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Did EU call for warships in the Taiwan Strait fall on deaf ears?

Face it, there's no collective European navy, and individual members don't have the capacity to make a difference in Asia.

Analysis | Europe

At the end of April, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell called on the 27-member-state bloc to send warships across the seven seas to the Taiwan Strait to deliver a unified European message to China about its increasing belligerence. But as of today, it looks like it was all talk, no action.

The call followed similar comments that Borrell made during an address in Strasbourg on April 18, when EU leaders met to discuss Europe-China relations. It also came not long after French President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial visit to China earlier in the month. 

Macron ruffled international feathers when he said Europe must achieve “strategic autonomy” on the global stage and not simply follow the United States as a “vassal,” including when it came to Washington’s policy on Taiwan. Macron has previously called for a stand-alone collective European military as a key part of achieving such autonomy from the U.S.

“I call on European navies to patrol the Taiwan Strait to show Europe’s commitment to freedom of navigation in this absolutely crucial area,” Borrell said in an opinion piece published April 22 in the French weekly Journal Du Dimanche. “For while China does not directly threaten our security, it poses a multidimensional challenge to Europe given its systemic weight in the world. How will China use its power and how can we deal with it? These are the two questions we face.”

Borrell also spoke of the fundamental differences between the EU and China over “individual rights and fundamental freedoms” and economic “imbalances” resulting from China’s state-driven economy — points he also emphasized in France at Strasbourg, the official seat of the European Parliament.

“Taiwan is crucial for Europe [and] clearly part of our geo-strategic perimeter,” Borrell told EU officials gathered there, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, adding that the strait is the “most strategic in the world, particularly where trade is concerned."

“[It is] not just for moral, ethical reasons that we should reject any external interference in the affairs of Taiwan. It’ll be very serious for us economically, ” he added, highlighting Taiwan’s crucial role in making high-tech semiconductors.

All fair and true. The problem is that the EU doesn’t have a collective navy it can deploy. Neither does the EU or Borrell have any executive or legislative powers to direct any one of the 27 member-state countries to send its navy. In short — as with any deployment of any military assets under the banner of the EU — if Borrell wants action, he basically needs a member state to do him a favor with their own navy. If they have the capacity in the first place. 

“Not many EU members have the capability to do what Borrell is requesting — France and Germany could presumably send a few ships to do [maneuvers], but this would be an entirely symbolic exercise and it's unlikely to deter anything,” says Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy organization focused on promoting a realistic grand strategy to ensure U.S. security.

“The issue with Borrell's declaration is that the geopolitical circumstances simply don't require EU deployments in the Taiwan Strait…I doubt China views Europe as a military player in the Asia-Pacific anyway, and symbolic passes are unlikely to do much to change the [Chinese Communist Party’s] mind."

On top of that, DePetris points out, Europe has its hands full back home.

“[The] suggestion also comes at a time when Europe is still host to the world's most destructive conventional conflict since the Korean War and the most destructive the Continent has faced since World War II,” he says. “It's an odd time to be diverting military assets halfway around the world, on a mission that is presumably supposed to somehow frighten Beijing into acting responsibly.”

Given that Borrell’s message came so soon after the fracas stirred up by Macron’s comments, it’s hard not to see Borrell’s stance as some sort of response — but it’s even harder to know quite what that stance is trying to convey. Would sending EU warships serve as evidence of a more robust European global presence not beholden to the U.S., or would it be an act of solidarity, given that Washington has long been calling for the EU to step up militarily?

The fact that Borrell’s statement contains “a degree of ambiguity” is likely “intentional,” says Anatol Lieven, director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. It might also seek to act as a diplomatic semaphore, signaling to the Chinese the potential economic fallout if it took military action against Taiwan.

At the beginning of April, China conducted three days of military exercises by sea and air around Taiwan and the strait, commencing the day after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen returned from a brief visit to the U.S. The exercises simulated a blockade of the island as well as military strikes.

Echoing DePetris’s point, Lieven highlights the EU’s problem of capability and says that, even if a European country were to volunteer, the number of ships would be “insignificant” and totally “dependent”— especially for air cover — on the U.S. presence in the surrounding seas.

Others, however, point out that there is logic behind the messaging from both Borrell and Macron.

“The EU must obviously make it clear that it won't necessarily follow the U.S. absolutely everywhere,” says Andrew Tettenborn, a professor of law at Swansea Law School who writes regularly about EU affairs for the Spectator magazine.

But, at the same time, he says, the EU “needs to get rid of the residual anti-U.S. feeling we find in the old EU countries” and to more clearly “take sides in the democracy versus autocracy” tussle that is playing out on the world stage.

“To that extent, it should follow the U.S. lead, as Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki said on his visit to the U.S.,” Tettenborn says. This includes the EU encouraging its members to "arm up”— as Poland is already doing after declaring its ambition to become the strongest military power in Central Europe (with some saying they could become the strongest in the whole EU). 

“For too long [the EU has] relied on the US for defense and failed to encourage its members to pull their NATO weight,” Tettenborn says. “For too long also it's assumed that it can be a major diplomatic force between the US, China and others by a combination of mere moral suasion and economic size.”

While it doesn’t look like there will be any European war ships heading to the Taiwan Strait soon, the EU is very tangibly supplying Ukraine with ammunition and military support. The European Commission has recently committed to supplying 1 million artillery shells to Ukraine in the next 12 months. On May 2, EU Single Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said that the bloc's defense industry “must now switch to war economy mode.”

The drive has some warning about “European militarization” and the risk of escalation, while decrying the lack of creative energy among EU leaders in searching for a peaceful solution to the war in Ukraine. In 2022, Europe’s military spending reached $480 billion — its highest level since the end of the Cold War — according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “The EU is in a warlike mood,” said Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó at the end of April, “with the vast majority of member states wanting to supply Ukraine with more weapons for more money, and more quickly, while pro-peace actors are under heavy attack.”

BALTIC SEA (June 16, 2020) (left to right) Royal Norwegian Navy HNOMS Otra (M351), Royal Netherlands Navy HNLMS Zierikzee (M862), Royal Netherlands Navy HNLMS Urk (M861), Lithuanian Navy LNS Skalvis (M53), German Navy FGS Donau (A-516), Finnish Navy FNS PurunPAA (41), British Royal Navy HMS Ramsey (M110), German Navy FGS Groemitz (M1064) in the Baltic Sea during BALTOPS 2020, June 16.(Photo courtesy of the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1)
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