How Europe could help Taiwan in a war with China

Taiwan war, china and taiwan, europe and taiwan

Franz-Stefan Gady is a research fellow focused on future conflict and the future of war at the
International Institute for Strategic Studies. Meia Nouwens is a senior fellow for Chinese defense policy and military modernization at IISS.

Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine is triggering a renaissance in European defense spending. But European policymakers would now do well to consider a geographically more distant crisis hot spot in their rearmament plans: Taiwan.

Chinese military aggression against Taiwan over the next decade is becoming an increasing possibility. Such a conflict, no matter what shape and form, is likely to draw in the United States and its allies and partners in the Western Pacific.

Were such a conflict to break out, Europe would find itself likely pressed by the U.S. and its partners to respond. And if Europe had the political will, it would actually have a range of credible economic and military choices at its disposal, as we outline in a new report published by the Institute for International Strategic Studies.

Larger European nations and the EU could choose from a range of military options to support Taiwan and the U.S. In the event of gray zone coercion below the threshold of open armed conflict, European capitals could support Taiwan by helping to fend off Chinese attacks in the cyber domain.

Despite lagging behind the U.S., some European countries, most notably France, the Netherlands and the U.K., retain strong military-cyber capabilities and could provide operational experience in cyber warfare.

If China implemented an air and maritime blockade, Europe's response could include choosing to organize or participate in an international airlift to break the blockade by requisitioning civilian cargo planes. In order to emphasize its nonmilitary nature, this could be coordinated by the EU's Emergency Response Coordination Centre or through an ad hoc arrangement between participating European nations.

The People's Liberation Army could also choose to conduct missile attacks and airstrikes against select targets in combination with offensive cyber operations to degrade Taiwan's defenses and force the island into submission.

Barring various logistical issues that would need to be addressed, select European countries could choose to airlift missile-defense systems and ground-based electronic warfare systems into Taiwan in the run-up to a military conflict.

If a deployment to Taiwan itself is deemed to be impractical, European militaries could instead offer to reinforce U.S. military bases in the region, as well as those of regional allies, although this would require bilateral agreements between the respective European countries and the host governments.

Finally, in response to a full-scale Chinese invasion, select European countries, if they did decide to participate in combat operations, could collectively supply smaller but still substantial air power to the Indo-Pacific in support of Taiwanese and U.S. forces.

For example, the air forces of the Netherlands, Italy and the United Kingdom could, supported by tanker aircraft, deploy F-35 stealth fighters to U.S. bases in Japan, from which they could conduct long-range standoff missile strikes against Chinese ships and landing zones in Taiwan.

In addition to combat air power, European countries could deploy surface naval forces in the vicinity of Taiwan for surface-warfare operations against the People's Liberation Army Navy, land-attack missions or ballistic-missile defense.

This could include dispatching European submarines as well as a joint European aircraft-carrier group. An alternative might be for European countries to offer to replace U.S. naval assets in the Middle East to allow the U.S. to focus on the Western Pacific.

On the economic front, Europe could impose severe sanctions on China's economy. As the response to the invasion of Ukraine has shown, European capitals can unite to put an economic cost on state aggression.

Here we must dispel the assumption that Europe is too dependent on the Chinese market and that Beijing therefore can dissuade Europeans from taking tough economic actions. Often it seems that Europe is dependent on the Chinese market. But China's ability to manufacture also depends on European machinery, and that gives Europe an opportunity to act.

What about Chinese economic coercion in response to European sanctions? In many cases, China's economic coercion proves to be a far louder bark than a bite. Take the bilateral trading relationship with Australia, for example. While beef and coal exports to China were obstructed, Beijing chose not to obstruct China's imports of Australian iron ore, for which China is still largely dependent on Australia.

Of course, any action that European capitals do take to deter a military conflict across the Taiwan Strait, or in the event of one, will ultimately be dependent on European political will. While the EU Parliament has made strong statements on the importance of supporting Taiwan, individual member states still disagree on whether and how they might seek to deepen their Taiwan relations or amend their One China policies.

The ongoing war in Ukraine will be a priority for European capitals for the foreseeable future. But the war in Europe should also now prompt renewed focus on other scenarios in which conflict is entirely possible.

Beijing might not yet turn to its last resort of reunification by force in the next few years. The use of force remains an option on the table. European capitals, therefore, need to decide on their role in this possible Indo-Pacific contingency sooner rather than later.

A first step toward that decision will be understanding what options European capitals realistically have at their disposal.


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