September 26, 2023


The deteriorating war of words between the U.S. and China over Taiwan “could easily escalate” and is being closely watched in European capitals, according to senior diplomats. 

Tensions are growing between the world’s two biggest superpowers as Beijing ratchets up its threats over a possible visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in the coming days. 

From Brussels to Paris, EU officials have been reluctant to weigh into the dispute in public, even as China edges closer to the risk of a military standoff with the U.S. Behind the scenes, however, European diplomats accept there is clearly a danger that the situation could spiral out of control. 

Analysts are now urging EU leaders to pay attention and prepare for trouble ahead. 

“Worst-case scenarios sometimes do come to pass,” said Boris Ruge, vice-chairman of the Munich Security Conference, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an example. “Europeans would do well to prepare for contingencies, backing up Taiwan while remaining in close contact with Beijing, and helping to deescalate.”

Pelosi announced on Sunday that she is taking a Congressional delegation on a tour of Asia. A rumored stop-off in Taiwan — which has provoked a fierce backlash from Beijing — was not mentioned in her official itinerary but could still happen. 

China insists that a visit to Taiwan by Pelosi would be a blatant breach of the “one China” policy governing the territory’s status, and a signal of American support for Taiwanese independence. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping underlined his position last week during a tense call with Joe Biden. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” China’s foreign ministry quoted Xi as saying. “It is hoped that the U.S. will be clear-eyed about this.” China’s defense ministry has warned that the “Chinese military will never sit idly by” if Pelosi’s trip goes ahead.

Analysts believe Xi will want to show a strong repose to any sign the U.S. is moving to support Taiwanese independence, in part because he is seeking a norm-breaking third term in office this fall. 

The U.K. has suggested arming Taiwan, warning that the West must not make the same mistakes in failing to stand up for the Taiwanese as it did over Ukraine. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock recently described the “self-confident and above all robust appearance of China” in relation to Taiwan as “a global challenge.”

In public, however, most other European capitals have been more cautious in their comments. When asked about China’s threatened military response to a Pelosi visit, the French foreign ministry and the EU’s foreign policy arm would not comment.

One EU diplomat said silence at this stage is to be expected, given Taiwan is primarily regarded as a U.S. interest, but “the reaction will be different if words become action.”

Closely watched

Asked if the tensions were a concern for NATO, a senior European diplomat said: “Not yet, but it could easily escalate.” The “worst case” would see American attention diverted away from Ukraine to tensions with China over Taiwan, the senior diplomat said. 

A third senior European diplomat said the risk of the clashes between Washington and Beijing boiling over is being “closely watched.”

Urmas Paet, a vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that the intensifying Ukraine war had increased the risk of Chinese aggression toward Taiwan “exponentially.” 

“The European Union must also be able to keep an eye on China’s actions, including in relation to Taiwan,” Paet said. “Full cooperation between the EU and the U.S. is very important both in terms of Russian aggression against Ukraine and also in relation to China’s actions in its neighborhood.”

Until relatively recently, Europe had shied away from talking about Taiwan — a democratic island of 23 million that Beijing claims is part of China. The mood soured further as China pledged a “no limits partnership” with Russia, and toed the Kremlin line on its so-called “special military operation” against Ukraine.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted European policymakers to mull over the previously unimaginable consequences of imposing economic sanctions on the world’s second-biggest economy, should Beijing make a military move against Taiwan.

“In the event of a military invasion, we have made it very clear that the EU, with the United States and its allies, will impose similar or even greater measures than we have now taken against Russia,” the EU’s incoming ambassador to China, Jorge Toledo, said earlier this month.

Clea Caulcutt contributed reporting


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