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China In Eurasia

Czech Senate speaker Milos Vystrcil (left) awards Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu with the highest Senate honor during his visit to Prague on October 27.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

Taiwan Takes Center Stage In Europe

Joseph Wu, Taiwan's foreign minister, just wrapped up a whirlwind tour that took him to a handful of Central and Eastern European countries where he looked to boost the self-governing island's international profile.

I sat down with Wu for an interview during his stop in Prague, where we talked about his current trip, tensions with Beijing, and Taiwan's lessons for other countries navigating complicated ties with China.

Finding Perspective: Wu had a simple warning for countries in Europe and elsewhere that find themselves increasingly tied to China economically and politically: "They should think twice."

A key part of Wu's trip is shoring up support as many countries across the continent are growing frustrated with Beijing. Central to that message is Taiwan's pitch as a small, open, and democratic alternative to China.

That message is likely to get a mixed reception and it faces a tough uphill battle.

For starters, only 15 countries currently have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan and apart from the Holy See, none of them are in Europe.

Most countries transferred their formal ties to Beijing from the 1970s onward and with China's economic and political power rising across much of the world, Taipei has found itself with few official friends.

Why It Matters: By all measures, the trip was a success for Taiwan.

Wu received warm welcomes in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and was embraced on the sidelines in Brussels by several members of the European Parliament, leading to tough statements from Beijing to those that welcomed him.

While many countries in Europe are unlikely to turn away from China and the lure that its economy offers European businesses, the Taiwanese trip -- and the embrace of Wu -- marks a sea change of sorts that many governments will be walking a more defiant line with Beijing in the future.

For Taiwan, that's an important step forward.

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● You can watch some video excerpts from my sit-down with Wu here, which was produced by my colleague Stuart Greer.

● U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as part of the G20 summit in Rome over the weekend, where Wang blamed the current Taiwanese leadership for the uptick in tensions.

● During a CNN interview following the meeting, Blinken said that Washington had not changed its "one China" policy regarding Taiwan when asked about early comments made by U.S. President Joe Biden, where he said that Washington could come to Taipei's defense in the event of a conflict.

Expert Corner: More From Taiwan's Foreign Minister

We're doing things slightly differently this week. Here are some more selected quotes from my wide-reaching interview with Foreign Minister Wu in Prague on October 27.

On tensions in the Taiwan Strait: "The way we see it is that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan has been very consistent...and the U.S. explanation is also very clear, that U.S. policy remains unchanged. So, that is how we feel. But again, Taiwan is responsible for its own defense, and we want the United States to help in the process of Taiwan acquiring more defense capabilities, and this is what we are asking the United States for."

On his Europe trip: "What China wants to do is to make sure that Taiwan is dangling out in the international community alone -- no friends, no support. But, of course, as minister of foreign affairs my responsibility is to make sure that Taiwan has friends out there."

On how Beijing sees Taiwan: "Whenever Taiwan is gaining something, or having a new friendship, or being able to do something on the international stage, the Chinese would think that they are losing and they want to cut back on Taiwan's international participation. So, in that sense, it's a very direct competition between Taiwan and China on the international stage."

Do you have a question about China's growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I'll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. A New Chinese-Funded Base In Tajikistan

Tajikistan's parliament approved construction of a new Chinese-funded base in the country, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and myself reported.

We also reported on an alleged proposal outlined in documents seen by RFE/RL that were sent from the Chinese Embassy in Dushanbe to Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry, which offered ownership of a separate base where Chinese personnel are already based in Tajikistan near the Afghan border.

The Details: The new facilities are not a military base and Tajik officials told my colleagues in Dushanbe there will be no Chinese personnel posted there.

Beyond that, few tangible details were put forward.

Construction of the new facility was approved in Tajikistan's lower house of parliament on October 27 as lawmakers voted on the agreement reached between Tajikistan's Interior Ministry and China's Public Security Ministry.

Tajik First Deputy Interior Minister Abdurahmon Alamshozoda said the facility would be located in the village of Vakhon, near the border with Afghanistan, in the country's remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. The base would be run by the country's Rapid Reaction Group -- special forces that operate under the purview of the Interior Ministry.

It's important to note the Tajik and Chinese ministries involved in this project. Both cover policing and have wider paramilitary powers, but neither oversees the military.

