Two-Theater Tragedy: A Reluctant Europe Cannot Easily Escape a Sino-American War Over Taiwan

Leaving Sweden/Maintenance

It is a trope in superhero stories that the hero must try and be in two places at once. Europe is trying to do the same by splitting its military capabilities between the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific. But neither European states individually nor Europe collectively are or have been superpowers for a very long time. Rather than dilute the fragile sense of purpose and growing power they have built in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European powers should prioritize their home region. Backfilling maritime security in the Euro-Atlantic up to the western Indian Ocean is a more valuable distribution of tasks with the United States than sending limiting capabilities that are unfit for the deterrence of China.

Despite expressing a growing interest in the Indo-Pacific, Europeans have not seriously considered acting on behalf of Taiwan in case of a war between the United States and China. In any case, European countries lack the capacity to do so. A conflict over Taiwan could play out in any number of ways. We assume a conflict in which both superpowers use the full range of their conventional capabilities.

Even if enough European states would reach a consensus to respond with military means, all of the countries, including Europe’s two premier military powers, France and the United Kingdom, lack the capability to make a sustained effort in such a scenario.

Yet a war over Taiwan between China and the United States would have a profound impact on Europe’s prosperity and security, even if they avert worst-case scenarios — including nuclear escalation. The economic and security costs for all of Europe would be extensive. The breakdown of supply chains would disrupt European economies, leading to recession and, potentially, a significant contraction of gross domestic product.

De-risking will then evolve into sudden de-coupling across sectors with outsized negative effects on de-industrialized Europe. The security effects will be equally sizeable. Systemic wars, those wars concerning “the international [or regional] system as it existed prior to the outbreak of war,” tend to spread geographically, invite external intervention, and spur system-wide polarization. As a result, staying on the sidelines and insulating themselves, as European statesattempted to do with varying success a century ago, is unlikely to succeed in a war between the great powers of the 21st century. Even if the two majors manage to keep a war over Taiwan “local,” it will definitively draw U.S. resources from Europe to the western Pacific, severely curtailing Washington’s bandwidth for a conventional fight in Europe.

The result would be a forced U.S. pivot to the Pacific. Moreover, any conflict will lead to a vacuum that will upset deterrence in the European theater and expose European vulnerabilities and dependencies on the United States.

European leaders seem reluctant to accept this inconvenient reality partly because they still hope to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with China in other domains — specifically trade — and partly because of a tendency toward risk avoidance that has become engrained in many European states’ approaches to international security over the past decades. This puts Europe at risk. European leaders should, therefore, prepare to help deter China through economic means, to strengthen the resilience of regional powers, and to gear up to defend Europe to relieve pressure on the United States should war break out. 



European Position: Long on International Law, Short on Concrete Military Support

Leaders of the principal European powers such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have refrained from taking a strong position on Taiwan, as has the European Union itself. If asked about a Taiwan scenario, the tendency in Europe is to reiterate support for international law and condemn any potential violation of the status quo. Last April, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stated that “a unilateral and violent change in the status quo would not be acceptable to us as Europeans,” in a joint conference with Chinese counterpart Qin Gang in Beijing. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna echoed that statement and expressed French support for the “shared principles of regulation of an international order based on the rule of law.” U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak argued that his government “is completely aligned in substance and in language with all our allies,” with Britain’s Integrated Review Refresh of 2023 expressing opposition to “any unilateral change in the status quo” in the Taiwan Strait and in the East and South China Seas. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen emphasized Europe’s call “for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” in an address to the European Parliament, as did European Union chief diplomat Josep Borrell.

While European leaders pay lip service to the wider economic impact of a war in Taiwan, very few of them have articulated more concrete responses while in office. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, for instance, former NATO secretary-general and former Danish prime minister, suggested that a message be sent to China that an attack on Taiwan will “provoke profound and comprehensive economic sanctions.” In a report from the foreign affairs committee in August, the British parliament referred to Taiwan as an “independent country” whose right to self-determination merits full British support in an official document for the first time. During a visit to Taiwan, one of the European Parliament’s vice presidents affirmed that Europe “won’t turn a blind eye to China’s threats to Taiwan.” Meanwhile, other European parliament statements expressed support for “initiatives aimed at dialogue and confidence-building,” in response to China’s live-fire military exercises after former U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taiwan.

