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The Taiwan Trilemma

“If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese army will definitely not hesitate to start a war no matter the cost”, as spoken by China’s defence minister Wei Fenghe at the Shangri-La Dialogue – Asia’s most important security conference – in Singapore in June 2022. As the EU has been preoccupied with supporting Ukraine in its fight against a genocidal Russian Federation, this Chinese sabre-rattling has seemed to go unnoticed in many parts of Europe. While the EU must continue – and intensify – its support for Ukraine, it is also pivotal that, simultaneously, Europe starts preparing itself for a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon, an unprepared Pompey got caught by surprise; when Xi crosses the Taiwanese Strait, a prepared Europe should be ready to respond.

History is always watching. (Source: Tiziana Fabi/AFP)

The Runaway Child and the Motherland

After the Mao-led communist faction proclaimed victory in the long and bloody Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Chinese Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan. Notwithstanding the 180 kilometres of water separating Taiwan from mainland China, Beijing has always argued that the breakaway region of Taiwan will, sooner or later, be rejuvenated with the People’s Republic. Over the past decades, the Chinese Communist Party has tried realising rejuvenation mostly through peaceful means. Beijing aimed to persuade the Taiwanese people of the benefits of reunification by fostering economic, cultural, and political ties. That said, survey data shows that China has been unable to capture the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people. In a poll conducted in March 2022, almost 90 per cent of Taiwanese rejected the mainland’s claims that Taiwan is part of China. Moreover, the number of Taiwanese citizens identifying solely as Taiwanese – instead of identifying as both Chinese and Taiwanese – has been steadily climbing over the years, starting at 18 per cent in the early 90s and, nowadays, reaching over 60 per cent. Finally, as a nail in the coffin of peaceful rejuvenation, twice as many Taiwanese hold favourable views towards the US as do towards China.

Besides the geostrategic and economic imperatives of taking control over Taiwan, it is the cultural-historical importance of rejuvenation that explains why – despite Taiwanese popular resentment against China – Beijing is ever more adamant about reuniting the “runaway child with the motherland”. Chairman-cum-president Xi has, in multiple speeches, made clear that reunification is inevitable and a prerequisite for achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. In late 2021, on the 110th anniversary of the 1911 Revolution (which, ironically, marked the end of thousands-year-long imperialist monarchical rule in China), Xi Jingping heralded that “the complete reunification of our country will be and can be realized”.

The child keeps running farther from its mother. (Source: Election Study Center, National Chengchi University)

Belligerent Beijing

While the latter part of this statement is debatable, it is crystal clear that it is only a matter of time before China has sufficient military capabilities to raise the Five-star Red Flag over Taipei. Over the years, China has modernized and expanded its military with unprecedented speed. Australia’s Labour-party defence minister Richard Marles has stated that “China’s military buildup is now the largest and most ambitious we have seen by any country since the end of the second world war”. In line with this, Admiral Philip S. Davidson – commander of the U.S Indo-Pacific Command – has briefed the US Congress that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will have the capabilities to invade Taiwan by 2027. Emboldened by its increased military prowess, China has ramped up operations in and around the Taiwanese strait. In 2020, Taiwan counted 380 incursions of its Air Defence Zone by Chinese warplanes, in 2021 this number more than doubled to 969. So far, 2022 has, once again, seen a 50 per cent year-on-year increase in incursions. Distinguishing himself from his predecessors, Xi’s increasingly feisty rhetoric is matched by equally escalatory gung-ho muscle-flexing. This does not mean that a full-scale war against Taiwan is inevitable; nevertheless, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng has stated that, regarding reunification, “no option is excluded”.

Europe’s Ethical Imperative

Just like China doesn’t exclude any options regarding Taiwan, the EU should keep all options on the table as well. Supporting Taiwan in a future conflict against China can serve Europe’s Machiavellian strategic and economic interests, but it would also portray Europe’s commitment to upholding the principles of international law and sovereignty. That said, the strongest case for helping Taiwan clearly stems from moral considerations.

Over the past months, we, Europeans, have been subject to a genocidal war – aimed at the total obliteration of Ukrainian nationhood – on our Eastern border; all of us have lived through the massacres in Bucha, Mariupol, Kharkiv and dozens of other Ukrainian cities and towns. Tragically, the Russian-Chinese friendship which has “no limits seems to rest on their joint commitment to such widespread Human Rights violations. Considering the CCP’s brutal clampdown of Honk Kong’s last cry for liberty, the widespread use of torture against Tibetan political prisoners, and outright genocide – i.e., forced sterilization – against Muslims living in Xinjiang, one can only dread the ferocious methods that the Communists will resort to when met with fierce democratic resistance in Taiwan. Do we want another national culture and identity to be eviscerated? Do we want another young, democratic state to be subject to the imperial aspirations of its bigger, totalitarian neighbour?

