In light of mounting challenges brought on by China’s growing aggressiveness, the UK and Taiwan have strengthened their partnership, which is grounded in their shared values of liberal democracy, mutual economic interests, and pledges to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.
Under British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the UK is less reticent to discuss the Taiwan issue than it was during the so-called “golden era” of Sino-British relations, which former British prime minister David Cameron lauded.
Sunak has been more receptive to a denunciation of China’s assertive behavior in the region and an endorsement of democratic Taiwan, despite initial speculation about his milder position toward Beijing than that of his predecessor, China hawk Liz Truss.
In November last year, Sunak vowed that Britain “stands ready to support Taiwan, as we do in standing up to Chinese aggression.”
The UK is paying increasing attention to Taiwan’s security; Taiwan is mentioned five times in the British policy report Integrated Review Refresh 2023. Contrasting sharply with this is the Integrated Review 2021, which announced the UK’s “Indo-Pacific Tilt” without mentioning Taiwan.
Despite stating that “the UK’s long-standing position remains that the Taiwan issue should be settled peacefully by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait through dialogue” rather than “through any unilateral attempts to change the status quo,” the report released on Monday highlighted the UK’s support for stability in the Taiwan Strait while calling attention to China’s more aggressive posture.
The significance of upholding peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait has appeared in several of the UK’s high-profile documents, such as the G7 Leaders’ Statements in 2021, the first time Taiwan was mentioned in the group’s statement, and the G7 Foreign Ministers’ statement last year, the first-ever statement by the group about the Taiwan Strait, as well as the Joint Statement on US-UK Consultations on the Indo-Pacific last year, and the joint statement on Australia-UK ministerial consultations last month.
Additionally, the UK’s increased “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific through its security cooperation with regional powers has implications for Taiwan. The UK has stepped up defense cooperation with Japan, which has increasingly aligned its national security with that of Taiwan. The Reciprocal Access Agreement and the tri-national project to build next-generation fighter jets (with Italy) between the UK and Japan aim to deepen defense and security cooperation between the two partners.
Furthermore, Britain participates in regional security arrangements, including the AUKUS defense alliance with the US and Australia, and the Five Power Defense Agreements with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore. These security agreements aim to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region.
The idea of delivering arms to Taiwan, seen as a sensitive issue given that the UK lacks the legal justification to do so and is under pressure from the so-called “one China” policy, is the subject of intense debate within the kingdom, but Sunak has refused to rule out this possibility.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the UK House of Commons’ Defence Select Committee, echoed Sunak’s position, saying that there was “much to explore” in the debate over arming Taiwan.
With the total value of licenses hitting a record US$202 million in the first nine months of last year — more than the preceding six years combined — the British government has permitted an increasing supply of submarine-related parts and technology to Taiwan. The possibility of defense collaboration between Taiwan and the UK is made more likely by this revelation.
But what are the reasons for the UK’s change of heart on Taiwan’s security?
First, the UK’s cordial stance toward Taiwan became more explicit following Russia’s illegitimate invasion of Ukraine, especially when fears of “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow” have quickly taken hold amid speculation that China might use force to alter the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing’s growing allegiance to Moscow also heightens the risk of a China-Taiwan crisis. As a military conflict between the West and China over Taiwan is “not inevitable at all” — according to British Secret Intelligence Service Chief Richard Moore — it is imperative to defeat Russia to send a stark warning to China about the grave consequences of using force against Taiwan.
Second, Britain and Taiwan are naturally drawn together by their shared adherence to democracy, freedom and human rights, especially in light of the rise of authoritarian powers and the sharp decline in the number of democratic nations. British Minister of State for Trade Greg Hands said at a meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in Taipei last year that the UK-Taiwan relationship “reaches beyond trade and investment — as two groups of islands with strong democracies and institutions, we have much in common and face many challenges as like-minded partners.”
Finally, the danger China poses to the Indo-Pacific region has reverberated in Britain. China is described in the Integrated Fresh Review as “an epoch-defining and systemic challenge” to virtually every aspect of national life, government policy, and “to the type of international order we want to see, both in terms of security and values.”
Although Britain did not see China as “a threat,” as Sunak had promised during the leadership campaign last year, his tone toward China appeared to be stern. As Sunak stated, the long-decade “golden era” of Sino-British relations has come to an end, making the deterioration in UK-China relations obvious.
Due to Beijing’s ruthless crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong, its “wolf warrior” diplomacy during the COVID-19 outbreak and its human rights record in Xinjiang, the UK’s ties with China have drastically worsened. Even worse, a Pew Research Center survey last year found that 69 percent of Britons have an unfavorable view of China.
The growing bipartisan consensus on the necessity of meaningful engagement with Taiwan within the British parliament should also be heeded. The current administration might be influenced by these pro-Taiwan attitudes to pursue anti-China measures while fostering closer ties with Taipei.
The delegation from the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s trip to Taiwan in December last year, which was made after a 16-year hiatus, is a prime example.
Taiwan should seize the chance to bolster ties with the UK, in terms of economic, people-to-people ties and prospective defense cooperation, given the latter’s friendly strategic shift toward the nation.
To accomplish this, Taiwan should position itself as a strategic asset and reliable partner in the eyes of the UK rather than a risky gamble due to its tensions with China.
Furthermore, Taiwan needs to highlight the many ways deeper ties with the nation might benefit the UK, starting perhaps with the alignment of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy and the UK’s Indo-Pacific Tilt.
Huynh Tam Sang is a lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations, Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities and a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation. Phan Van Tim is a research assistant at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities.
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