European Reluctance

European leaders’ reluctance toward taking a clear stance on Taiwan partially derives from the desire to avoid alienating China entirely. This is not just because Europe has huge economic interests in China’s massive markets, but also because European leaders still retain hope that they can maintain a “dialogue” and redirect Chinese behavior toward more productive ends such as shared interests on the climate, biodiversity, and AI. The E.U. Commission’s 2019 E.U.-China strategic outlook statement that China is an economic “competitor” and a systemic “rival” but also a “partner” reflects this conflicted inner monologue that continues to reverberate in European minds.

Moreover, there is also a clear awareness among European leaders that Europe as of yet lacks the capabilities to credibly deter China, though vague allusions to European aspirations can be found in references to “deterrence diplomacy.” French President Emmanuel Macron was crystal-clear about Europe’s limited capabilities, noting that since “Europeans cannot resolve the crisis in Ukraine,” it would be difficult to credibly say they would act on Taiwan, adding that “if you really want to increase tensions that’s the way to do it.” The growing European naval presence in the region is therefore intended to keep the sea routes open and secure and prevent “might makes right” from becoming a fact. The goal is to maintain dialogue and “cooperation not confrontation,” with freedom of navigation operations ostensibly not being directed at “a specific country.” In this spirit, European reluctance also contains another kind of calculation: By not giving Beijing the sense that U.S. allies both in the region and in Europe are ganging up on it, they hope to prevent China from seeing the situation as one in which it has been presented with a dichotomous choice to either invade Taiwan or beat a humiliating retreat.


Despite this clear reluctance, European states — individually and as a collective — are at risk of sleepwalking into picking sides. Awakening to China’s rise, in the economic realm they have joined U.S. export controls on advanced technologies exports to China after cutting off Huawei from supplying technology for the core of European 5G critical infrastructure. Tellingly, alongside Japan’s export controls, the Netherlands has acquiesced to American demands to prevent the Dutch company ASML from selling its most advanced lithography systems to China, which are necessary to produce the chips for advanced AI applications. Also in the military realm, Europeans risk stumbling into taking a position. Crucially, the inclusion of China in the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept as one of the “authoritarian actors [that] challenge our interests, values and democratic way of life” has made it difficult to claim that the European allies of the United States are not picking sides.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government has not taken kindly to this perceived shift either, with party-affiliated outfits warning Europeans not to give in to U.S. pressure to jump on its bandwagon and gang up on China. Europeans are attempting to carefully walk the line between deterring China, reassuring regional states, and signaling support for the United States, on the one hand, and avoiding damaging their own interests with China or exacerbating the spiral, on the other. But while, in the view of the authors of this piece, Europeans are right in their intention to attempt this balance, they are wrong to believe it will suffice or be sufficiently convincing to either Washington or Beijing, let alone decisively shape the calculations of either. Whatever Europeans desire, the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions are linked economically, and both theaters are linked militarily by virtue of the central role the United States plays in both.

The Problem with Firewalls

The issue is that separation of two regions and two theaters is historically fraught with problems. The argument here is not that in case of a war over Taiwan, the world will inevitably fall into two blocs. Instead, we note that, historically speaking, the demarcation of conflict dynamics from one geographical theater to another has very seldom held. Only if the principal protagonists explicitly agreed to contain their conflict to one theater did such a demarcation stand a chance, but such occasions have been rare.

For example, during the Cold War, there was a moratorium on direct contact between the United States and the Soviet Union in the core (Europe) but allowance for proxy wars in the periphery (outside of Europe), which the superpowers only adhered to after the Berlin Deadline and Cuban Missile Crises. That said, even then many of the proxy wars were driven by fears of loss of credibility to allies and adversaries in the core. Such demarcations were instrumental in avoiding direct contact and staving off disaster.

