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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.
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.”