“For many European and American politicians, it has become a new rite of passage: going to Taiwan to show the world (and especially your constituents) how dare you are to be punitive against China,” writes Sven Biscop. “But usually such visits are unnecessary, even counterproductive.”
I’ll be honest: if my husband wasn’t Taiwanese, I wouldn’t vacation there every year. But after more than a decade of marriage and almost as many trips, we have our favorite places in Taipei that we keep coming back to. And each time we also make new discoveries, like during our last visit (the first since Covid-19), when we started the new year with the fireworks from the Taipei 101 tower.
So I can really recommend it: visit Taiwan!
Good food is just as important to Taiwanese as it is to Belgians, Taipei is full of culture and history, and the metro takes you right to the foot of the mountains that surround the city, so you can enjoy the beautiful nature too. (But then you can head back to town for a nice dinner and a comfy bed – a day trip is more than natural enough for me). It continues to amaze me that more tourists don’t find their way to “Isla Formosa”, the beautiful island, as the Portuguese called it.
Empty hands and photo
However, a particular type of tourist arrives in Taiwan in droves: the political tourist. For many European and American politicians, it has become a new rite of passage: going to Taiwan to show the world (and especially your constituents) how dare you be to be punitive against China.
It costs nothing, because like the real tourist, the political tourist also arrives empty-handed. A speech and a photo is usually all it takes for Taiwan – no trade deals, no military equipment. It can even be lucrative: some American visitors who have recently held high office would have paid dearly for their “show of support” (and also received a high Taiwanese decoration). And there are not many risks: when headwinds come from China, it is always Taiwan that suffers the most.
No one has demonstrated the futility of this type of political tourism better than Nancy Pelosi, when she speakers of the United States Congress visited Taiwan in August 2022. As expected, this caused a serious crisis with China, which, as often happens, overreacted, with military maneuvers that resulted in a temporary blockade from Taiwan. Provoking a crisis can be a strategic choice – if you define your goals and next steps in advance. But doing it just to embellish your own profile is hypocritical and dangerous. Pelosi’s visit ultimately undermined US strategy, as she traveled to Taiwan against President Biden’s explicit advice. What image of the United States does this create?
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To be clear, many Taiwanese support these visits. But just as many prefer not to be put at the mercy of foreign politicians. Usually, these visits are unnecessary or even counterproductive. But Taiwan can hardly refuse to host our politicians without risking losing support or giving the impression that it is bowing to China.
Giving in to China is obviously not the intention. It’s about maintaining the status quo, which works best for everyone. Political tourism and other meaningless gestures give China the chance to pretend that the West wants to change the status quo. European politicians should therefore send a clear message: if ever China itself tried to change the status quo by military force, the economic relationship with the European Union would never be the same again.
Implicitly, the European sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine already send this signal of deterrence, but the message must be powerful. Europe does not have the capacity to play a major military role in Asia, but economic deterrence can be a powerful tool of a united EU. That’s what anyone visiting Taiwan (or China) should say.
In the meantime, there is no point in evoking an atmosphere of crisis in the Western media if the Taiwanese themselves do not feel it. Too often the alarming news here has little or nothing to do with the situation there. Taiwanese don’t get up every morning and go to bed every night for fear of an impending Chinese invasion. Perhaps there is wishful thinking here, just as the average Ukrainian on February 23, 2022 (or the average Belgian on May 9, 1940) went about their daily business. But isn’t that the attitude to encourage? Keep Calm and carry on.
(Read more below the article.)
What the West can do is strengthen Taiwan’s resilience, including by further deepening the economic relationship. Not, however, by unilaterally imposing restrictions on Taiwan’s trade and investment with China, as the US intends to do in the area of chips (where Washington also hopes to impose restrictions on the EU). Again, this is just to show that the status quo is best for everyone. Incidentally, China is already Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for around 25%, about twice as much as the second-largest United States.
The EU, the US and especially China would do better to take the necessary steps to maintain a constructive economic relationship based on full reciprocity in market access. This won’t prevent great power tensions, but it will help keep them manageable.
Western politicians can, of course, continue to visit Taiwan. In fact, it’s recommended – but for self-education, not for self-promotion. It was only after my first visit to Taiwan, in 2011, that I fully realized the importance of preserving the democratic society that Taiwanese have built. So: don’t impose yourself on Taiwan, but let yourself be charmed by Taiwan. And if you then decide to help Taiwan, perhaps first ask the Taiwanese themselves what help is most welcome.
For Sven Biscop, professor at Ghent University and director of the Egmont Institute, Taiwan was love at first sight.