Features | Politics | East Asia

Time for a Fresh Start with Taiwan

Britain should rethink its support for the one-China policy, argues Lord Richard Faulkner. China should drop its claims to the island.

By Lord Richard Faulkner for

I have the privilege of co-chairing the British-Taiwanese all-party parliamentary group, the membership of which has grown steadily to almost 100 lawmakers across all parties in Britain’s House of Commons and House of Lords.

There are two reasons for the group’s popularity. The first is the hard work of the staff at the Taipei Representative Office, in recent months by Ambassador Lyu-shun Shen and up until last December, by his much-loved predecessor Katharine Chang. They undertake their responsibilities with charm and distinction and in the face of a number of difficulties that aren’t encountered by the diplomatic staff of other foreign missions in London.

The second reason why our all-party group does well is because of the very real sense of admiration felt by a growing number of our parliamentarians for Taiwan and its people. A great number of us believe that Taiwan deserves better of us in the U.K. than current British and EU government rules allow for.

What can our parliamentarians do to improve relations between Britain and Taiwan? A great deal actually. On a practical level, we do our best to ensure that visiting political VIPs from Taiwan have an opportunity to come to Parliament and meet MPs and peers.

We are delighted when Ambassador Shen tells us that this minister or that party leader is coming to Britain, and we will always try to ensure that some of us are available to meet them, sometimes in a formal meeting in a Lords or Commons committee room, sometimes over lunch, tea or dinner in the Palace of Westminster.

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Occasionally we receive word that a visiting dignitary has fallen foul of the U.K. Border Agency and has had difficulty in obtaining a visa. Where it’s necessary and appropriate, we’ll seek to intercede and obtain a satisfactory outcome, as we did last September in the case of a senior government minister coming to Britain to take part in an important legal conference in Cambridge.

In addition to receiving Taiwanese visitors here, we also arrange for British parliamentarians to visit Taiwan. Generally there are two outward delegations each year, each consisting of up to a dozen MPs and peers. These visits are possible because of the generosity of the Taiwanese government, and are an important element in the process of ensuring that our parliamentarians understand the country better. The program that is arranged for us is first class, and nearly always includes a meeting with the President and a number of senior ministers.

Our other major role as friends of Taiwan in Parliament is to raise issues that are roadblocks on the way to establishing a proper normal relationship with this country, or prevent Taiwan from participating fully in world organisations in ways which would benefit all of us. A perfect example of that was Taiwan’s involvement with the World Health Organization. The case for Taiwan was overwhelming because of the very significant contribution it has made over the years to world health issues, such as the SARS epidemic and earthquake relief.

We campaigned vigorously on that for years, and finally, in May 2009, Taiwan was granted observer status at the World Health Assembly.

Another success was the granting of the visa waiver scheme for Taiwanese visitors to Britain. On 3 March, 2009, the U.K. granted visa-exemption to Taiwan passport holders for six months. We were followed by Ireland and New Zealand, and Taiwan has offered similar rights to British passport-holders. There’s no evidence that this has created any problems in any of the countries involved, and the visa waiver scheme is being extended to other countries.

Now we also support the cal for Taiwan to be admitted to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

If a visitor arrived from outer space and examined the various relationships between Britain and Taiwan – in financial services, in industrial investment by British companies in Taiwan and by Taiwanese companies here, in the provision of places for Taiwanese students at British universities, in collaborating on tackling financial crime and terrorism, in combating disease, coping with national disasters, and so much more – that visitor would come to the conclusion that here were two friendly countries working together closely in virtually every area that mattered.

But life isn’t quite like that. I well recall an exchange in the House of Lords back in January 2003, on a question from me about WHO membership. The veteran Liberal Democrat, Lord Avebury, asked Baroness Amos, then a foreign office minister, whether she couldthink of any of the attributes of a sovereign state that Taiwan lacks.

Her reply was: “My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that we do not recognise Taiwan. The majority of countries in the U.N. also do not recognise Taiwan.”

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It is that thinking and that approach which I believe now need to be changed. It’s time that Britain, other states in the European Union, and the U.S. challenged the so-called “One China” policy, which has unfairly held back the Taiwanese people from establishing normal friendly relations with the rest of the world.

Last year, we celebrated with our Taiwanese friends the centenary of the founding of the Republic of China by Dr Sun Yat-sen in 1911. I sent a message to Taipei on behalf of the all-party group congratulating the people of Taiwan on that centenary, saying that wewere conscious that Dr. Sun founded the Republic on the Three Principles of the People: government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Over the past century, the achievement of these ideals hasn’t been easy, but under the presidencies of Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-ban and Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan has evolved from a one-party dictatorship under martial law into a free multi-party parliamentary democracy in which governments change through the ballot box and by democratic choice.

Twenty years have passed since the Kuomintang last claimed that they were the legitimate government of the whole of China, while the Peoples Republic of China has never of course been the government of Taiwan.

It’s now time that China abandoned its territorial claim to Taiwan.

In the past few days, we in Britain have been commemorating the 30th anniversary of the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentine soldiers sent by the military junta in Buenos Aires, and the successful recapture of the islands by a military taskforce sent from Britain.