I recently asked a Ukrainian friend how she would feel if the EU had not supported Ukraine during Russia’s ongoing full-scale war against them. ‘’Not doing it would be just horrible, it would be unjust’’, is what she responded. With that in mind, how would the twenty-two million Taiwanese people feel if we leave them alone in fighting a country that aims to make its self-government, identity, and culture a thing of the past?

Colonial comrades. (Source: Reuters)

Girding up European Loins

Guided by this moral imperative, Europe should, thus, prepare itself for a scenario in which Xi’s dream of rejuvenation results in the use of military force. When push comes to shove, it should be clear ex-ante how Europe will respond. In free countries, such highly consequential decisions require democratic consultation; this, first and foremost, necessitates a clear vision of the wider context within which the EU operates. This requires asking ourselves what other, interrelated, issues will guide and constrain us when assessing our response to Chinese aggression against Taiwan? Perhaps surprisingly, we must, most urgently, consider climate change and Europe’s road to net-zero.

The European Chinese Green Deal

Climate change – and limiting its consequences – is the most urgent and complex problem that the European Union faces in the decades to come. Lately, Eurocrats have been triumphantly boasting that Europe is moving away from Russian fossil fuels while simultaneously accelerating its net-zero climate ambitions. Seemingly, the EU is hitting two birds with one stone; but, unfortunately, the world talks back. While it is true that the EU is reducing its dependency on one terrorist state, the current European road to net-zero is a one-way ticket to dependency on another rogue actor. In the fossil-fuel economy, the OPEC+ countries – together with the US – conjointly controlled most of the global natural resource supply chains; however, it seems that in the carbon-neutral age, this market dominance is shifting to one country: the People’s Republic of China. 

Decarbonizing the European economy requires, inter alia, many windmills, electric cars, and solar panels. All of these contain so-called rare earth elements. And let it just be the case that China has a near-monopoly on the production processes of these critical elements. Deng Xiaoping strikingly proclaimed that “the Middle East has oil, China has rare earths”. As with his liberalizing economic reforms, Deng has it completely right: China is home to 37 per cent of the global share of rare earth elements. By comparison, all Middle Eastern countries together are home to 31 per cent of the global oil supply.

Merely looking at reserves provides an incomplete picture, however. Unlike the oil industry, where multiple countries and corporations possess the techniques to extract, refine, and process fossil fuels, the know-how on critical earth extraction and processing is concentrated in one country: China. Due to government prioritization, tolerance for environmental degradation, and low labour costs, Chinese state-owned corporations have been able to push most non-Chinese competitors out of the market. As of 2021, these corporations have a global market share of over 60 per cent in rare earth supplies. Further down the production process – at the refining stage – this market dominance grows to over 90 per cent.

Driving out competitors. (Source: AFP/Getty Images)

Not only are rare earth minerals essential for many critical military applications (think: hypersonic missiles), but they are, currently, also indispensable in producing the material goods needed to decarbonize our economy. We will turn our focus on wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars.

China controls 61 and 73 per cent of Silicon and Gallium supplies respectively (the two raw materials needed for producing solar panels). To make matters worse, the Chinese also have a near-monopoly on the solar cell assembly process. Dan Wang – a researcher at Gavekal Dragonomics, an independent macro-economic think-tank based in Beijing – therefore concludes that China has likely acquired an “irreversible lead on solar technology”. That might be unfortunate, but perhaps you’re saving the world by driving an electric-powered Polestar? Well, it just so happens to be that China controls 69 per cent of the global Graphite supply – a critical element in assembling Polestar’s ‘’European’’ batteries. (Another fun fact: the Swedish Polestar corporation is majority Chinese-owned). As icing on the cake, China caters 95 per cent (!) of worldwide demand for the rare-earth magnet (Neodymium) which is known as “the heart of wind turbines” . Conceivably, this does shed a different light on the EU’s Esbjerg Declaration which pledges to turn the North Sea into “the green power plant of Europe” by jam-packing it with windmills.

Admittedly, a wind of change is blowing through the continent as European states have been seeking to become less dependent on Chinese critical minerals. Mainly, the EU is trying to achieve more (strategic) autonomy by looking for home-grown alternatives. Nevertheless, because the EU lacks the actual rare earth minerals, the know-how on the refining process, and has extremely strict anti-mining environmental regulations, these projects are, currently, merely a drop in the North Sea. All in all, with a climate catastrophe looming, the European Union has once again made itself desperately dependent on an anti-democratic, imperialist state.

