Berlin’s Hesitant Stance on Taiwan

The German government is in the midst of drafting its very first comprehensive China strategy. While Berlin’s China rhetoric seems to be getting slightly tougher, its ministries have largely avoided making explicit reference to the Taiwan question, a delicate topic while crafting a China strategy. A draft version of the government’s strategy paper merely notes that German authorities would support “enhancing” relations – including considering a bilateral investment agreement – with the self-governing island at the EU level. However, employing an exclusively EU-centric lens highlights Berlin’s perpetual hesitancy to engage Taiwan one-on-one. A visit by lawmakers from the ruling coalition government in early January notwithstanding, the government’s latest attempt to consolidate an all-of-government approach vis-à-vis Beijing yet again shows that it might still be a long way for Berlin to formulate a consistent policy toward the de facto independent island.

Almost Empathetic

For a ten-member-strong delegation of the German liberal party FDP (Free Democratic Party), 2023 started off with a statement visit to Taipei. Though arguably one of the more contentious places for lawmakers to head to, the four-day visit was more than welcomed by the Taiwanese government. For Taiwan, foreign delegation visits have, after all, become a new mainstay in the quest for more international recognition. And just like with previous delegation visits to the island by high-ranking foreign political figures, Beijing responded in kind by sending PLA fighter jets into contested air space in the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile, mainland China’s diplomatic envoy in Berlin accused the group of unnecessarily escalating tensions.

On the ground in Taipei, the FDP’s members met with their Taiwanese counterparts, including President Tsai Ing-wen, in an effort to show solidarity in the face of Beijing’s ongoing aggression. While the show of support was welcomed, Tsai used the opportunity to call on Germany to be more active in “maintain[ing] regional order.” The diplomatic tone could not veil how Berlin’s ambiguous relationship with mainland China is ruffling feathers in the Taiwanese capital. Pressure on the Scholz government to adjust its China policy has been mounting, both domestically and from external partners.

For delegation lead Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, Tsai’s stability comments, however, were likely taking the debate too far. The delegation as a whole already sought to tone down expectations in Taipei, reiterating that while the use of force against Taiwan is “unacceptable”, no delivery of weapons should be expected. Strack-Zimmermann herself then doubled down on Berlin’s boundaries vis-à-vis Taiwan in a radio interview following the visit. In her words, the visit was not meant to “provoke” but rather to underscore that silent diplomacy – as practiced prior to the Ukraine war under Angela Merkel – was no longer delivering on its promises. In addition, the delegation’s main purpose was to reconsider whether strong ties with Beijing were still “timely,” also in light of Beijing’s perpetual silence on the Ukraine war.

Consequently, the FDP’s visit merely emphasized that even low-level relations with Taiwan depend on Beijing’s strategic position in the party’s foreign policy outlook. And a clear positioning on the party’s China policy was delivered when FDP party chief Christian Lindner, during the annual Epiphany Retreat on January 6, dismissed the idea of a “complete decoupling” from Beijing. After all, given the economic uncertainties and the need to alleviate voters’ financial pressures in Germany, the party seems poised to adhere to business as usual rather than opt for a radically different economic strategy. And with Taiwan not even featuring once in his much-anticipated speech, it is difficult to imagine the current party leadership contemplating “ceding the [Chinese] market to someone else.” In spite of Lindner notably suggesting that the FDP envisions a “free trade zone with liberal democracies” – an idea that would not initially preclude Taiwan – these suggestions have yet to bear fruit, either in the form of party commitment or by launching actual preliminary consultations with possible candidates.

Struggling Across Party Lines

By extension, the FDP is certainly not the only party present in the German parliament struggling to come to terms with the very concept of ‘Taiwan’ outside the practiced “One China” policy. Former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August of 2022 was initially praised by a majority of high-ranking politicians and party-level foreign affairs spokespersons on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Christian Democrat politician Norbert Röttgen questioned the timing of the visit yet also criticized the ensuing military provocations. The notable exception was Left Party veteran politician Gregor Gysi who perceived the hyped-up visit as an outright mistake. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock meanwhile publicly denounced Beijing’s military threats issued ahead of Pelosi’s stint, raising eyebrows at a UN nuclear disarmament meeting with her utterly frank positioning. And while she certainly ruffled feathers in Beijing, ultimately her ministry remained mute even in light of increasing PLA incursions across the Taiwan Strait following Pelosi’s departure.

Different positions notwithstanding, all too often comments by German lawmakers made with regards to the Taiwan question centered around Berlin getting caught up in a long-term conflict, with potential disastrous economic consequences. Against this backdrop, it appears even less surprising that the FDP delegation did not offer more than just rhetorical support to Taiwanese President Tsai as Lindner sought to ensure voters that domestic prosperity would take precedence. Just as the initial optimism about Olaf Scholz’s “Zeitenwende” (English: “turn of an era”) – who himself has been perpetually silent on the topic of Taipei whilst being more verbally confident vis-à-vis Beijing – quickly caught up with reality, so do current political debates on Taiwan in Berlin.

And while rumors about a possible TSMC fab in Dresden may sound promising in terms of expanding the relationship between Berlin and Taipei, the former’s incessantly security-centric vision of Taiwan could hamper progress. It has not only lagged in substance vis-à-vis Ukraine, its grandiose rhetoric failed to deal with past governmental shortcomings and miscalculations. The initial enthusiasm about an overhaul of Berlin’s foreign policy and activity thus faded all too quickly. In addition, the Scholz administration has been dragging its heels when it comes to doubling down on governmental subsidies to attract semiconductor manufacturers to produce in the EU, despite a proposed European Chips Act.

In hindsight, the delegation’s lukewarm embrace of Taiwan is symptomatic of a widespread security-centrism among political parties in Germany. While there seems to be some movement in Berlin – in the form of consultations for an independent China strategy – details of these have yet to be published. Given the strong China focus, it appears likely that Taiwan will remain side-lined due to lack of both political interest and will to adjust German strategic thinking.