Tajik lawmakers said the new base would carry out policing duties focused on combating organized crime.

Now to the other bit of news here....

According to a communique sent from the Chinese Embassy in Dushanbe to Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry and seen by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon offered to Chinese officials to transfer full control of an existing Chinese base in the country to Beijing and waive any future rent in exchange for military aid from China.

The base referred to in the documents appears to be one RFE/RL reported about a few weeks ago, which is believed to have paramilitary units from China's People's Armed Police.

We don't know if the offer was accepted or not. The Chinese Embassy in Dushanbe did not respond to a request by RFE/RL's Tajik Service about the proposal and a Chinese Foreign ministry spokesperson simply said that "China has no military base in Central Asia."

The Takeaway: As several regional experts noted about the report, this development points to Beijing's added focus toward Central Asia, which appears to be accelerating since the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan.

"Developments like this were coming, but the instability in Afghanistan has accelerated things," Temur Umarov, an expert on China in Central Asia at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told me. "In the future, we might see Chinese military and intelligence cooperation intensify across the region."

2. Huawei In The Balkans

The Chinese technology giant Huawei signed secret deals with people close to Serbia's state-owned telecommunications company to allegedly win contracts, leaked documents show.

My colleague Iva Martinovic from RFE/RL's Balkan Service and I reported on the news and followed up on an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Serbian-based Crime and Corruption Investigation Network (KRIK) based off documents obtained through the Pandora Papers leak.

The Story: The documents show secret offshore payments made to Igor Jecl, a former executive for Telekom Srbija, Serbia's state telecoms firm, worth $1.4 million in contracts, loans, and consulting fees, as well as an apartment from an offshore company that was given by Huawei for "consultancy," which financial experts told OCCRP "raises red flags for corruption."

The leak also shows that at least $1.16 million (1 million euros) went into offshore companies owned by Jecl and Milorad Ignjacevic, a prominent Serbian lawyer who had business ties to Telekom Srbija.

Iva followed up with Huawei and Telekom Srbija about what's revealed in the leaked documents and I spoke with several experts about how Chinese companies operate in the Balkans. Read the full report here.

Jecl's whereabouts, meanwhile, is unknown. Repeated attempts to reach him for comment received no reply. Records show he no longer appears to maintain an address in Serbia and his company registered in the British Virgin Islands has been closed.

3. 'The Network Wars Have Begun'

I interviewed Jonathan Hillman, an expert on China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of the new book The Digital Silk Road: China's Quest To Wire The World And Win The Future.

You can read my full write-up and interview here.

What You Need To Know: Although the pipelines, roads, and grand infrastructure projects of China's BRI have garnered the most attention as part of Beijing's efforts to expand its economic and political influence around the world, Hillman focuses on the unfolding digital side, which he argues will make up the new battleground for growing competition between China and the United States.

From 5G to AI-enabled surveillance systems and fiber-optic cables, Beijing and Washington are fighting for control over the networks of the future and, as Hillman writes in his book, "the Network Wars have begun."

In this vein, it is the fight for the markets of tomorrow.

China's success would bring commercial and strategic benefits to the country and allow Beijing to hold the reins on global finance, communications, and the flow of data, which could all be reshaped to better fit its geopolitical interests. (All of which are advantages currently enjoyed by the United States.)

As Hillman told me, expect things to keep heating up on this front. "We have only seen the first phase of the U.S.-China technology competition and it has been mostly focused in developed countries," he said. "But the real competition is set to play out across the developing world."

Across The Supercontinent

Up In The Air: China resumed a direct air-trade link with Afghanistan to restart pine-nut shipments in a bid to assist the country as it deals with a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis, Radio Azadi, RFE/RL's Afghan service, reported.

Pine nuts are a key staple for Afghanistan and their export to China in the past is estimated to generate around $800 million in revenue annually.

What Does China Want?: Here are two podcasts looking deeper into Beijing's ambitions in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The first is an episode of RFE/RL's Central Asia-focused show, The Majlis, and the other is a recording of a live RFE/RL discussion hosted on Twitter Spaces about China and Afghanistan. Take a listen!

