Central and Eastern Europe Ripe For Taiwan Defense Cooperation 

Taipei’s focus on asymmetric warfare and dual-purpose technology could lend itself to productive exchanges with former Soviet Bloc nations.  

Following a seven-year hiatus, Taiwan made a timely return to the Munich Security Conference (MSC) in February 2023. Representing Taiwan at this premier global event was Vincent Chao, a Taipei City councilor with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Chao, a former chief of staff of the National Security Council and advisor to outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, spoke of the need to “bolster Taiwan’s security” to “ensure it does not become the next Ukraine.” While acknowledging that Washington remains Taipei’s key ally on defense, Chao called on European leaders to join an “international chorus of voices declaring support for the security of the Taiwan Strait, as well as the maintenance of Taiwan’s democracy.”

He further noted that a “huge backlog” of arms orders and its increasing focus on drones and other forms of asymmetric warfare meant that Taipei would need to explore options with “other stakeholders” on timely delivery of key equipment.  

Considering Chao’s visibility and outspokenness at the 2023 event, eyebrows were raised when Taiwan did not participate in the MSC 2024. While conference attendees familiar with the situation said that Chao was otherwise engaged, this did not explain why a substitute had not been dispatched. 

Days before the February 2024 conference, Chao had left his role as the DPP’s head of international affairs. A Taipei-based European policy analyst suggests that Chao’s replacement, Lii Wen, is considered “much more pro-European” than his predecessor. “He’s expected to be more open-minded in shaping the DPP’s international engagements,” says the analyst.

Despite the EU’s and several member states’ growing goodwill toward Taiwan, progress on defense cooperation could be improved, analysts say. 

“It remains a sensitive subject,” says Jakub Janda, director of the European Values Center (EVC) for Security Policy. The Prague-headquartered EVC is currently the only European think tank with a permanent presence in Taiwan. “Many countries are still worried about the reaction from China,” he adds.

In general, the major EU powers are not prepared to jeopardize economic ties with Beijing, Janda says. For all the talk of decoupling, few countries believe complete disengagement with China is feasible.

This view is supported by a retired Taiwan intelligence officer who is now the director of an organization promoting Taiwan’s defense industry. Based on a trip to Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the director touts the potential for defense collaboration with the region. At the same time, he is clear-eyed about the obstacles to developing defense-related connections, including wariness in the region about repercussions from Beijing.

He cites Poland as an example. “A lot of the defense industry there is hesitant to cooperate with Taiwan in a transparent, ‘over-the-table’ way because they’re afraid of the government’s one-China policy,” he says. “Some of the companies, I believe, also have certain business with China that they don’t want to compromise.”  

Another barrier, he says, is a lack of familiarity with Taiwan. “They’re not used to working with us yet, but hopefully this will change.” Making a similar observation, Marcin Jerzewksi, head of the EVC’s Taiwan office, refers to a lack of “Taiwan literacy” in Poland. 

A delegation from the cross-party European Parliament-Taiwan Friendship Group visited Taipei in June last year.

Market potential

Nevertheless, the former intelligence officer says CEE potentially represents “a huge market” for Taiwanese defense exporters. “Lower-level, export-ready items” such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also known as drones), satellites, and radar systems are seen as a good fit for CEE, he says. “We can also provide small-caliber ammunition and good quality protective gear – vests, helmets – to these countries.”

Cooperation in more sophisticated, homegrown technologies, such as the Hai Kun-class submarines unveiled last year, next-generation fighter jets, and advanced weapons systems, are thought too politically sensitive to be feasible.

Collaboration on UAVs and satellites is seen as less difficult, partly because such technology is plausibly dual-purpose. “This type of equipment is definitely easier, as it’s less likely to attract attention,” says the EVC’s Janda. 

A former representative of French defense and aerospace multinational Thales concurs. “These items can be packaged as having other, innocuous purposes – for example, meteorological or agricultural uses,” he says. 

Recognizing the abundance of tech talent in the CEE countries, Taiwan has used platforms such as Startup Terrace under the Ministry of Economic Affairs to support such individuals in launching startups specializing in drone technology. The aim is to help foster a transnational ecosystem that leverages comparative advantages.

“Taiwan is a leading country when it comes to airspace coordination,” says Kateřina Syslová, a representative of Dronetag, a Czech-based provider of Remote ID solutions for UAVs. As part of an accelerator program under Startup Terrace, Syslová spent a month in Taiwan in 2022 and visited again last year.  

“Remote ID” refers to the requirement for UAV operators to broadcast location and identification data. Recent regulatory amendments in the EU, Japan, and the United States have underscored the need for comprehensive, integrated platforms for drone coordination, says Syslová. 

“For startups from the EU and the U.S., Taiwan is one of the easiest ways to gain access to the APEC market,” she says, noting that language skills and business culture in Taiwan facilitate smoother operations compared to Japan. She also praises Startup Terrace for addressing the specific needs of its partners rather than “treating you like some KPI they’re trying to reach.” 

Anita Chen, chief of international affairs at Startup Terrace, expands on the latter point. “Before matchmaking, we spend a lot of time understanding the startups’ needs so we can arrange meetings with local software and hardware suppliers, drone associations, and government agencies,” she says. “We carefully compare their wish list to what is available, make calls, and do tours of suitable factories.”

