German minister heading to Taiwan, first such visit in 26 years

A government spokesperson says the visit will focus on semiconductors and not the island’s sovereignty.

German Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger
German Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger is scheduled to visit Taiwan early next week [File: Lisi Niesner/Reuters]

Germany’s education minister is scheduled to make an official trip to Taiwan early next week, the highest-level visit by a German official since 1997 to an island that China claims as part of its territory.

Bettina Stark-Watzinger’s visit will aim to improve cooperation between Berlin and Taipei on semiconductors, a ministry spokesperson said on Friday, adding that the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty will not be the focus of the trip.

Stark-Watzinger will visit from Monday to Wednesday as tensions rise between China and the West, including over Beijing’s stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine. China reacted angrily when then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi travelled to Taiwan last year.

China views democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory and has increased military, political and economic pressure to assert those claims.

German government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit said the visit did not indicate any change in position when it comes to Berlin’s policy on Taiwan, which supports the European Union’s practice of cooperating with Taipei at the technical level.

“We are also in regular and close contact with China and the Chinese leadership,” he said. “The visit that the minister for education and research is making to Taiwan now doesn’t call into question our stance in any way.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reiterated before a planned trip to Japan on Saturday that he stands by Beijing’s so-called “one China” policy, which asserts that there is only one sovereign state with the name China. Berlin nonetheless maintains lower level contacts with Taiwan.

A source with direct knowledge of next week’s visit told the Reuters news agency that Stark-Watzinger would not see President Tsai Ing-wen upon the instructions of the German government to avoid irritating China.

The source stressed the trip was a working visit to discuss areas under Stark-Watzinger’s portfolio and not directly about sending a message of support from Germany to Taiwan.

The last cabinet-level German official to visit Taiwan 26 years ago was then-Economy Minister Guenter Rexrodt, a member of the same libertarian Free Democratic Party as Stark-Watzinger. It has been pushing for a tougher line towards Beijing on human rights and free speech.

A visit to Taiwan in January by a delegation of high-ranking lawmakers from the Free Democrats, the smallest party in Scholz’s three-party coalition, led to protests from Beijing.

China has stepped up its military activities around Taiwan in recent years, including almost daily air force incursions into the island’s air defence identification zone.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies