How have Central and Eastern European countries’ changing views on China affected their ties with Taiwan?

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu’s European tour has attracted both international attention and opposition from Beijing. On October 26, he called on like-minded countries to form a “democratic supply chain” while trading partners should create trust through shared values.

Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, says it’s a time of change in Central and Eastern Europe, and since some of these countries have far smaller economic ties with China, they have a lot less to lose financially when they try to elevate their relationship with Taiwan.

“Central and Eastern European nations also have a much better understanding of what communist systems are, and they don’t like them,” she said. “There has also been some research in places like the Czech Republic into how much concrete benefit there has really been for Central and Eastern European countries from China.”

According to her, some of the research shows that in fact, the real advantage of trade with East Asia has come from Taiwan. “Taiwan’s actual economic and investment outcome in some of these cases are bigger than China’s despite the different sizes of the two countries,” she said.

Matej Simalcik, executive director of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies in Slovakia, thinks that Wu’s visit to Central and Eastern Europe sends a strong signal to the region that Taiwan is interested in developing relationships further.

However, he says the visit shouldn’t be viewed as a single event, as some countries in the region have been exploring other meaningful interactions they can have with other countries in East Asia besides China.

Simalcik mentions that the 7 MOUs signed between the Taiwanese business delegation and Slovakia is a good signal that something is happening but he thinks it is important to focus on whether actual specific projects were implemented based on the MOUs.

Apart from the MOUs, Simalcik says the Slovakian business community has long held positive views of Taiwanese businesses. “Taiwan has had a lot of economic presence in the country. Large investments were made by Foxconn in the past,” he said. “Public opinions have a much better view of Taiwan compared to China.”

However, he also points out that in light of the disillusionment with China, a lot of people have viewed Taiwan as a potential source of investment. He thinks there could potentially be risks for Taiwan in this kind of environment as people may put similar hopes on Taiwan for providing investment.

Will political transition in Central and Eastern Europe be beneficial to Taiwan?

Earlier this month, the Czech Republic held the parliamentary election, and the Prime Minister’s party narrowly lost to the liberal-conservative three-party coalition. This means that the current Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis could be replaced.

Didi Tatlow points out that even though the result of the election hasn’t been determined, the current trend seems to show that the forces that were pushing hard for a much closer relationship with China are weakening quite considerably. “It looks like whatever happens next will be in favor of closer ties with Taiwan,” she said.

“Overall, I do get a sense that there is growing genuine interest in raising relationships with Taiwan from Europe. There is a sense that they are trying to manage this relationship much better going forward,” she added.

While Central and Eastern European countries are gradually creating a trend, Tatlow thinks bigger European countries could feel some pressure. “Even though the bigger countries have been conservative on issues related to Taiwan, even in Germany, there is greater interest than there was before in upgrading relations with Taiwan as the European Parliament has called for,” she said.

She thinks even though Germany probably won’t go really far in terms of changing its Taiwan policy, she thinks there will be greater openness and willingness to look at the issue and make some changes that the German government will find acceptable.

Matej Simalcik says in Slovakia, the previous government had more positive views on China, so they put a lot of political capital into developing relations with China. As a result, the relationship with Taiwan suffered a bit. However, since investments from Taiwan were already made by that time, Taiwanese businesses kept contributing positive economic benefits to Slovakia.

“As we have seen with attitudes towards China, political change was able to undo a lot of the Chinese influence gained over the past 10 years,” he said. “Something similar could happen to Taiwan should these political parties come back to power again.”

Tatlow thinks that if Taiwan wants to further elevate its relationship with European countries, it could consider elaborating its advantages in soft power and culture. “These are qualities that Taiwan has and can do much more of,” she said.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.