In addition to Czech startups, Startup Terrace has supported fledgling firms from Slovakia and Lithuania. The agency has also facilitated visits to CEE countries to connect Taiwanese startups with companies in the region. One example is the introduction of Taiwanese software innovators to Lithuania’s world-class laser sector. 

Although military exchanges are not openly broached, Chen acknowledges that with drone tech in particular, there is room for “applying this to national defense.” Privately, other sources have also confirmed that Taiwanese personnel have been involved in testing cutting-edge drone technology on the battlefield in Ukraine. 

Another government-backed agency investing in CEE-made dual-purpose technologies is Taiwania Capital. This venture capital firm has earmarked a US$200 million fund for engagement with the region. Among the companies in its portfolio are the Czech branch of Delaware-headquartered VRgineers, a developer of flight training solutions for military clients, and Photoneo, a Slovakian firm offering automated and robot-assisted 3D vision technology that has been used for aircraft wing assembly.

“Based on our ESG policy, we don’t invest in defense industries,” says Amanda Kang, a public relations consultant for Taiwania Capital. A company must produce products with at least dual-use purposes to be considered for investment. “But if these companies produce technology that can help Taiwan with its self-defense, that would definitely be a consideration.”  

However, Kang points out that because Taiwania and other Taiwanese venture capital firms have limited influence on the boards of the startups they invest in, there is no guarantee these companies will make their technology available to Taipei. 

President Tsai Ing-wen addresses a delegation led by European Parliament Vice Nicola Beer in 2022.

Western European headwinds

Although progress is being made in CEE, prospects with larger EU nations are not particularly promising for historical and political reasons.  

“The Europeans had a terrible record over fulfilling maintenance and training contracts,” says Wendell Minnick, editor of the China in Arms podcast and newsletter. Minnick, who has worked as a Taipei-based defense correspondent for over 20 years, also cites the Lafayette frigate scandal in the 1990s as a memory that continues to affect the mindset of Taiwan military procurement officials. 

Fallout from the Lafayette bribery case, which involved French and Taiwanese government officials and the mysterious death of a presumptive whistleblower, continues to this day. Last year, Liechtenstein returned US$11 million of illicit funds deposited in its banks to Taiwan. Switzerland has agreed to the restitution of US$266 million from the accounts of the fugitive arms dealer who brokered the Lafayette deal. In Taiwan, the scandal prompted efforts to increase transparency and eliminate corruption in its defense ecosystem.

According to Minnick, these negative experiences help explain Taiwan’s preference for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, under which purchases from public and private contractors go through the Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. “The FMS is a transparent program and helps to weed out corruption,” says Minnick. 

Despite the presence of Thales and fellow French firm Naval Group, which in 2022 signed a US$1.4-billion deal to upgrade the Lafayette frigates, Taiwanese observers have expressed pessimism around the prospects of meaningful assistance from France. 

“They are just too close to China,” says the former intelligence officer. He notes the eagerness of French President Emmanuel Macron to push through a new round of orders for France-based Airbus on recent trips to Beijing. “I don’t see any chance of heavy cooperation with Taiwan.”

Overall, Taipei’s relations with Europe appear stronger than ever. Over the past few years, parliamentary exchanges between Taipei and the European Union have increased in frequency. These have included individual EU member states and delegations from the European Parliament. 

On the executive branch level, German Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger became the first cabinet member from her country to visit Taiwan in 26 years. During her two-day stay in March last year, she signed a bilateral agreement on science and technology.

Nevertheless, even pro-Taiwan officials in Europe express pessimism regarding short-term prospects for initiatives aimed at bolstering Taiwan’s security. 

“We can’t support Taiwan militarily,” says Peter Heidt, a member of the Bundestag (German parliament) from the Free Democratic Party. “We’re not the United States – we’re too weak and too far away.”

Pushing back against the “public picture” that Germany has not amply supported Ukraine, Heidt says the transfer of “the newest anti-aircraft weapons” to Kyiv has left the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) perilously short. 

“We’re sending what we’ve got, but that’s not much,” says Heidt. He attributes military shortcomings to policy failures of the Christian Democratic Union under former Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We don’t even have our own.” 

Heidt also highlights the deployment of Germany’s U.S.-made Patriot missile systems to Poland’s border with Ukraine, which ended late last year, as a further strain on resources. “There’s always discussion about delivering weapons to other countries, but, in the end, it’s very difficult,” he says. 

Taiwanese defense experts familiar with Germany concur that any significant policy shift from Berlin is unlikely to occur in the near future. “This goes back decades,” says Sheu Jyh-shang, an assistant research fellow with the government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research.

Efforts to purchase German submarines were routinely rejected for years, says Sheu, who specializes in German and U.S. military issues. “Even purchases of MP5 submachine guns by Taiwanese police have been rejected – and that’s law enforcement, which is relatively low sensitivity.”  

Sheu is among those who see CEE as the most practical option. “The Czech Republic makes good howitzers (long-range artillery weapons) and artillery, which Taiwan might need,” he says. “But a lot of this is still at the talking stage.”

Perhaps most importantly, effective cooperation with NATO members will undoubtedly hinge on approval from and coordination with Washington. 

“We see some positive feedback from the U.S. regarding our engagement with CEE countries,” says the former intelligence officer. “This is a good sign that we can find multiple channels and solutions for Taiwan’s defense.”