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It’s time for the UK to get serious about Taiwan

David Spencer
May 25, 2022

Following President Biden's comments on the defence of Taiwan, David Spencer argues the UK must now follow in his footsteps and pledge their support to a military defence of the island from potential Chinese invasion.

US President Joe Biden is seen as being prone to the odd gaffe. However, his comments earlier this week about the USA's willingness to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion by China were not rambling and off-the-cuff, but measured and carefully phrased. It is not the first time Biden has pushed the US Government's official line when it comes to Taiwan and, even when they subsequently row back on such comments officially, it is abundantly clear that they are looking to send a message to Beijing rather than tidying up after an unforced error.

In the Queens Speech a couple of weeks back, foreign policy did not take centre stage. But at the very top of the Prince of Wales' address, there was bold and clear statement: "In these challenging times, Her Majesty's Government will play a leading role in defending democracy and freedom across the world."

At a time when democracy and freedom are more under threat from the powers of authoritarianism and despotism than at any time since the end of the Cold War, it is a statement of clarity and purpose. The political freedom granted to the UK by Brexit has made it possible for us to live up to these words and, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is fair to say that we have done just that.

"If everyone in the world… were steadfast and courageous leaders like Ukraine, like Britain, I am sure we would have already ended this war," said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson had addressed the Ukrainian Parliament and pledged a further £300 million in military aid. The question is, how far will the UK's commitment to defending freedom and democracy stretch?

Will it, for example, stretch to a country ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2021 Democracy Index as the eighth strongest democracy in the world and the second strongest in Asia? Will it stretch to a country that accounts for £4.35 billion in annual bilateral trade with the UK? Will it stretch to a country with a population of 23 million people that the US President has just pledged to defend from the threat of invasion from the authoritarian superpower on its doorstep?

Because let's be clear, Taiwan is not, as many media describe it, a "disputed territory", or a "province of China", but a flourishing first-world democratic nation-state that finds itself on the front line in the current conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. Taiwan would appear to be exactly the sort of threatened democracy that you would expect the UK to be going out to bat for. Yet, to date, the Government's stance has been far from convincing.

In last year's Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, there was not a single mention of Taiwan across its entire 112 pages. Engagement with Taiwan at ministerial level is non-existent, not because ministers on both sides don't want it, but because the Foreign Office's slavish observance of the 'One China' policy amid a panicked fear of upsetting China's authoritarian regime is allowed to trump the interests of both the UK and Taiwan.

There have been some signs of a thawing in relations. In the joint communique following the G7 Summit in Cornwall last year, there was an unprecedented call for "peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait." Furthermore, just last month, in her Mansion House speech, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss stated that "we must ensure that democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves."

Such a statement from a British Foreign Secretary about Taiwan is pretty much unprecedented. But when put next to Biden's comments yesterday, it still looks weak.

If there is one lesson we can take from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is that what really matters is actions rather than words. That is the conclusion of the inaugural report of the Taiwan Policy Centre, entitled Ukraine Today, Taiwan Tomorrow? which has just been published.

In it, we have assessed the similarities and differences between the situations in Ukraine and Taiwan and made a series of simple recommendations that the UK Government can act upon now to bolster Taiwan's defences.

This includes the UK joining the USA in selling Taiwan both the military hardware and asymmetrical tools it needs to mount an effective defence against a Chinese invasion and offering training and logistical support to help Taiwan's full-time military, its developing reserve force, and its planned Civil Defence Force.

The UK also needs to begin discussions with democratic allies now about what practical support it will offer Taiwan in the event of an invasion, how it will help to break any blockade China might try to enforce on Taiwan, and what economic consequences China will face in the event of an invasion.

These policies must be made clearly and publicly too. As former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently (and quite rightly) said, the time for strategic ambiguity when it comes to Taiwan has passed. If the UK wants to show its leadership on the global stage, it also needs to send a clear diplomatic message to China, than any attempts to invade Taiwan will not be tolerated.

That means dropping the self-imposed ban on Ministerial visits between the UK and Taiwan, taking more robust steps to secure Taiwan's inclusion in international organisations, and considering our own Taiwan Relations Act to put our commitment to preserving the freedom and democracy of Taiwan on a par with our American allies.

Such steps may feel like an anathema to Foreign Office bureaucracy, which is still living in the golden age of Sino-British relations where we were rolling out the red carpet for Xi Jinping rather than condemning him for genocide. But if the UK is serious about its commitment to freedom and democracy, protecting the values we all hold dear, and its ambitions for closer relations with Indo-Pacific nations, it needs to follow Joe Biden's lead and get serious about its relationship with Taiwan.

You can support the work of the Taiwan Policy Centre by making a donation here.

David Spencer is the Chief Executive of the Taiwan Policy Centre, an independent not-for-profit organisation dedicated to boosting political, cultural, and trading relations between the UK and Taiwan.
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