In the Dutch general elections on the 22nd of November, populist and anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom secured a landslide victory, marking an unprecedented shift in the Dutch political landscape. On the other side of the world, with upcoming presidential elections in January, Taiwanese citizens will cast their vote in the most consequential elections in years for the future trajectory of the island’s politics. Now that the Netherlands and Taiwan are faced with significant internal political developments, the question arises: how will bilateral relations develop moving forward?
The answer to this question holds significant global implications, especially considering the crucial roles both small democracies – home to computer chip giants ASML (Netherlands) and TSMC (Taiwan) – play in the global supply chain for semiconductor manufacturing. In this short analysis, I will reflect on the possible directions for bilateral relations, along with some considerations for a future Dutch government regarding its Taiwan policy.
Evolving Dynamics in the NL-TW Relationship
First: where do things stand in Netherlands-Taiwan relations? Earlier this year, the LeidenAsiaCentre published two factsheets relating to this topic. We found that, in recent years, ties between Taiwan and the Netherlands have markedly increased, especially in the realms of trade, culture, and science. But also politically, there has been growing engagement, with Dutch and Taiwanese parliamentarians undertaking reciprocal visits – often to the dismay of Beijing. Bilateral relations have thus come a long way since the 1970s, when the Dutch government – having broken off official ties with the ROC government on Taiwan to recognise instead Mao’s People’s Republic already in 1950 – emphatically denied the prospect of any substantive engagement with the island.
There is no indication that this rapprochement will change drastically under a coalition involving Wilders’ Party for Freedom, which most observers see as the most likely outcome of the forthcoming cabinet formation. While a more nationalist and inward-looking foreign policy can be anticipated in the case of a Wilders-led administration, his party has previously voted in favour of strengthening ties with Taiwan. Party for Freedom member Raymond de Roon has been particularly vocal in supporting Taiwan’s international position, submitting a motion to the Parliament that called on condemning “unilateral moves” to change the Taiwan Strait “status quo,” and participating in a seven-headed committee that welcomed a Taiwanese delegation to the Dutch Lower House in March this year. In addition, Wilders has shown himself willing to ruffle the feathers of Beijing, for example by calling for filing a multi-billion claim against the Chinese government to compensate costs relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What about the political outlook in Taiwan? The last few months have seen a tumultuous runup to the forthcoming presidential elections, with incumbent vice-president Lai Ching-te (賴清德), candidate for the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), currently in the lead. Recently, his chances of election have considerably increased, after efforts of more-or-less Beijing-friendly candidates from the TPP and KMT parties failed to forge a united opposition alliance to challenge Lai. A Lai presidency would mean a continuation of current president Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) efforts to garner political support among other democracies to strengthen Taiwan’s international presence. An administration under Lai would likely provide incentives for the Netherlands to support Taiwanese participation in international organisations, and engage in security cooperation to deter Chinese pressures. A victory for a pro-China candidate, on the other hand, would mean a turn away from calls for political support, and a shift towards more conciliatory or cooperative policies with Beijing.
Navigating the Future: Condsiderations for Dutch Policy
All of this leaves me with the following considerations that any prospective Dutch coalition should take into account. First, while there has been a discernible, consistent increase in pro-Taiwan sentiment among Dutch politicians, the Dutch government should realise that ties with Taiwan can never be seen outside the context of the Netherlands-China relationship, and carefully weigh the implications of any move towards closer Taiwan-relations. As the past has evidenced, any show of support for Taiwan will incur Beijing’s scrutiny, which has previously gone as far as diplomatically retaliating against The Hague when the Netherlands sold two submarines to the ROC military in the early 1980s. To normalise the relationship, the Netherlands had to promise never to sell any weapons to Taiwan again.
The Dutch government should also have a clear view of the limitations for Taiwan ties that its official “One China” policy entails, according to which the Netherlands “recognises” the People’s Republic on the Chinese mainland as the sole legal government of China and “respects” Beijing’s stance that Taiwan is a province of the PRC. Any apparent deviation from this policy, such as when the “Netherlands Trade and Investment Office” in Taiwan changed its name to “Netherlands Office Taipei,” is sure to draw the ire of Beijing and harm Dutch-Chinese ties, while it does little to improve Taiwan’s international position or national security.
Second, due to the strategic nature of relations with Taiwan when it comes to its role in the global semiconductor industry supply chain, the Netherlands risks getting more deeply entangled in geopolitical Great Power rivalry, as the U.S. aims to contain China’s technological rise by crippling the latter’s domestic chip capabilities through the imposition of export sanctions. Following U.S. pressure, the Dutch government announced restrictions on the export of chip machines in June this year. Additionally, in October, the U.S. adopted unilateral measures to further curb exports of ASML chipmaking tools to China, which have been decried by experts and lawmakers in the Netherlands and the EU as “contrary to international law”. To safeguard Dutch national interests and the autonomy of its industry, the Netherlands should be more assertive in defending its core economic interests, and advocate for more possibilities of the EU to protect its Member States against external economic pressure and interference.
Lastly, Dutch policymakers and parliamentarians should contemplate strategies on how the Netherlands can contribute to deescalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and thereby seek European convergence and engage in dialogue with other countries in the region. The stakes are high, and any escalating conflict between Taiwan and China, especially if it results in a naval blockade or full-scale invasion, will have disastrous consequences not only for Dutch economic ties but also for the global economy and delicate regional balance. As the U.S. keeps pursuing a containment policy towards China in the Indo-Pacific, and both superpowers are trapped in a downward spiral in relations with an ever-increasing chance of conflict, The Hague should give serious thought to whether it is always in the Dutch interest – or indeed the interest of global peace and stability – to squarely and uncritically align itself with Washington’s geopolitical ambitions.
As momentous political developments are taking place in both the Netherlands and Taiwan, room for further expanding bilateral economic, cultural, and scientific ties remains. However, the Netherlands is treading a fine line in a complex relationship involving Taiwan, China, the US, and the EU. In enhancing ties with Taiwan, the Netherlands must carefully consider repercussions for its relationship with China. Further, it should avoid getting caught up in a U.S.-China power competition at the expense of Dutch economic interests. To avoid contributing to igniting the Taiwan Strait flashpoint, the Netherlands should strive to work towards an approach with European partners that prioritises stability and de-escalation while taking account of perceptions in the region.