Taiwan and Central Europe did not prioritize mutual relations until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which they suddenly developed much more intensive ties around public health diplomacy that have evolved today to a much more robust and diverse relationship.
For Central Europe, China dominated their main foreign policy and trade agenda after Beijing launched in 2012 its program of Cooperation with Central Europe, known in Chinese as 中国-中东欧国家合作, which built on its Belt and Road Initiative. Yet a series of setbacks in major projects as well as political changes in Central Europe are seeing this massive project lose momentum as some states also leave the organization. The China Index shows how Beijing is present in a number of countries of the region such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia.
At the same time Taiwan kicked off a new policy by sending masks, elevating its visibility among the general public in Central Europe, and continuing to invest in high technology and industries in the region, as well as developing Taiwanese tourism in the region, in effect counterbalancing Beijing's political, economic and cultural influence.
To understand the new direction of strengthened Taiwan–Central Europe relations, Global Voices spoke to Marcin Jerzewski who heads the Taiwan Office at the European Values Center for Security Policy, a Czech think tank present in Taipei since 2020.
The interview took place in English via email after a meeting in a café in Taipei.
Filip Noubel (FN): How do you explain this rather recent rapprochement between Central Europe and Taiwan, and how do you see it evolving since the second invasion of Ukraine?
Marcin Jerzewski (MJ): The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic increased exchanges between Taiwan and Central Europe, as, during that period, Beijing demonstrated a lack of transparency in communicating disease-related developments with the rest of the world. The pandemic and China’s response further undermined Beijing’s crumbling reputation in Europe, which was negatively affected by unfulfilled promises of lucrative economic deals and controversies surrounding China’s investment in strategic infrastructure throughout the region (the deep-sea port of Klaipeda in Lithuania serves as an illustrative example).
Meanwhile, Taiwan offered an antithetical model for addressing pandemic-related challenges, based on the principles of transparency and trust. While European countries, including those in the central part of the continent, struggled to secure sufficient stockpiles of personal protective equipment, Taiwan embarked on the strategy of “mask diplomacy”, successfully utilizing the donations of sorely needed materials as a tool of public diplomacy. Increasingly, the island country is viewed as a “like-minded partner” of Central European democracies. This normative alignment also facilitated the perception of Taiwan as an alternative trade and investment partner in East Asia.
Since the onset of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine, Taiwan is able to further capitalize on its “Taiwan Can Help” approach. Specifically, government leaders and civil society alike demonstrated considerable goodwill towards the people of Ukraine, which manifested itself in successful fundraising and collection drives. Amid the growing confluence of strategic interests between Moscow and Beijing, Taiwan stands out as an ally of Ukraine and the broader region of Central Europe. It is noteworthy that while China calls for “resolving the humanitarian crisis” in its 12-point peace plan, in 2022, Taiwan provided 18 times more funds to Ukraine than China: USD 41 million vs USD 2.1 million (CNY 15 million).
FN: To take practical examples, how do Poland and the Czech Republic align or diverge in their view and inclusion of Taiwan in public and political discourse?
MJ: Particularly since Petr Pavel’s assumed the presidency, Prague’s position vis-a-vis Beijing is clear and consistent across the executive branch and the two legislative chambers. China is viewed as a competitor and a source of national security threats, and the interactions between both countries are minimal. While the Czech Republic, unlike the Baltic states, has not formally withdrawn from the 14+1 cooperation framework, Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský declared that the framework had “neither structure nor future.” Parties which previously advocated for closer ties between Prague and Beijing, including social democrats and Communists, do not currently have any seats in the parliament, which further limits the possibility of potential dissent on the China question.
The situation in Poland is considerably different. Even within the ruling Law and Justice Party (PIS) there is a lack of a unified voice on China-related issues. Some high-ranking party officials, such as Anna Fotyga, MEP, lead the conversation about broadening engagement with Taiwan. Meanwhile, others, including Member of Sejm [Parliament] Marek Suski and Senator Grzegorz Czelej, both active in the Poland–China Parliamentary Group, engage with and openly praise policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Further tensions have developed since the expansion of the Russian war against Ukraine in 2022. Poland is now witnessing growing tensions between President Andrzej Duda, representing a more accommodating stance toward China, and the government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, which has grown increasingly wary about cooperation between Beijing and Moscow.
FN: What are the most promising areas of collaboration but also mutual understanding between Central Europe and Taiwan, in your view?
MJ: Education has a special role to play in the continually expanding relations between Central Europe and Taiwan.
Firstly, educational programs aimed at expanding the capacity of Central European countries in strategic technologies (such as semiconductors) are necessary for establishing a foundation for practical cooperation in the future, in areas such as investment and inclusion of the countries of the region in global supply chains. We should thus pay close attention to the scope and performance of initiatives such as the recently announced Taiwan Semiconductor Scholarship Program.
Secondly, the experience of long established programs such as the US Fulbright Program demonstrates that people-to-people exchanges constitute one of the most effective tools of public diplomacy. Taiwan currently seeks to position itself as a normative actor who can act as a like-minded peer for other liberal democracies. Taiwan needs to build coalitions in democratic countries which will elevate the importance of cooperation with Taipei on legislative and executive agendas. By attracting international students and promoting people-to-people exchanges, Taiwan has an unparalleled opportunity to strengthen its reputation amid democratic electorates.
FN: In what way is China still playing a role in Central Europe that can disrupt that rapprochement?
MJ: We ought to bear in mind that Central Europe is not a monolith. While some countries, including the Czech Republic and Lithuania, clearly pivoted away from Beijing and towards Taipei and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region, others, such as Hungary, continue to maintain amicable relations with Beijing. To a large extent, the current positive dynamics in relations between Central Europe and Taiwan can be attributed to fortuitous (from Taipei’s perspective) arrangements in national legislatures of Central Europe. Coalitions of centrist and center-right parties in Prague and Vilnius have openly pursued what they call “value-based foreign policy,” which prioritizes expanding political, economic, and cultural ties with “like-minded” democratic countries such as Taiwan. Nevertheless, it is possible future coalitions might be more reluctant to continue the process of deepening and broadening ties with Taiwan at the expense of cooperation with China. It is thus imperative that Taiwan works towards institutionalization of its ties with Central European partners, through international arrangements and multi-annual frameworks such as scientific collaboration programs or student exchanges. The institutionalized format of engagements with Taiwan would be more difficult to undermine than more ad-hoc exchanges realized in the form of high level visits or memoranda of understanding which are not acted upon.