Politics & Law
First European think tank office in Taiwan
In this exclusive interview, Jakub Janda, Director of EVC, the first European think tank to establish an office in Taiwan, talks about how increasing bilateral exchanges between research institutes in Europe and Taiwan will provide mutual benefits for both sides
By Duncan Levine
We’re meeting at Wooloomooloo on Hsinyi Road, one of Taipei’s best yet unassuming eateries, for a breakfast meeting. It’s a chilly and drizzly January morning. When I arrive, Jakub Janda is already seated at a table on the covered balcony on the second floor, obviously not bothered by the cold or the low roar of rush hour traffic from the street below. (He would explain later that 14 degrees, a cold day in Taipei, is warm compared to average winter temperatures in his home city of Prague in the Czech Republic). He rises to give me a warm handshake and we introduce ourselves. I’m surprised to learn that he used to be a baseball player before his tertiary studies. He played in the Czech baseball league but also in the Dutch Under 21 league (for RCH Media Monks in Heemstede, The Netherlands as a relief pitcher) before going on to study international relations and diplomacy in Prague.
He joined the European Values Center for Security Policy (EVC) in 2010 and took over as Director in 2018. Established in 2005 in Prague, EVC’s website describes itself as a non-governmental, non-partisan institute defending freedom and sovereignty that protects liberal democracy, the rule of law, and the transatlantic alliance of the Czech Republic, and defends Europe, especially from the malign influences of foreign countries and religious extremists. The About Us section of the website describes European values as referring to three fundamental values that embody the pillars of the liberal democratic way of government: personal freedom, human dignity, and equality. Further examination of the website reveals a slew of reports about various security issues affecting eastern and central Europe, including quarterly and annual reports on the political situation in individual countries in the region, special reports on subjects like how to protect the Czech economy from foreign predators and malign influence and fighting disinformation.
We order breakfast. Janda raves about the pancakes, which I suspect is why he wanted to meet at Wooloomooloo in the first place, although he is equally justified in recommending it for its convenient location, just a few minutes’ walk to the Taipei International Trade Building, where his next meeting is set to take place. Preferring something savoury for breakfast, I order scrambled eggs on sourdough toast and we each order one of the restaurant’s renowned espresso-based coffee drinks.
Since we only have 50 minutes, I launch into my list of questions. I start by asking why EVC is setting up an office in Taipei and why now? Janda’s response to this and subsequent questions is rapid-fire and erudite, providing a wealth of background information and context in addition to specific answers. He explains that EVC has 28 staffers working on eastern and central Europe and the Balkans. In recent years they have started to see many activities in the region that have emanated from China and realised that they were lacking in expertise on how to respond to these activities. "There is a big gap in knowledge, expertise and capabilities on Taiwan’s largest neighbour in Europe as to how governments and NGOs should respond to political, and economic activities like economic blackmail, disinformation or cyber operations,"he says. Given that Taiwan has considerable experience in this regard, it is therefore a natural choice.
Jakub Janda (front, centre) with the EVC team at their office in Prague
According to Janda, EVC started back in 2018 to build relations with Taiwanese institutions, both in government and non-governmental organisations. The past three years have served as an exploratory phase, and it has become clear that much more could be gained by setting up an official presence.
Our coffees arrive first, smooth and strong, providing the perfect kick and antidote to the chilly morning air. The food follows shortly afterwards, simple but elegantly presented and, as it turns out, perfectly matching in taste the restaurant’s self-described laid-back, food-loving Australian ethos. I dig in but Janda is too busy talking to eat at first. I have to remind him after a few minutes to take a break, which he does.
After just a few bites, he resumes where he left off to say that there are many similarities between Taiwan and eastern and central European countries, since the latter have experienced similar behaviour from Russia as Taiwan has from its neighbour to the west. However, there are also clearly differences, particularly since, unlike European countries, Taiwan does not have something like NATO to provide a collective defence umbrella that is regarded as so crucial to small European countries.
Until recently, Taiwan has been seen only as an economic player in Europe but not much as a political and diplomatic entity. That has been changing in the past few years, starting with visits by the Mayor of Prague and Speaker of the Czech Senate and, more recently, with more open support by the national governments of Lithuania and the Czech Republic. Janda says he expects to see many others follow suit. The question now, according to Janda, is how to translate the growing political and diplomatic friendship into more practical engagement. He has been living in Taipei since October last year to explore the best ways to do this.
Economic cooperation between Taiwan, EU institutions and European countries is already well established and growing but EVC’s role will be to strengthen security cooperation. Janda explains that EVC already established contact and has been liaising with the Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR, 財團法人國防安全研究院) for about two years. Established in Taipei in 2018 as an independent non-partisan think tank, Janda sees INDSR as a natural partner to EVC since its aims (as stated on its website) to shape innovative ideas and lead constructive debates on issues pertaining to international security and national defence, politics and military affairs, non-traditional security, hybrid and cognitive warfare, and cybersecurity, among other security areas, overlap with those of EVC. In addition, EVC is working with the Prospect Foundation, connected to Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), the Taiwanese Foundation for Democracy and the National Defence University. EVC has also started planning activities with local think tanks such as the Doublethink Lab, Taiwan NEXTGEN Foundation (connected to ruling Democratic Progressive Party) plus the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, which is focused on Southeast Asian and South Asian affairs to complement the government’s New Southbound Policy.
Given EVC’s extensive experience and body of research on Russia and Taiwan’s knowledge of cross-Strait issues, there are clearly mutual benefits for both EVC and institutions in Taiwan in sharing information and expertise. For example, Janda said that the Taiwan government is very good at analysing and responding to Chinese disinformation. This is an area where European governments lack experience, since much of their focus is on Russia, which uses similar tactics although with some differences. While Europeans have good analytical ability, he says that their analysis is not usually fast enough and is seldom actionable. Janda was full of praise for Taiwan’s Digital Minster Audrey Tang for being good at pushing the government to act since government bureaucracy is often a major impediment to action. Everything takes too much time. While approval and chain of command issues are natural, this makes it difficult to respond in a timely manner. In this regard, "Tang’s approach is inspirational and Taiwan’s digital communication for the local population is quite unique. Europe, therefore, could therefore learn a lot from Taiwan."
The same goes for cyber security. Janda tells me that up until now, most of EVC’s cyber defence issues have been focused on Russia because that has been the main threat up until now. But he noted that there is a lot of hacking and cyber operations emanating from Asia’s largest power directed against European countries and they do not have much knowledge of the specific offensive capabilities, unlike Taiwan, which is a major target of these. Taiwan has a lot of data and knowledge of the main actors and how they operate based on previous attacks. This would be especially useful information to have and there is growing interest from stakeholders in both Europe and Taiwan to expand exchanges beyond Taiwan’s traditional security partners, the US and Japan.
In terms of practical implementation, EVC’s plan is to set up an office in Taipei which will bring in visiting fellows from Eastern and Central Europe for a couple of months at a time. These experts will conduct research and produce reports on topics related to security and participate in various activities. Up until now interactions have been in the form of short visits or closed-door events to discuss topics such as technological espionage. However, it is recognised that this is only really sufficient for introductory exposure. Longer visits are needed to increase the level and substance of knowledge as well as to build trust with key partners in Taiwan.
A few days after our meeting, Janda informed me that he had received formal approval for EVC’s Taipei office registration, creating a new legal entity in Taiwan. A formal opening ceremony has since been scheduled for 28 January with the presence of Czech and US de-facto ambassadors and heads of major Taiwanese national security institutes. EVC’s physical office will be opened early in the spring.
EVC’s move to set up an office in Taipei makes it the first European think tank to do so. This is emblematic of an ongoing shift in attitude across Europe towards China and a corresponding openness towards Taiwan as well as a growing openness on the part of Taiwanese authorities and institutions. As Janda explained it, when China first started opening up to foreign investors, large European countries, such as Germany and France, saw an opportunity to engage. Many of their large corporations have prospered and profited a lot from doing business in China.
However, things have changed in recent years given increasing authoritarian tendencies and actions by authorities towards political opponents as well as business leaders and companies. European countries have also seen aggressive action in the economic sphere. What has been seen, he said, is that the Chinese government pushes companies who have a presence in China to effectively lobby on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in their home countries. European governments are searching for ways to respond. They don’t want to pressure their own businesses but at the same time they don’t want to be targets for proxy lobbying or messaging which is done through their domestic companies.
As one of EVC’s recent reports notes, the tools of economic influence that the PRC uses in the economic domain are inseparable from the objectives of the party-state. "Unfortunately, it looks like there are no Chinese entities doing business in Europe that can be considered as regular private businesses. In one way or another they are directed by the CCP.”
Jakub Janda (centre) in a panel discussion with Jakub Kalenský (left), a leading Czech expert on disinformation, and currently senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, and Edward Lucas (right), a leading UK expert on Russian intelligence operations
Now, according to Janda, even in countries like Germany, which have hitherto been wary of rocking the boat, it is going to become increasingly difficult for companies to sustain their business operations in countries that have poor human rights records. He cited the example of Germany’s new ruling coalition government preparing a new law on due diligence, which would force German companies to certify that every part of their supply chain does not violate human rights. According to Janda, this will be quite hard to do if companies have factories in certain countries.
Another reason for the shift in mood is the disappointment and distrust regarding government promises. According to Janda, there were initially lofty expectations in eastern and central Europe that there would be a lot of Chinese investment coming into the region through the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEE, China-CEEC, also known as the 16 + 1 format, founded in 2012, and later becoming the 17 + 1 after Greece joined). However, the Diplomat has called the China-CEEC a zombie mechanism and argued that the only reason Greece was persuaded to join was in order to be able to say that the Port of Piraeus is a successful 17+1 project. The only country in the region where Chinese investments have been significant is Hungary, and this has been attributed to the pro-China stance of that country’s Prime Minster Victor Orbán. Another EVC report referred to Orbán’s Hungary as a Russia and China proxy that is weakening Europe. But even in Hungary’s case, there has been no major increase in Hungarian exports to China in the past 10 years. There has, however been an increase of malign foreign influence in Hungary, usually through projects involving oligarchs close to Orbán’s Fidez party. This, he says, has only served to enrich specific parts of the establishment but not the general population.
In other countries like the Czech Republic, Romania and the Baltic countries, there has been a lot of frustration at the lack of Chinese investment since 2014. With the benefit of hindsight, this may be a blessing in disguise as it means that it has not created dependencies. At present there is very little direct engagement between central and eastern Europeans and China but at the same time they are seeing the hostility on many levels, not only towards Lithuania, which angered China by opening an office in their capital using the name Taiwan, but also the Czech Republic and Sweden. The mayor of Prague has been particularly outspoken in support of Taiwan and has visited Taiwan while the national government recently expressed its intention to promote further cooperation. A few days after our breakfast meeting, the Czech Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, approved his government’s four-year administrative plan, which includes measures to bolster partnerships with Taiwan, as well as other democracies in East Asia.
As for Sweden, according to Janda, even though it has said little about Taiwan, it has been targeted for being outspoken on human rights issues. In other instances, Chinese customs authorities have refused to clear products imported from Lithuania and European Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis has said that China is blocking imports from European Union countries when they contain components from Lithuania. But, given little or no Chinese investments and very low bilateral trade volumes between China and most eastern European countries, they don’t have much to lose in pursuing closer ties with Taiwan.
However, this does not mean that things are about to change dramatically. With the exception of Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies, no other countries have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and all other countries, including Lithuania, are still following the "one China policy."Janda does not expect any countries to abandon this policy any time soon, although some countries may be considering it. Until then, the policy will continue to limit the types of engagement with Taiwan, although there is room for some flexibility in the way individual countries interpret the policy. In this regard, while the current practice rules out direct defence cooperation, we should expect more robust engagement on ways to strengthen supply chains, fight disinformation and increase cyber security, in particular. Janda says that central European countries should cooperate on defence and security matters with Taiwan and EVC plans to be the platform to enable this.
In answer to the question as to whether he agrees that open societies have made it easier for malign actors and authoritarians to operate, he said that there were two parts to the issue: one is when you have an open society that is being influenced from the outside. In these cases, there are many tools that can be used to stop it, such as a transparency register of lobbyists (which is in place in Australia and the US but not in most European countries) and investment screening to see if there is a political objective in a specific investment or danger of a dependency being created.
Europe already has a range of tools available to address malign foreign influence and others are being developed. Investment screening has been going on for about a year. Meanwhile, the rationale for the EU’s proposed anti-coercion instrument, for example, is to give the European Commission sweeping powers to impose tariffs and quotas, amend intellectual property protections and even lock countries out of EU financial markets if they are regarded as unduly interfering in the policy choices of the EU or member states. Under the new law, the commission would be able to respond swiftly. If talks with the other country did not solve the issue, it could, with member state approval, take 12 possible countermeasures. These include levying tariffs, banning chemical imports, suspending science co-operation, imposing restrictions on banking, insurance, access to EU capital markets and other financial services activities. The measures could be taken against companies or individuals. According to Janda, the anti-coercion instrument would serve as a kind of NATO for the economic arena – providing collective defence with economic security. However, the European Commission has only produced a draft proposal so far. This will still need to be reviewed and negotiated and the final version must be backed by a majority of EU member states as well as the European Parliament before it can come into force. Janda expects it will take at least a year for negotiations to be concluded.
However, there is a caveat which Janda went on to explain in the second part of his answer to the original question, which is that these kinds of tools can only be effective if a government is willing to defend its own sovereignty from illegitimate interference. If there is elite capture or politicians, who are openly welcoming relations which they personally benefit from, then it becomes very hard, he says. Quite often this influence is obscure or invisible and hidden from the public eye. For example, many belt and road projects are not transparent. Projects are frequently not awarded through open tenders, and it is difficult to see who is benefitting and often they are done through proxies of the political leader.
The conversation shifts to a discussion about NATO. Janda said that it was interesting that the Finnish president recently said that he wants Finland to maintain the option of joining NATO since both Finland and Sweden have traditionally been reticent about formally joining NATO to avoid antagonising their neighbour, Russia. The messaging is noteworthy at a time of Russian troop build-up on the border of Ukraine and Russian President Putin’s demand to halt the expansion of NATO (among others). However, the strategy may well backfire as the more threatened Russia’s non-NATO neighbours feel, the more inclined they may be to join the block (although Janda does not expect any additional countries to join NATO in the near future). Sweden and Finland are already considered to be informal members of NATO who cooperate closely with the block and even participate in joint exercises, so joining officially would perhaps be seen by them as not worth the risk.
Our 50 minutes is up and Janda says he needs to get to his next meeting, which is with a senior European diplomat. By this time, he has managed, between dialogue, to make his way through his pancakes. "I’ll be back for more,"he tells me as we make our way downstairs. I realise as we exit the restaurant that, one of the questions we did not get to was about the topic of EVC first report on Taiwan. A couple of weeks after our breakfast meeting, he confirmed that topic will be related to cybersecurity and the report will be launched at an event arranged by the ECCT in either February or March. It promises to be an interesting first of many for EVC in Taiwan and an auspicious start to the building of another plank in Taiwan’s growing engagement with the world.
Janda greeting US and Swedish diplomats in Prague