The Taiwan Lobby in Europe Counters Taiwan's Progressive Reputation

The Taiwan Lobby in Europe Counters Taiwan's Progressive Reputation
Photo Credit: CNA
What you need to know

The Taiwan lobby in the United States is well known. The lobby exists in the UK and Europe, too, and plays a similar role at odds with Taiwan's progressive reputation.

When Taipei leverages its progressive, democratic credentials for international investment and recognition, it can count on foreign lobby groups acting in concert with its messaging.

The Taiwan lobby in the United States is well known. It started out as the “Free China” lobby and was led by reactionary, right-wing Republicans, such as Jesse Helms.

The lobby’s Cold War-era aim was not self-determination for the Taiwanese people. Rather, it sought to bolster Chiang Kai-shek’s regime to undermine “Red China.” As Taiwan democratized, the lobby morphed into championing democracy, lauding Taiwan as a vibrant outpost of freedom that adhered to the rule of law and human rights, bullied by its Communist neighbor, China.

Less studied is the Taiwan lobby’s presence in the United Kingdom and Europe. Yet, these lobbies in many ways resemble the groups supporting Taiwan in the U.S.

The United Kingdom

The British version of what is now the Taiwan lobby arose after 1950 among backbench Conservatives who opposed the UK’s diplomatic recognition of Beijing while trying to maintain relations in practice with the ROC. This group consisted of committed anti-Communists. Some visited Taiwan, others affiliated with the Free China Centre in London.

Current parliamentary support for Taiwan in the UK draws on suspicion of China. Since 2017, UK China policy has followed an uneasy consensus that engagement benefits the UK. Frontbenchers have generally held that China-bashing is counterproductive. Yet many previously loyal Conservative backbenchers have tweeted pro-Taiwan messages since the Huawei affair and Covid-19.

Pro-Taiwan rebels include Conservatives concerned about Chinese investment in British firms, the One Nation caucus and pro-Brexit European Research Group, former cabinet ministers, and select committee chairs. For instance, in response to the City of London Corporation banning a Taiwanese float from the Lord Mayor’s Show in 2019, Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, referenced Taiwan’s free markets and free society, and called for Britain to resist Chinese.

In a May 2019 Lords’ debate, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Barker, accused China of a “relentless” and “petty” campaign to “deny Taiwan international recognition.”

Conservative friends of Taiwan have been officially corrected after overstepping UK policy on Taiwan in the House. Former Conservative MP and Minister of State at the Foreign Office Mark Field called Taiwan a country in a parliamentary debate in 2019 and was issued with a correction the next day.

The main legislative association supporting Taiwan is the Taiwan All-Party Parliamentary Group (Taiwan APPG). It has supported Taiwan’s international presence where it does not contradict UK policy. It stresses business relations and Taiwan’s democracy.

The members are overwhelmingly center-right and Conservative, with very few social democrats. In general, members broadly align with the legacy of Thatcherism.

The Chair of the Taiwan APPG, Nigel Evans, is representative of the group’s politics. He perceives a commercial benefit in Taiwan and is also vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary China Group. Economically neoliberal, he is a loyal Conservative who advocates strong national defense policy. Evans is a vociferous Brexiter and supports Leave Means Leave.

Europe

The main organization representing EU support for Taiwan is the European Parliament Taiwan Friendship Group (EPTFG). This group draws its core support from the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) bloc.

Its membership draws on the German CDU and the religiously conservative Dutch SGP. Some are motivated by cross-cutting anti-Communist and anti-Russian sentiment, driven by their respective nationalisms.

歐洲議會議員連署促進台海和平(1)
Photo Credit: CNA
Werner Langen of the European Parliament Taiwan Friendship Group with President Tsai Ing-wen.

Members of the Visegrad Group and signatories of the Prague Declaration figure prominently. The Visegrad Group opposes the EU’s socially liberal aspects and is nationalist in relation to its members’ respective states. The Prague Declaration has been condemned as antisemitic and reactionary, drawing a false equivalence between Communism and Nazism and thus minimizing the Holocaust. Some members appear to see in Taiwan a bastion against Communism in much the same way as the Free China lobby did.

The CDU member and EPTFG chair, Michael Gahler, is a signatory of the Prague Declaration. He is also a member of a new Taiwan friendship group, the Formosa Club, and other conservative EU bodies that promote Conservative interests, including the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which promotes “freedom and Christianity.”

The political right is a threat to progressive values

The political and commercial benefits to Taiwan of relations with the UK and the EU are clear. However, what is less clear is how far the political ideologies and interests of Taiwan’s UK and EU friends chime with Taipei’s messaging of democracy and freedom.

A narrative of freedom, democracy, and human rights certainly serves Taiwan, the UK, and the EU. Taiwan uses the narrative to attract diplomatic support and investment from the UK and EU. Political parties in the UK and EU benefit from supporting a regime seen as a model of the broadly popular values of democracy and freedom. However, the extent to which that narrative is monopolized by right and center-right interests in Europe needs to be explored further. It may be that such interests preclude more progressive support for Taiwan in the UK and the EU.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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