Beijing's Turn: While Taiwan's Wu was carrying out his Europe tour, Wang, China's foreign minister, visited a handful of European countries of his own, including Serbia, where President Aleksandar Vucic reiterated his support for Beijing's "One-China Policy," RFE/RL's Balkan Service reported.

An Elusive Visit: Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov said that he intends to make his first visit to China as soon as the COVID-19 situation in the country stabilizes, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.

To Be Continued: That vague date is also apparently holding up finalizing construction of a long-standing China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project.

According to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Beijing has finalized the documents with the Uzbek side, but is waiting on things to be settled with Kyrgyzstan, which will reportedly take place during Japarov's trip to China, whenever that actually may be.

One Thing To Watch

U.S. President Joe Biden on October 31 blamed Russia and China for any disappointment over the level of commitment by G20 leaders to fight climate change.

That lack of commitment appears to be carrying over to the COP26 UN climate talks. Chinese President Xi Jinping won't address the COP26 talks in person or by video, and will send in a note instead.

Now, Xi hasn't left China in 21 months, but his absence and low-level engagement are particularly notable for a country responsible for almost one third of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

At the G20, there was frustration with China, which submitted a new climate pledge that did not significantly change its plans to grow emissions through this decade. Expect those same talking points to air at COP26 and beyond.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox on Wednesdays twice a month.

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (right) is presented with a commemorative medal by Czech Senate speaker Milos Vystrcil during his visit to Prague on October 27.

PRAGUE -- For countries in Europe and around the world that find themselves increasingly tied to China economically and politically, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has a simple warning: “They should think twice.”

“If you think that you are dependent on China, your foreign policy may become skewed,” Wu told RFE/RL in an exclusive interview in Prague on October 27. “If you think that you depend on China, your actions, or your policies, your behaviors need to be [cautious] because you don't want to jeopardize your business opportunities.”

That call comes as Wu makes a landmark European tour -- a rare trip for representatives of the self-ruling island country that China regards as its territory. Part of Wu’s diplomatic pitch is to offer Taiwan as a small, open, and democratic alternative to Beijing’s authoritarian politics, “wolf warrior” tactics, and so-called “debt-trap diplomacy” that has become associated with Chinese investment across the world, from Africa to Central Asia.

Taiwan split from China during a civil war in 1949 and Wu feels the island’s history and experiences dealing with Beijing give it unique insight for countries that have signed up to Chinese ventures like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and may be growing concerned about a more assertive China.

During a wide-ranging interview, Wu talked about Taiwan's risk of war with China, U.S. commitments to the island, his diplomatic outreach to Europe, and lessons that his country can offer other nations navigating complicated ties with Beijing.

Europe Should 'Think Twice' About Deeper Ties With China, Warns Taiwanese Foreign Minister
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Across Europe, countries like France and Germany have grown increasingly critical of China in recent years but are still cautious not to jeopardize their economic ties to Beijing and access to lucrative Chinese markets.

Further east, nations like Hungary, Montenegro, and Serbia have embraced Chinese investment and signed up to large projects under the guise of the BRI that have been mired in corruption allegations and reports of environmental damage.

Elsewhere, countries like Ukraine have faced their own controversy, with Beijing allegedly using its financial muscle to exert political influence over Kyiv to drop criticism of Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang in exchange for vaccine shipments.

“[China] uses corrupt practices -- [they] put money in the pocket of corrupted politicians [and] they promise quite a lot, but what they actually deliver may be limited,” Wu said. “The projects they engage in are sometimes very shoddy. So if you put all this together, I think it's going to be a very good lesson for any country, for anyone who wants to do serious business with China.”

Diplomatic Outreach

With Wu and a large trade delegation having already met with officials in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the Taiwanese foreign minister's trip was expanded to include stops in Poland and Brussels and an appearance on the sidelines of a summit of leaders from the G20 group of leading economies in Italy on October 29.

The Taiwanese trade delegation also made a trip to Lithuania without Wu in attendance.

The Taiwanese charm offensive, however, faces a steep uphill battle as Wu looks to boost Taipei’s international profile.

Only 15 countries currently have official diplomatic relations with the island of nearly 24 million people, many having transferred their formal ties to Beijing from the 1970s onward. And apart from the Vatican City, none of them are in Europe.