However, most of the time, extraregional spillover of conflicts and their consequences was the rule rather than the exception. For example, the 1853–1856 Crimean War was arguably settled in the Baltics and the prospect of a naval blockade of Russia. Moreover, when conflicts escalate into war, firewalls have tended to collapse quickly, with conflict dynamics spreading from one theater to the next. “Localized wars” (between original belligerents) thus become “expanded wars” (with more actors becoming involved) and then “enlarged wars” (which have at least one major power joining on either side). Worryingly, in the past, wars between major and minor powers have had the largest risk of going down this route. Examples include the Crimean War and the two world wars.

For Europe: Too Few, Too Far

Should war over Taiwan break out, Europe can do very little in the maritime realm militarily speaking simply because European naval capabilities are in dire straits. As noted, a conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan could take various forms, be it of very short or longer duration with varying levels of intensity, ranging from a successful fait accompli, to a prevented fait accompli, to a failed fait accompli, which can then turn into a prolonged conflict and/or a slow strangle. We consider it likely that the military-technological nature of the conflict leads to perceptions of first-mover advantages that would push both superpowers to rapidly escalate, but our assessment applies to all these different scenarios.

In a paper published earlier this year, we showed that even the largest European naval powers, France and the United Kingdom, will be hard-pressed to make any real contribution for a sustained period of time in a scenario of high-intensity conflict. This does not hinge on a lack of strategic or operational skills or on qualitative shortcomings in the platforms of ships, though these are relatively weak on offensive and defensive capabilities, but on basic ship numbers and logistics.During peacetime, approximately three ships are in maintenance or repair, while their crews are training or resting. Assuming a ratio of one to four, in terms of surface vessels, France can only deploy one-quarter of an aircraft carrier at any time and three quarters of a destroyer, and the United Kingdom can only deploy one-half of a carrier and one and a half destroyers. While articulating the﷟ capabilities of Europe’s two premier military powers in fractions might seem silly, it serves to underline the extremely limited capacity and limited sustainability of a European military role in the western Pacific. Small numbers are amplified by serious distances. Given the limited European naval port infrastructure in the region and the vast distances between the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific, with travel time measured in weeks rather than in days, their contribution will be extremely limited.

European surface ships and submarines will have some limited access to partner bases and depots for munitions, repairs, and supplies, but these are likely to be both under attack by China and in high demand by the United States and regional allies during a war over Taiwan. This will not resemble the military operations that were part of the so-called war on terror where all the major logistical nodes were largely safe from attack. Western military and civilian leaders have not yet come to terms with the theater-wide ferocity of a peer-to-peer great power conflict. Crucially, European surface ships do not have the means to survive a serious onslaught in an age of denial.

There are European assets that are useful in such a confrontation, however, and that have highly offensive capabilities and mobility, and are fungible. Very specific denial and land attack capabilities provided by the nuclear-powered attack submarines possessed by France (five in service currently with a sixth soon) and the United Kingdom (six in service currently) may be an exception, as well as fifth-generation fighter jets possessed by NATO allies, particularly the F-35s. Beside taking part in the underwater fight during a war over Taiwan, French and British attack submarines could be armed with cruise missiles to target land-based Chinese anti-access/air denial capabilities. However, French and British submarines would also be expected to play a critical role in ensuring NATO conventional deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic, where they would be involved in anti-submarine warfare activities against Russian attack submarines (18 in service), as well as provide protection for the British and French nuclear deterrents. During a western Pacific contingency, we expect a simultaneous heightened threat from Russia to take advantage of the situation as a result of which these limited French and British assets would be in high demand. Splitting capabilities between opposites of the planet would leave Europe even more underdefended.

Equally, NATO Europe’s fifth-generation air assets would be needed in any European scenario; airpower is both NATO’s clearest conventional advantage over Russia as well as a U.S. capability that is likely to be entirely absorbed by a war in the western Pacific, thereby further drawing away capabilities from Europe. This will undermine NATO’s deterrence posture vis-á-vis Russia back in Europe. Moreover, China’s own submarine fleet is growing, while its anti-submarine capabilities are improving.

