Why the research minister’s trip to Taiwan is so important

Why the research minister’s trip to Taiwan is so important
Why the research minister’s trip to Taiwan is so important

It is a journey of historical dimension. Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) is scheduled to visit Taiwan on Monday. The visit of the research and education minister, which has been planned for a long time and was officially confirmed on Friday, is the first visit by a German cabinet member to the democratic island state since 1997.

Stark-Watzinger’s two-day stay is intended to strengthen cooperation in science and education with Taiwan. According to the ministry, the focus is on the high-tech sector, especially the development of semiconductors – the country produces around 90 percent of the world’s most modern microchips, and the market leader TSMC’s plans for a first European plant in Dresden are apparently well advanced.

Further aspects should be green hydrogen, battery research and educational cooperation. Talks are planned with Research Minister Wu Tsung-tsong, Digital Minister Audrey Tang and Education Minister Wen-Chung Pan.

Sober topics, delicate circumstances

Sober topics on a factual level. Nevertheless, the journey is explosive. Although Taiwan has never belonged to the People’s Republic of China, the regime in Beijing is claiming power over the island, which is why only 14 countries around the world recognize Taiwan.

Like most Western countries, Germany maintains unofficial relations with the country as part of its “One China Policy”. China always reacts aggressively to contacts with the government in Taipei and routinely speaks of “playing with fire” – also the choice of words by the Chinese ambassador in Berlin, Wu Ken, after the Tagesspiegel reported on Stark-Watzinger’s travel plans for the first time in December.

Taiwan is a place of freedom, democracy and innovation whose very existence is under threat. Public attention can help protect.

Janka Oertel, Asia Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations

How is the visit to be rated? “The visit of the Minister of Science makes a lot of sense, because it is exactly the type of cooperation that we are striving for with Taiwan,” says Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “It is a clear signal that these are two progressive governments that want to expand cooperation in the areas of economic innovation, high-tech and research cooperation.”

In the eyes of the China expert, it is also about creating awareness in Germany that “Taiwan is a place of freedom, democracy and innovation whose existence is in danger. Public attention can help protect.”

While China says it wants peaceful unification, it reserves the right to use force if that is not possible. PLA fighter jets regularly fly over the center line of the Taiwan Strait, which is considered the unofficial border. Taiwan’s population, which has been living in a democracy for a quarter of a century, is practically unanimously opposed to joining the People’s Republic’s party dictatorship.

No contradiction to the “One China Policy”

The last trip to Taiwan by a German cabinet member was in 1997 by Economics Minister Günter Rexrodt (FDP). “From the 1990s, German ministers stopped visiting, mainly because economic and political relations with the People’s Republic of China intensified,” says Gudrun Wacker, an expert on China and Taiwan at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Germany continued to seek informal exchanges with Taiwan, but from then on refrained from any action that could annoy Beijing. “One could say that this is a return to normal after decades of self-censorship,” says Wacker about Stark-Watzinger’s journey.

You could say that this is a return to normal after decades of self-censorship.

Gudrun Wacker, expert for China and Taiwan at the Science and Politics Foundation

“From a Western and German perspective, Taiwan is a value partner in every sense of the word – a model democracy in Asia that also behaves responsibly internationally,” says the analyst. And emphasizes that intensifying contacts with Taiwan does not contradict the German “One China policy”, not even at ministerial level in areas such as health, research and education or the economy. Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD), for example, has spoken out in favor of Taiwan being involved in WHO forums.

In an interview with the Japanese newspaper “Nikkei” on Thursday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) underlined that Germany would maintain its “One China policy”, but also told Beijing “that no force should be used to change the status to change the Quo”. The traffic light was the first federal government to explicitly state this position in its 2021 coalition agreement.

A fine line for the federal government

At the same time, the closer ties to Taiwan pose a challenge for the government because it does not want to damage the traditionally good relationship with the regime there. The Research Ministry emphasizes that Stark-Watzinger’s trip is a “professional visit”.

According to a report in the Financial Times, Taipei offered to meet Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, but Berlin turned it down, probably out of concern that the profile would be too high. Usually even simple parliamentarians are received by President Tsai Ing-wen, including three Bundestag delegations who have been traveling to Taiwan since autumn 2022.

It is clear that no force should be used to change the status quo.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz in an interview with the Japanese newspaper “Nikkei”

“Germany must be clear about the signals it is sending to Taiwan and China. For example, if Foreign Minister Baerbock were to travel to Taipei, it would have a much larger, much more political dimension – also for Beijing,” explains expert Janka Oertel. “The important thing is always: It’s about ensuring Taiwan’s security, integrating it internationally and protecting it from a violent annexation by China.”

The Green Foreign Minister is scheduled to travel to Beijing in April or May. Last year, Baerbock warned the communist regime against an invasion of Taiwan with unusual clarity.

Increase in Taiwan contacts

Visits by Western politicians have been the subject of controversy since the then US Speaker of the US Parliament Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022. China took it as an opportunity to carry out the most violent military maneuvers around Taiwan since the mid-1990s and fired missiles over the island for the first time. Since then, numerous foreign officials have visited the country of 24 million people, including the then British Trade Secretary Greg Hands in November.

In Germany, too, an increase in Taiwan contacts has been observed for some time. Franziska Brantner, State Secretary in the Ministry of Economic Affairs, was the only member of the federal government to date in Taiwan in November, but hardly communicated this.

Stark-Watzinger received Taiwan’s Research Minister Wu Tsung-tsong in Berlin at the time. Before that, Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth (Greens) met with Taiwan’s Minister of Culture Lee Yung-te. In December, the head of Taiwan’s Human Rights Commission and President of the Court of Control, Chen Chu, traveled to Berlin.

Taiwan expert Wacker emphasizes that high-ranking visits to Taiwan should always put “Taiwan’s interests and security” first. Concrete cooperation must be the overriding principle, otherwise there is a risk of “political tourism for one’s own electorate”.

China may increase pressure on the island nation, so weighing the benefits and costs is important. “In the now very tense situation in the Taiwan Strait, the main concern must be to send a signal to Beijing that violent action against Taiwan would have a high price,” says the SWP analyst.

For Taipei, after 26 years without a German ministerial visit, it is primarily one thing: a diplomatic success.

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The article is in German

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