Due to Chinese pressure, many governments are unwilling to host senior Taiwanese ministers and Beijing has already issued stern rebukes to the countries that welcomed Wu.

Taiwan has suffered the consequences of China’s rise to the top of the world stage. As Beijing’s economic and political influence have expanded around the globe, many countries and international organizations have dropped their recognition of Taiwan, leaving it frozen out of bodies like the United Nations and World Health Organization and lacking formal ties to the vast majority of countries in the world.

“Whenever Taiwan is gaining something, or having a new friendship, or being able to do something on the international stage, the Chinese would think that they are losing and they want to cut back on Taiwan's international participation,” Wu said. “So, in that sense, it's a very direct competition between Taiwan and China on the international stage.”

Wu believes that more bellicose Chinese actions in recent years -- from the alleged internment camp system for Uyghur and Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang Province to concerns over its trade practices -- have opened the door for Taiwan to reclaim some of its lost status and, before departing Taipei, he heralded his trip as the start of a new era in relations with the European Union.

“What China wants to do is to make sure that Taiwan is dangling out in the international community alone -- no friends, no support,” Wu said. “But, of course, as minister of foreign affairs my responsibility is to make sure that Taiwan has friends out there.”

Tensions With China And U.S. Commitments

Beijing considers Taiwan to be a province of China that it must retake, by force if necessary.

Under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping, “reuniting” with Taiwan has been made into a legacy issue and China has stepped up military, diplomatic, and economic pressure on Taipei.

This has led to near-daily sorties of Chinese jets in recent years, with some 150 Chinese military aircraft entering Taiwan's airspace in a matter of days in early October.

Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng warned recently that China could be capable of mounting a "full-scale" invasion of Taiwan by 2025.

That escalation prompted U.S. President Joe Biden to say during a televised town hall meeting on October 21 that Washington had a “commitment” to come to Taiwan’s defense if it were attacked by China, signaling a potential shift in U.S. policy.

Biden’s comments have since been walked back by White House officials, but the exchange prompted a strong response from Beijing, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin saying there was “no room” for compromise or concessions over Taiwan.

Wu said he saw “no deviation” from U.S. policy in Biden’s remarks, adding that “Taiwan is responsible for its own defense.”

Taiwanese soldiers take part in military exercises as part of their country's efforts to show its determination to defend itself from Chinese threats. (file photo)
Taiwanese soldiers take part in military exercises as part of their country's efforts to show its determination to defend itself from Chinese threats. (file photo)

The United States cut formal diplomatic relations with Taipei in 1979 in order to recognize Beijing. Washington does not openly contest China’s claim to Taiwan but is committed by law under the Taiwan Relations Act to ensure the country can defend itself and to treat all threats toward it as matters of “grave concern.”

Washington continues to sell arms to Taiwan and its president, Tsai Ing-wen, confirmed to CNN on October 28 that American troops have been training the Taiwanese military.

“War is [not in the] interest of anyone at all,” Wu said. “But that is for rational leaders. And sometimes we are concerned that maybe the Beijing leaders are not rational, especially when they have domestic difficulties.”

With tensions rising between China and the United States, Taiwan continues to be a central flashpoint.

As U.S. troops left Afghanistan in August amid a chaotic exit that led to the Taliban toppling the Western-backed government, many critics of Biden’s decision -- as well as official Chinese state-media -- used the event to question U.S. commitments to Taiwan in the event of a crisis with Beijing.

According to Wu, the parallels to Afghanistan do not hold up.

“The Chinese want to play up the issue that the United States is not trustworthy, [that] the United States is going to abandon Taiwan at a time when Taiwan needs the United States the most,” Wu said. “That is a Chinese disinformation campaign. They've been doing that for years.”

Wu added that there are also “fundamental differences between Taiwan and Afghanistan” and that Taipei doesn’t expect “other countries to fight a war Taiwan is in.”

“Taiwan is very different. We are determined to defend ourselves. U.S. officials continue to say that we cannot help you more than you want to help yourself,” Wu said.

“In Afghanistan, we see a phenomenon that they don't seem to be willing to fight for themselves, but in Taiwan it is very different. We want to defend our way of life. We want to defend freedom and democracy and we want to defend our sovereignty.”

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About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

To subscribe, click here.

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