Even if Europeans decide to remain on the sidelines, U.S. involvement in a war over Taiwan will leave behind a considerable power vacuum in Europe and create conventional deterrence gaps. It will create multiple windows of opportunity not just for Russia but also for smaller and middle powers to exploit whether by means of faits accompli or otherwise. Despite Europe’s much heralded Zeitenwende, European military power is still less than the sum of its parts simply due to its “lack of an integrated command structure and its deficient [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] capacity.” European land forces face significant challenges in overcoming three decades of decay, as the International Institute for Strategic Studies reports, in terms of not just platforms but also of sheer numbers and readiness, alongside overall capability gaps in air and missile defense, long-range artillery systems and deep-fire systems, and munition supplies, amongst other things. Consequently, should a Sino-American war over Taiwan turn into a protracted conflict à la Ukraine, European defense industry would be extremely limited in terms of scaling up to meet U.S. demand; it is already falling behind on earlier promises made to Ukraine for munition supplies.

If No Superhero, What Then? Policy Options for Europeans

European leaders should realize that they are no superheroes and will remain far from being in the driver’s seat in case of a Sino-American confrontation over Taiwan. That does not mean they have no agency to act to prevent China from invading Taiwan, to insulate themselves, or to prepare for such an eventuality. To the contrary, there are three options that Europe should pursue.

First, European states — and specifically the European Union – could send a deterrent message to China through the threat of cutting off Chinese access to European markets: essentially mutually assured economic destruction. Though cutting off Russian access to the European Union was difficult and incomplete, it also underlined the credibility of European resolve. Though China is preparing for such a scenario, the risk that the European states would follow suit should give the Chinese Communist Party leadership, deeply concerned with domestic stability, another reason to doubt the desirability of a war over Taiwan. To bolster the credibility of this threat, Europeans should diversify their supply chains in the Indo-Pacific toward states less directly threatened in the case of a Sino-American war, as well as to Europe itself. This does not mean decoupling from China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, or other regional states. But it does mean increasing the overall resiliency of Europe’s economy and thereby its political will when the going gets tough.

Second, while seeking to dampen tensions between China and America, Europeans should try to strengthen the resiliency of regional powers, including a military and an institutional component. Europeans can supply military capabilities to small and middle powers to raise the costs of aggression and furnish them with active denial capabilities to defend against revisionist aggression. In parallel, Europe should try and strengthen multilateral frameworks. Europe should put the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea front and center to push China to cease its incremental but aggressive expansion in the region. At the same time, they should also put more pressure on the United States to ratify the convention. While such a dual-track strategy is unlikely to offer definitive solutions, it may help prop up the status quo and slow developments down sufficiently for the United States and China to find a new modus vivendi rather than end up in a disastrous war.

Third, European states should ramp up their capability investments further — as they have since the first Crimean crisis of 2014, Donald Trump’s 2016 election, and Russia’s 2022 invasion — to ensure they can defend themselves. They should do so in light of a possible U.S. absence, whether due to U.S. domestic turmoil or the increasing likelihood that an Asian war will fully absorb U.S. attention and resources.

Europe is short of capabilities across the board, but key capabilities needed would be command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, particularly in the realm of space, heavy lift and transports to reinforce the eastern states, as well as long-range conventional precision strike. These capabilities are not financially or technologically impossible to acquire, but their near-absence now reflects the uneven political will across the NATO alliance, with some member states clearly pulling more weight relative to the others. In a grand strategic sense, to support the U.S. effort in the Indo-Pacific, Europeans would ironically be better off doing hard work closer to home, shoring up European defense, and, in maritime security, protecting the approaches to Europe, as well as its unimpeded access to energy in the Persian Gulf. Maritime security from a European perspective would thus extend in any real military sense to the western Indian Ocean.

The Thucydides Trap is not preordained, and there is nothing inevitable about a Sino-American confrontation. European states should continue to underline to their American and Chinese counterparts that it is time to cool down the rising temperature of the great power relationship; two world wars were more than enough.



Tim Sweijs is the director of research at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies and a senior research fellow at the War Studies Research Centre of the Netherlands Defence Academy.

Paul van Hooft is a senior analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, where he heads the Europe in the Indo-Pacific and the Future of Transatlantic Relations programs.

This Policy Brief was developed as part of the Bridging Allies initiative, led by the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. The Bridging Allies initiative is supported by the Australian Government through a grant by the Australian Department of Defence. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or the Australian Department of Defence.

Image: U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. Sixth Fleet