. Yet another aspect of cross-Strait relations is the high economic interdependence. Around 40 per cent of Taiwanese investments are in China. In 2020, Taiwan exported around USD 102.5 billion of goods to China. Chinese companies are dependent on the chips produced in Taiwan.
To sum up, the chances of full-fledged war/conflict are bleak. Frictions and confrontations will continue in the cross-Strait relations.
* Dr Teshu Singh is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[i] Michael Crowly, Biden Backs Taiwan, but some call for clearer warning to China, The New York Times, 25 May 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/08/us/politics/biden-china-taiwan.html accessed on 10 August, 2021
[ii] Taiwan Relations Act (Public Law 96-8, 22 U.S.C. 3301 et seq.)
[iii] The “Six Assurances” to Taiwan
http://www.taiwandocuments.org/assurances.htm accessed on 20 August 2021
[iv] Su Yung-yao, Wu Su-wei and Kayleigh Madjar ,Taiwan thanks US as arms approved, 06 August 2021, Taipei Times, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2021/08/06/2003762118 accessed on 25 August 2021
[v] Anthony Capaccio, First Taiwan Arms Sale in Biden Administration Is Approved, Bloomberg, 5 August 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-08-04/first-arms-sale-to-taiwan-by-biden-administration-is-approved accessed on 20 August 2021
[vii] Foreign Ministry spokesperson's Remarks on the US State Department's Approval of Arms Sale to Taiwan, 5 August 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2535_665405/t1897525.shtmlaccessed on 20 August 2021
[viii] Timeline: U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan in 2020 Total $5 Billion Amid China Tensions, 7 December 2020, https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2020-12-07/timeline-us-arms-sales-to-taiwan-in-2020-total-5-billion-amid-china-tensions accessed on 22 August 2021
[ix] Minnie Chan, US-China relations: Biden expected to keep Taiwan card in play against Beijing, 6 November 2020,
accessed at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3110016/us-china-relations-biden-expected-keep-taiwan-card-play accessed on 22 August 2021
[x] Biden Book World Journal : A more prosperous future for us, World Journal, 22 October 2020,
https://www.worldjournal.com/wj/story/121468/4955258?from=wj_maintab_index accessed on 21 August 2021
[xi] Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington and Kathrin Hille, Washington risks Beijing ire over proposal to rename Taiwan’s US office, The Financial Times,
10 September 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/07810ece-b35b-47e7-a6d2-c876b7b40444
accessed on 13 September 2021
[xii] Teach the US, Taiwan island a real lesson if they call for it: Global Times editorial, Global Times, 12 September 2021,https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1234046.shtml
accessed on 13 September 2021
[xiii] Countries and region, Taiwan, https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/countries/taiwan/ accessed on 6 September 2021
[xiv] Paulina Uznańska, As EU-China Relations Sour, Will Taiwan Find an Opening?, 8 October 2020,https://chinaobservers.eu/as-eu-china-relations-turn-sour-will-taiwan-get-an-opening/ accessed on 6 September 2021
[xv] Taiwan-EU Economic Relations, https://www.trade.gov.tw/english/Pages/Detail.aspx?nodeID=2912&pid=655621&dl_DateRange=all&txt_SD=&txt_ED=&txt_Keyword=&Pageid=0 accessed on 6 September 2021
[xvi] Lin Chia-nan, ‘Taiwanese’ office to open in Lithuania, 21 Jul, 2021, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2021/07/21/2003761201
accessed on 25 August 2021
[xvii] Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying's Remarks on China's Recall of Its Ambassador to Lithuania,
https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1898809.shtml accessed on 5 September 2021
[xviii] Brian Hioe, What’s Behind Lithuania’s Outreach to Taiwan?, The Diplomat, August 13, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/whats-behind-lithuanias-outreach-to-taiwan/ accessed on 7 September 2021
[xx] Spokesperson of the Chinese Mission to the EU Speaks on a Question Concerning the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs Report on Taiwan, http://www.chinamission.be/eng/fyrjh/t1903869.htm
accessed on 7 September 2021
[xxi] Philip Anstrén, The case for greater US-EU collaboration on Taiwan, Atlantic Council, 30 June 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/the-case-for-greater-us-eu-collaboration-on-taiwan/ accessed on 7 September 2021
[xxii] Taiwan’s ADIZ invaded by 19 more PLA jets, 6 September 2021,
https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2021/09/06/2003763887 accessed on 7 September 2021
[xxiii] 11 Chinese warplanes enter Taiwan's ADIZ as both sides stage drills, 17 August 2021,
https://focustaiwan.tw/cross-strait/202108170029 accessed on 7 September 2021
[xxiv] Thomas J. Shattuck, Assessing the pattern of PLA air incursions into Taiwan's ADIZ, 7April, 2021,https://www.fpri.org/article/2021/04/assessing-the-patterns-of-pla-air-incursions-into-taiwans-adiz/ accessed on 15 September 2021
[xxv] Taiwan reports largest ever incursion by Chinese air force, Reuters, 26 March 2021,
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-taiwna-china-security-idUSKBN2BI24D accessed on 7 September 2021
[xxvi] PLA exercises help ensure sovereignty, 31 August 2021,
http://en.people.cn/n3/2021/0831/c90000-9890054.html accessed on 7 September 2021
[xxvii] Li Zhenguang, US retreat from Kabul a lesson for Taiwan, China Daily, 8 September 2021,
https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202109/08/WS6137f533a310efa1bd66dfbd.html, accessed on 9 September 2021
[xxviii] Chen Yu-fu, Jason Pan and Kayleigh Madjar, Afghanistan not a parallel with Taiwan: academics, Taipei Times, 17 August 2021, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2021/08/17/2003762746 accessed on 9 September 2021
[xxix] White House backtracks after Biden appears to say US would defend Taiwan against China, The Guardian, 20 August 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/20/biden-taiwan-china-us-defence, accessed on 9 September 2021
[xxx] Philip Anstrén, The case for greater US-EU collaboration on Taiwan, Atlantic Council, 30 June 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/the-case-for-greater-us-eu-collaboration-on-taiwan/ accessed on 7 September 2021
[xxxi] Why the EU should pay more attention to Taiwan, 9 January 2020,
https://www.clingendael.org/publication/why-eu-should-pay-more-attention-taiwan, accessed on 7 September 2021
[xxxii] Zhang Yi, Complete reunification of mainland, Taiwan urged, China Daily, 28 August 2021,
https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202108/27/WS61281ee3a310efa1bd66b713.html accessed on 9 September 2021