TAIPEI, TAIWAN —
A Slovenian business group has said its members are facing a Chinese backlash days after Prime Minister Janez Jansa publicly discussed his hopes for closer ties with Taiwan during an interview. It marks the latest case of China refusing to tolerate dissent on the issue of Taiwan’s autonomy.
On January 17, Jansa told Indian media that he hoped Taiwan and Slovenia could open mutual representative offices. He also praised Taiwan’s COVID-19 response and said Taiwan should determine its relationship with China independently. Opening offices in Taiwan would bring Slovenia in line with the rest of the European Union, as it is one of only a handful of countries — including Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Malta, and Romania — without a Taiwanese mission.
Swift criticism against Jansa came from the Chinese government describing his remarks as “dangerous.” China considers Taiwan a province and treats any discussion of its disputed political status as taboo.
Moreover, within days of the interview, the Slovenian-Chinese Business Council said Chinese partners were already “terminating contracts and exiting the agreed investments,” according to the Slovenian Press Agency. The business group and its parent organization, the CCIS- Ljubljana Chamber of Commerce and Industry, did not immediately respond to VOA’s email inquiries.
The statement has also drawn fire both from Slovenia’s opposition and businesses with links to China. In an email response to VOA, Sasa Istenic, the director of the Taiwan Study Center at the University of Ljubljana, said his remarks “were his personal position not in tune with the National Assembly and could severely harm Slovenia’s economic cooperation with China.”
Business groups in Slovenia fear they could suffer the same fate as Lithuania, which is now under a Chinese trade embargo in retaliation for pursuing closer ties with Taiwan, Istenic said.
“The Chinese market remains important for Slovenian companies and [the] Slovenian government has certainly been paying attention to China’s retaliation measures directed toward Lithuania,” Istenic said. “We have yet to see how far China is willing to go in preventing the EU member states from upgrading their relationships with Taiwan.”
The EU maintains the “One China Policy” which recognizes Taiwan as part of the Chinese nation, and has traditionally had a less tumultuous relationship with Beijing than has the United States. But dissent is growing within the EU and some countries in Central and Eastern Europe have also found that promises of Chinese investment have not panned out as previously hoped, according to a 2021 report by the Central and Eastern Europe Center for Asian Studies.
China’s growing strength in the Asia-Pacific region has also alarmed both the EU and NATO. The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with Beijing’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, have raised questions about its suitability as a close partner.
These concerns have given Taiwan a wedge to improve its relationship with some countries in Europe such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and, most notably, Lithuania.
Lithuania and Taiwan have grown closer during the pandemic, swapping donations of vaccines and emergency protective gear. But, in April, Lithuania exited the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries trade initiative, a group formed in 2012 to improve trade and investment and known colloquially as the “16+1.”
In November, Taiwan opened a controversially named “Taiwan representative office” in Lithuania. The office angered Beijing as it broke with the tradition of Taiwan using more politically neutral names like “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office” or “Taipei Representative Office” that did not suggest it was an independent political entity.
Aware of the economic cost of its closer ties, Taiwan has worked to offset some of the newfound economic pressure on Lithuania by pledging a combined $1.2 billion in investment across several sectors including industries like semiconductors, biotechnology and lasers.
“[This] investment is meant to shape Taiwan’s image as a reliable partner and viable democratic alternative to China, so there is both a financial and a political dimension to these financial proposals for investment,” said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, postdoctoral researcher in Taiwan and former political adviser in the European Parliament, over email.
Access to Taiwan’s advanced technology sector could also be an attractive pull for other European countries, including Slovenia, whose automotive manufacturing and metallurgical industries rely on industrial robots.
Una Aleksandra Berzina-Cerenkova, a China scholar and head of the Asia program at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, said Slovenia’s plan to potentially upgrade ties with Taiwan is a sign that Europe has not lost interest in democracy despite coercive measures from Beijing.
“It seemed that there was a bit of a loss of momentum when the Lithuania example was not being followed by others in terms of withdrawing from the 16+1 and then turning towards Taiwan,” said Berzina-Cerenkova by phone.
“But we actually see that Lithuania is leading … against the backdrop of attracting all the heat to itself. The other Central and Eastern European countries are actually also exploring opportunities, and trying to ride this train of momentum in their relations with Taiwan, because Taiwan, of course, is an interesting partner.”
Some sectors in Slovenia could have a lot more to lose, however, than Lithuania. While cumulative Chinese investment in Lithuania was just 82 million euros in 2020, according to the Central and Eastern Europe Center for Asian Studies, investment in Slovenia was valued at a far greater 1.5 billion euros over the same period. Much of that investment is represented by a single acquisition of a video game developer, the report said.
Other countries in the EU may need more support to weather the Chinese economic backlash if they choose to strengthen ties with Taiwan. So far, said Ferenczy, that support has taken the form of statements of support and resolutions in the EU Parliament, but she said more is needed.
“The EU’s toolbox is limited. It is in the process of drafting its anti-coercion instrument designed to reinforce its resilience. It will be key to ensure the instrument works effectively in order to make a difference in terms of pushing back against China’s coercion,” Ferenczy said. “So, whether Brussels will stand with Lithuania and jointly push back against such messaging all the way, is key for the EU’s credibility and its ambition to be able to defend its interests.”