Divide and Rule Gone Wrong: China’s 17+1 members drifting towards Taiwan

By Gregory Lens

The official idea behind China’s controversial China-CEEC (Central and Eastern European Countries), commonly known as 17+1 club, was to strengthen ties between the PRC and Eastern European countries to appeal to the agriculture sector in a crisis-hit region of Europe where rural economies are not able to compete under the protectionist policies of the West. In practice, it has proven to be a platform for pro-China propaganda with the PRC (People’s Republic of China) trying to exert influence on the EU by pledging economic investments. The program is therefore considered as a way for China to crawl its way into EU decision-making without having to deal with critical western EU members.

Nine years after its creation, the EU club members are reevaluating the “cooperation” aspect of this relationship. Unconvinced by the economic benefits after a decade of existence, six EU countries caused China to lose face by sending “lesser” officials to a summit organized by Xi Jinping in February instead of their heads of state. Estonia cancelled a Chinese-sponsored sea tunnel project from Tallinn to Helsinki, and Romania permanently barred Chinese telecom operator Huawei from taking part in the development of the Romanian 5G network. Last May, Lithuania went even further when it decided to leave the group altogether, citing “for practical purposes Lithuania is out”, while calling on the other EU members to do the same in favor of an EU-wide approach to policy affairs instead of the divisive policy making that is central to the CEEC.. 

Amid dwindling relations with the PRC, Eastern EU member states are rekindling and strengthening their ties to Taiwan. In 2020, Czechia’s senate president touched down on the island in an official visit, a trip that had been fiercely opposed by China. During his stay he proclaimed “I am Taiwanese”, angering Beijing and leading to threats from the PRC’s foreign minister in the process. Shortly after, in an act of support, the mayor of Prague signed a sister city agreement with Taipei, leading to Shanghai severing its sister city ties.

Last March, Lithuania announced the opening of a trade office in Taipei, and in return Taiwan plans to open a “Taiwanese representative office” in Lithuania, choosing the official name of the country instead of settling for a “Taipei” office. In line with its aggressive foreign policy, China recalled its ambassador from Vilnius and expelled its Lithuanian counterpart, a historical first with a member state of the European Union. In an act of defiance, Lithuania’s foreign minister declared the country will not back down or be pressured, and urged the EU to cut its reliance on China. 

China’s increasingly hawkish stance on the island reflects its nervousness on increasing support of the island’s status as an independent nation. With China’s go-to retaliation measures being economic in nature, the impact of these measures on small Eastern European economies is negligible. These symbolic “punishments” only lead to China tarnishing its own reputation in Europe further. 

Even western European countries, whose economic ties with the PRC cause them to be more careful in explicitly going against China out of fear for repercussions, have shown increasing opposition to China while amplifying commitments to Taiwan. France rebuffed China’s ambassador when he claimed that a visit to Taiwan by French lawmakers would violate the “one-China principle”. Although democratically governed Taiwan has never been ruled by the communist party, the PRC considers it to be part of its territory. 

The two chambers of the Belgian federal parliament as well as the Flemish parliament adopted resolutions in support of Taiwan’s international participation, calling on Belgium to strengthen ties with Taiwan and safeguarding its position. The French senate passed a similar resolution in May. Support for Taiwan has also transcended the national level, as the European Parliament recently adopted a resolution calling for the forging of stronger ties between the EU and Taiwan,  mentioning the threat of military belligerence by China. 

In what can be seen as a direct consequence of the “wolf warrior diplomacy”, China’s reputation in the EU continues to falter as ties with the member states deteriorate. Meanwhile Taiwan’s foreign politics are shaped as a “diplomacy of democracy”, promoting its liberal and democratic image EU members’ commitments and deepening of relations with democratically governed Taiwan reflect the West’s position on freeing the island of its foreign-imposed isolation on the world stage. In trying to punish EU member states who are growing closer to Taiwan, China only continues to isolate itself, further damaging its own dwindling international reputation.

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