America's increasingly tough line on Taiwan and willingness to transfer weapons while continuing to send high-level officials, including Congressional junkets to Taipei, appears to be causing strain for the European Union's typically independent trade policy.
In perhaps the most serious sign yet that Europe is struggling on which direction it should lean on the Taiwan issue, it was reported Friday that the EU postponed at the last minute implementation of what's being called a "confidential plan" for a major upgrade in trade ties with Taiwan.
In was first revealed in detail by the South China Morning Post, which wrote that "On Friday, Brussels was preparing to announce a new strategic format for liaising with Taiwan on trade and economic issues, involving more regular meetings, collaboration on specific sectors such as semiconductors, and more visits by senior officials, according to multiple sources briefed on the plans but not authorised to discuss them publicly."
Crucially, it's being widely perceived that China brought immense pressure to bear on Brussels, given that a mere days prior to the "eleventh-hour" decision, China's ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming, blasted efforts to that would continue steering the EU into Washington's corner, seen as stoking pro-independence forces on the island.
Ming issued a statement on the unbending nature of Beijing's refusal to compromise, saying, "any attempt to develop official relations with Taiwan authorities is not acceptable because it's a violation of the basic norms of the international relationship".
"The Taiwan question is China's internal affairs," he told a virtual European Policy Centre conference. "It is a highly sensitive issue, but some people in Europe seem to underestimate the Chinese people's aspiration for the complete reunification of our country. Let me stress that China's position on the Taiwan question is firm and clear. Such a position remains unchanged and will never be changed."
The proposed upgraded trade deal would have been seen as largely symbolic, particularly if it should stop short of delivering a bilateral investment trade pact. Still, it would have been a huge diplomatic win for Taipei and thumb in the eye to China - something which EU officials perhaps in the end saw as unnecessary at this point, given trade already flows freely between the EU and Taiwan - all without violating the 'One China' status quo policy.
Last month, the EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager laid out that "The European Union has an interest in enhancing relations and cooperation with Taiwan, within the framework of its one-China policy."
More recently this past week, a statement from the EU's trade commission suggested the plans would still be on the table: "We are looking into possible options to boost our engagement with Taiwan, which remains an important and like-minded trade partner. This is a work in progress," a spokeswoman said.