This is still a sore and sensitive subject in Argentina, and its politicians have been ratcheting up the rhetoric about British colonialism. At the end of March, I was one of the U.K. delegates at the 126th Assembly of the Inter-parliamentary Union in Kampala and had to listen to an attack on British policy towards the Falklands from an Argentine delegate.

I demanded – on behalf of the U.K. delegation – a right of reply, and spoke for three minutes on why the issue of the islands wasn’t about colonialism or exploitation. I said – and here I am quoting directly from the official IPU report of my speech – the issue “was about self-determination, and the islanders’ desire to remain British. Britain had no expansionist designs on the South Atlantic.

“It is absurd to talk about U.K. military expansion. The only military action in the action in the region has been when Argentina invaded the islands. The only eviction of Argentineans from the islands was following the invasion.”

I concluded by saying that the IPU was focused on self-determination and it should consider self-determination in relation to the Falkland Islands and their inhabitants.

There are two points about this exchange that are relevant to the debate about Taiwan. The first is to ask the question why, if it is right for Britain to resist the territorial claims of Argentina to the Falkland Islands on the grounds that the inhabitants of the islands wish to remain British, is it wrong to support the people of Taiwan if they don’t wish to be ruled by their large mainland neighbour?

The second point is to ask on what reasonable and moral grounds can the Inter-parliamentary Union resist an application from the parliament of Taiwan – whose members are freely elected under normal democratic rules – to become involved in the work of the IPU, initially at least with observer status.

Back in 2010, the House of Lords’ select committee on the European Union produced a report on the EU’s relations with China. I spoke in the debate that followed and particularly addressed the assertions in the summary headed “China’s lines in the sand.”

“First, ‘one China’ – here I am quoting directly – China will not accept any questioning of its territorial integrity whether over Tibet, Hong Kong or Taiwan. It is the Taiwan issue that presents a threat to regional security.”

I said that from that one might assume that Taiwan is somehow threatening its neighbours militarily. But that is clearly an absurd proposition. The only threat comes from the People’s Republic of China, which has stationed 1,600 missiles on its coastline, targeted at Taiwan, and has passed an anti-secession law that it claims gives it the right to invade Taiwan if that country were to declare independence.

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I reminded the House of what the House of Commons foreign affairs committee had said in their report on East Asia in August 2006.

“We conclude,” they said, “that the Chinese military build-up across the Taiwan Straits threatens peace and stability in East Asia…We further conclude that the growth of democracy in Taiwan is of the greatest importance, both for the island itself and for the population of greater China, since it demonstrates incontrovertibly that Chinese people can develop democratic institutions and thrive under them.”

That report was, and remains, the most robust defence of the rights of the Taiwanese people produced by either house of parliament in recent times. By contrast, the tone of the House of Lords report from which I quoted a moment ago seems to say that we must do nothing to promote relations with Taiwan that upsets China.

My question is why should the People’s Republic of China be given a veto on deciding in which international organisations Taiwan should participate?

This summer, London and other venues in Britain will be welcoming thousands of athletes from all over the world for the Olympic Games. It will be a great international event in which we can all extend the hand of friendship to sports men and women from every imaginable different culture.

There will happily be athletes from Taiwan taking part. But they won’t be marching behind the Taiwanese flag as they enter the Olympic stadium. If they win gold medals, it won’t be the Taiwanese national anthem that is played. The team itself will not even be called Taiwan. Instead, they will be known as something called “Chinese Taipei,” a name that has been around since 1981 – conclusive proof that sport and politics are inextricably linked.

There’s one other matter which I raised in that debate in 2010. I referred back to the question I asked on 20 January 2003, and to what Lord Howell, now the Lords Foreign Office minister in the coalition government, said when speaking from the opposition front bench. His words were:

“I am sure that we all appreciate that because of respect for the ‘one China’ policy and our relations with the People's Republic of China, we do not accord Taiwan full diplomatic status. Can we at least be assured that we give Taiwan representatives in our country and the sort of causes that we are discussing in this question the same support and encouragement as are given by our neighbours, particularly France and Germany, in their dealings with Taiwan? Are we as effective as they are in maintaining good relations with this remarkable democracy?”

I commented that Lord Howell’s reference to the support offered to Taiwan representatives in the U.K. was an important one. I pointed out that the practice differs markedly from one EU country to another in terms of their offices’ legal status, the immunities granted to their staff, the rules on vehicle ownership, use and taxation, and so on.

If I made a similar speech today, I would also talk about what I discovered when I went to meet Ambassador Chang in Sydney in February. There, the Australian government has in place a remarkable set of rules, called “The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (Privileges and Immunities) Regulations 1998, which grant Chang and her staff virtually all the same benefits as other diplomatic missions to which Australia grants diplomatic recognition.

So this will be the subject of another letter to the FCO, with the simple message “If Australia can do it, why can’t we?”

I concluded a recent speech on this subject with this thought. Over the course of its history, Taiwan has experienced much adversity, but also great success. It has transformed itself from an agricultural backwater to a hi-tech economic powerhouse. It has emerged from a military dictatorship reliant on martial law and terror into a vibrant, modern democracy. Throughout all this, Taiwan has been sustained by the indomitable spirit of its people, who have built together a cosmopolitan, democratic and open society.

They deserve better of us. It’s time for a fresh start.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester is co-chair of the British-Taiwanese all-party parliamentary group in the U.K. House of Commons.