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Taiwan and Germany’s China Strategy

Image Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland/Flickr

As Germany works on its new China strategy, there is a need to comprehensively define an approach to ties with Taiwan as well.

Already during Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, the rise of China under Xi Jinping was perceived in Germany as a catalyst for geopolitical tensions that increasingly put the rules-based international order and regional security a risk. However, the traditional view of the possibility to encourage reform in China by strengthening economic ties has largely prevented a conceptual change in the German approach to China.  

Following the federal election at the end of 2021, the new governing parties in Berlin announced their intention in their coalition agreement to draw up a German China strategy for the very first time. The main impetus for formulating such a strategy is Germany’s perception that Beijing’s foreign and security policy is undergoing significant change, which requires an updated approach. The final version of the China strategy is likely to be published before mid-2023, although the leaked draft of the document has already generated lively debate. 

Unsurprisingly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has impacted the process of formulating the inaugural strategic document. The war has not changed its main cornerstones, which include diversifying Germany’s economic and political relationships away from China towards other partners in the region (hence the Indo-Pacific guidelines published already in 2020). Nor has the war changed the overall alignment of Germany’s China policy with the EU’s strategic outlook on China from 2019, which described China as a strategic partner, competitor as well as a systemic rival. But the war in Ukraine has put more urgency on several topics, including reducing dependencies and vulnerabilities stemming from ties to China to avoid the same mistake Germany made with Russia. In addition, the Russian invasion has illustrated to German policymakers the real possibility that China could forcefully change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. The policymakers in Berlin know that what is happening in Europe today could very well happen in Asia tomorrow. 

Germany’s Taiwan policy

The basis of German (and European) relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has always been the One-China Policy but also the premise that unification can only come about peacefully and with the consent of the democratic majority of Taiwan’s population. While Germany has never put the fundamentals of its One-China Policy into question, it has also always been part of the status quo that Germany “maintains contacts and relationships with Taiwan below the threshold of recognition as a sovereign state.” In addition, the German government considers “military threats to be unacceptable and, in particular, [believes that] threats with live ammunition or the use of economic means of coercion are not justified.” 

Following the August 2022 visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the-then US speaker of the House of Representatives, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, referring to the Russian attack on Ukraine, said that it is unacceptable when “a larger neighbor attacks its smaller neighbor in violation of international law – and of course that also applies to China.” Here the question arises whether an invasion by the PRC, as the only sovereign state in this conflict, against Taiwan would actually pose a violation of international law. Prompted by this question in August 2022, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson responded that from Germany’s point of view “something like partial sovereignty under international law (…) also applies to Taiwan.” 

Rights and Obligations

Taking into account this definition of the subjects of international law and the related rights and obligations, Germany should make the following considerations when finalizing the China strategy: first, Germany and Taiwan have the right to cooperate more within the limits of the latter not being a fully sovereign state, and, second, China is obliged not to threaten and invade the island.

On the issue of cooperation with Taiwan, Beijing has been attempting to alter the parameters of the status quo not only by intimidating Taiwan politically and militarily but also by exerting pressure on third countries to limit their exchanges and cooperation with the island. For Germany, this means that it needs to maneuver and define what “maintaining contacts and relationships with Taiwan below the threshold of recognition as a sovereign state” entails. The ties with Taiwan are no less important to Germany, ranging from culture to science and research as well as the economy, in particular in the areas of renewable energies and emerging technologies. 

The semiconductor industry is especially attractive to the German automotive industry. There are, for instance, ongoing negotiations between German (and EU) policymakers and the Taiwanese semiconductor champion TSMC to build a factory in Germany in the coming years. In order to strengthen the economic cooperation with Taiwan and to attract Taiwanese innovation further, negotiations on an EU-Taiwan bilateral investment agreement should be supported by Germany.

Visits by German parliamentarians (not to speak of think tanks and media) to Taiwan are becoming the new normal. A high-ranking parliamentary delegation from Germany arrived in Taiwan just at the beginning of this year, led by Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the parliamentary defense committee (Free Democratic Party). 

Further political visits, however, should also result in bringing some substance to dialogues with Taiwan. For instance, what could Berlin offer to Taiwan in terms of assistance for strengthening its democracy and resilience against foreign influence and misinformation? What can Germany do to support Taiwan’s greater involvement in international organizations? As the latter was also mentioned in the 2021 coalition agreement of the governing parties, German policymakers should address the issue when speaking with their counterparts in Beijing. 

At the same time, while it remains important for Berlin to signal to China that Germany is willing to continue its economic and political cooperation to date, the German government should always emphasize to Beijing its commitments under international law, and that it will not disregard the dangers that arise from China’s expansive power projection to the continued peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and to the multilateral liberal order as a whole. 

As the premise of Germany is that a change in the status quo can only take place peacefully and by mutual agreement, German foreign and security policy is also responsible for reducing the risk of an escalation in the Taiwan issue. If the PRC were to try to use force to subdue Taiwan, this would have far-reaching consequences for security in the region and for the international order. Germany should be prepared to reduce, if not terminate, cooperation with China should the latter cross red lines, even if this would involve high costs. The prerequisite for this is a clearly developed, joint strategy towards China, as is currently being developed in Berlin.

At the end of the day, Germany and Europe will not be able to shoulder the task of committing China to the rules of international law, multilateralism, and liberal governance by themselves. Europe’s key partners for political coordination and cooperation are the United States, Canada, and like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Particular consideration should be given to seeking exchanges with Indo-Pacific partners on the Taiwan issue. This should include a joint assessment of the risk of escalation and how an armed conflict over the island could be prevented. The exposure of Germany’s Taiwan policy to the risks emanating from China is a particularly striking example of Germany’s need to coordinate with its partners in the Indo-Pacific. Many countries in the region already have long-established economic and cultural relations with Taiwan due to their geographical proximity (without crossing the threshold of state recognition). It is thus essential to find out what expectations and interests are there on the side of regional partners regarding Germany’s engagement with China and Taiwan and use this as a basis for a comprehensive approach to the region.

Written by

Angela Stanzel


Dr. Angela Stanzel is an Associate in the Asia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Her research topics include China’s foreign and security policy and EU-China relations.