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'Think Twice': Taiwanese Foreign Minister Warns Countries About Being Too Dependent On China

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.
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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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

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