Laughed too soon?

The Impossible Trilemma

Time to put one and one together. On the one hand, we have the increasingly likely scenario that China will militarily invade Taiwan, on the other, we find Europe’s complete dependency on China to reach its net-zero climate ambitions. Prima facie, these look like two separate issues, but, unfortunately, they are heavily interlinked. It is pivotal to understand that China can leverage its near-monopoly on rare earths to constrain Europe’s response to an invasion of Taiwan. This threat is not merely theoretical, in May 2020, the Chinese government proclaimed that by “waging a trade war against China, the United States risks losing the supply of materials that are vital to sustaining its technological strength.” China knows it can utilize critical elements as a geopolitical weapon, and the West should know, that when it concerns Taiwan, it probably will. In 2010, the world got its first taste of Chinese rare-earth coercion when it shortly seized the exportation of a set of rare earth materials to Japan during an ongoing spat over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Despite being only a temporary ban, Chinese mineral bullying sent shockwaves through the global economy, with secondary effects felt in Europe and the US. Here we get at the crux of the issue: every move that Europe makes – either weapon deliveries, sanctions, or other forms of support for Taiwan – can be countered by Chinese rare-earth coercion. This raises major concerns about how the EU should – or can – respond to Chinese aggression.

There seem to be three options for the EU, all of which are problematic. Firstly, EU countries can militarily defend Taiwan (either through a NATO mission or an Iraqi-style coalition of the willing). This, however, seems highly unlikely as it would plunge Europe into a hot war with a nuclear superpower. As excruciatingly portrayed by NATO not intervening in Russia’s war against Ukraine, the nuclear deterrent is as strong as ever.

Diametrically opposing this first option, Europe could completely refrain from getting involved. In response to Russian aggression, some prominent “pacifist” European thinkers have argued that we should have stay sidelined. For instance, Jürgen Habermas – who serves as a prime exemplar of the Onanistic self-obsession that grips German political philosophy – has argued that Germany should refrain from weapon deliveries to Ukraine. However, as exemplified by 80 per cent of Europeans supporting EU sanctions against Russia, such a sickening moral compass seems to guide only a minority of Europeans. This overwhelming public support for Ukraine makes it unlikely that in a comparable situation in the Taiwanese strait, the EU will stay completely side-lined

That brings us to the final, and, seemingly, most likely option: arms support, humanitarian aid, and economic warfare. This approach seeks to bridge the gap between the first two options. It seems reasonable: we prevent a direct conflict with China while upholding our moral values through the support of a democratic country fighting for its right to existence. But, and this is of paramount importance, taking this third route comes at a tremendous cost for the climate: if Europe imposes economic sanctions, China can countersanction with an export ban on (processed) rare earth minerals. This would mean no more windmills, solar panels, or electric cars from China, all of which need to flow into Europe in huge quantities if the EU wants to reach the goals set out in the European Green Deal. If China holds onto to its near-monopoly in producing and refining rare-earths that would thus mean that Europe can either sanction China, or reach its climate ambitions, but not both. So, what should the EU do? Do we stand for sovereignty, democracy, and liberal values? Or does curbing climate change take precedence?

Hopefully, a fourth scenario will emerge in which the EU can (i) stand by Taiwan and (ii) reach its climate ambitions. But, as shown above, for now, this is merely wishful utopian thinking. Nevertheless, the first step in realising this more desirable scenario is the acknowledgement that, currently, the EU’s reliance on Chinese rare earths means it is severely constrained in supporting Taiwan, and thus that change is needed. What this change will look like – more use of nuclear energy? Intensifying the search for rare earths in the European Union? (Ukraine happens to have the largest reserves in Europe) – remains to be seen. But, all forms of change, first and foremost, require an acknowledgement that change is needed.

The trilemma-defeating tool?

Democratic Magic

The rising temperature of the Taiwan Trilemma is at the heart of policymaker troubles in the upcoming decades (the intersection of geopolitical tensions, the climate transition, and changing trends of globalization). Nevertheless, this topic – and the mind-bending trade-offs involved – remain largely undiscussed in the public realm. Admittedly, all these topics get discussed separately; but this, however, misses the point: the interconnectivity of many domains of human conduct is exactly what makes solving 21st-century crises so arduous. The times when economic, environmental, and geopolitical issues – such as The Taiwan Trilemma – could be tackled separately are over. Luckily, the European Union does possess the tools to overcome the Trilemma. Contrasting ourselves to the 3000 yes-men façade which is the Chinese parliament, Europe has national parliaments – and a European Parliament – to facilitate democratic deliberation about our most pressing problems. Now that the Taiwan Trilemma is on the table, it is time for the democratic system to work its magic.


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