In EU-China Talks, Beijing Warns of 'Shaky Relations' Over Taiwan

The top diplomats of China and the European Union met virtually on Tuesday for the first time in over a year, in a dialogue preceding carefully crafted readouts that avoided sensitive language about the bloc's evolving view of Beijing and its decision to deepen relations with Taiwan.

A Chinese statement on the talks between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the EU's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the European official called China an "important strategic partner," whose relationship with the bloc was "mature, multifaceted and non-confrontation," words that were missing from the readout produced by the European External Action Service—the EU's diplomatic arm.

Similarly, the EU's description of Taiwan as a "like-minded and important economic partner" were omitted by China's Foreign Ministry. The EU said it intended to develop cooperation with the self-ruled island under its "one China" policy and "without any recognition of statehood."

Beijing's version said Borrell promised "not to conduct official exchanges with the Taiwan region."

Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said it welcomed the EU's interest in deepening ties.

Tuesday's dialogue happened amid an ongoing diplomatic spat between China and Lithuania, which allowed the opening of a representative office in Vilnius under the name "Taiwan" instead of the more ambiguous "Taipei" used for the island's other missions in Europe. The EU has backed its member state's right to do so.

The Chinese government regards Taiwan as one of its provinces despite having never governed it. Wang said the issue formed the "political foundations on which China developed relations with the EU and its member states."

"A weak foundation makes for shaky relations," Wang added, according to the ministry's notes.

The traditionally trade-focused EU is undergoing a cautious realignment of its China policy as major western powers, chief among them the United States, have struggled to maintain past levels of engagement with what they perceive as an increasingly assertive leadership in Beijing, helmed by Xi Jinping.

The EU's decision to join coordinated sanctions in March against Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other minority ethnic groups in Xinjiang led to dramatic countermeasures by China, which resulted in European lawmakers suspending an investment deal.

The issue of human rights was brought up in this week's discussion, both statements noted. Borrell said that "while disagreements still persisted, the EU and China needed to continue engaging intensively in a number of important areas," among them climate change and global health.

Wang said Beijing was ready to engage in dialogue and cooperation on human rights, "but will not accept human rights 'lecturing' and opposes interference into its internal affairs under the pretext of human rights," the Chinese statement read.

Borrell said the EU would "respect China's sovereignty and has no intention of lecturing China," the ministry added.

EU-China Hold Strategic Dialogue
European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell gives a press conference in Brussels, Belgium, on September 16, 2021. FRANCOIS WALSCHAERTS/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this month, the EU had already signaled its intention to further engage with Taiwan. Its latest Indo-Pacific strategy said: "The EU will also pursue its deep trade and investment relationships with partners with whom it does not have trade and investment agreements, such as Taiwan."

The same document noted: "The display of force and increasing tensions in regional hotspots such as in the South and East China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity."

The European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs recently passed a policy report calling on the European Commission to assess the possibility of an EU-Taiwan Bilateral Investment Agreement. The Chinese mission in Brussels issued a statement opposing the move.