The Debate | Opinion

Taiwan Needs to Be a Part of the UK’s China Strategy

The willingness (or lack thereof) to embrace Taiwan is a bellwether of how serious liberal democracies are about countering CCP threats to their ideals.

By David Green for
Taiwan Needs to Be a Part of the UK’s China Strategy
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

In June 2018, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen called for global democracies to stand together to counter Chinese aggression.

Speaking at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy in Taipei, Tsai stressed the need for international cooperation to counter Chinese intimidation over trade, politics, and territory, and placed Taiwan front and center in a global struggle to resist authoritarian efforts to undermine human rights, the rule of law, and freedom of speech.

In December 2020, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, extended the theme, warning in a Guardian interview that Chinese military aggression in its near seas, incursions in India, and crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong are precursors to an invasion of Taiwan.

Calling attention to increasingly frequent People’s Liberation Army incursions into Taiwan’s airspace, Wu cautioned that Chinese aggressions would continue to proliferate if left unchecked, ultimately resulting in the use of force to export Chinese authoritarianism to Taiwan and beyond.

Wu also expressed optimism over the potential for likeminded democracies to support self-governing Taiwan with intelligence sharing and other forms of security cooperation, while stopping short of asking for direct military aid or arms sales.

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It must be galling, then, for both Taiwanese politicians to see U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson push the idea of forming a D10 alliance of democracies in opposition to China, only to exclude Taiwan from a list that includes the G-7 nations, Australia, India, and South Korea.

More galling still, to read former U.S. State Department official Jared Cohen and Center for a New American Security CEO Richard Fontaine’s proposal for a T12 coalition of “techno democracies” that would not include as a full member Taiwan, a country that leads the world in semiconductor technology, and which has made huge advances in expanding the role digital technologies play in government policy-making under Digital Minister Audrey Tang. [Editor’s note: Richard Fontaine pointed out in an email that their piece does note “Taiwan would also be a useful participant, even if creative diplomacy might be required to deal with the island’s nonstate status.” However, Taiwan is not included as one of the 12 member states.]

If policymakers of any nationality are serious about countering the Chinese Communist Party, Taiwan should be central to their thinking. Space should be created for the island to enjoy at least observer status within the aforementioned multilateral frameworks, in much the same way as Taiwan previously attended meetings of the World Health Organization (WHO).

That Taiwan continues to be excluded from the WHO despite recording less than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 and demonstrating early in the pandemic exactly how to contain transmission of the virus is a travesty that illustrates China’s sway within the organization, and the degree of coordination necessary for would-be democratic allies to reverse the CCP’s success in defining the narrative on Taiwan’s status.

In its December 2020 “Defending Democracy” report detailing a toolkit of policy measures available to counter a more assertive CCP, the China Research Group (CRG) of U.K. Conservative lawmakers mentions Taiwan just twice in 38 pages, with one of those being as the intended destination of the now imprisoned Hong Kong activists captured while attempting to flee CCP persecution by speedboat.

The CRG’s list of potential countermeasures against the CCP includes sanctions against members complicit in human rights abuses, a support package for British Nationals Overseas, measures to oblige U.K. firms to ensure they eliminate slave labor in their supply chains, the banning of equipment exports that could be used to aid mass surveillance, and guidelines on university cooperation and Sino-British joint venture disclosures.

Enhanced support for Taiwan at least warrants a mention in this list. The argument that Taiwan is somehow unique as a CCP “red line” discounts the fact that implementing the measures above would define the U.K. as an enemy of the CCP, if it is not already as a result of its decision to exclude Huawei from its 5G networks.

The CRG report suggests the D10 would “deepen cooperation between democracies, stand against authoritarian regimes, strengthen liberal values and human rights, and support countries wishing to democratize by protecting them from foreign intervention by authoritarian nations wishing to curtail those efforts.”

This is a remit that would surely include extending coordinated support to Taiwan, but if that is the aim, why not just invite Taiwan’s participation in the first place? Johnson’s D10 plan is at this stage more bluster than blueprint for countering CCP aggression; a boost for a government eager to talk up the U.K.’s global role post-Brexit.

Before the U.K. can even attempt such global leadership, it must navigate a sea change in its foreign relations framework. This requires successfully juggling the increased foreign and security policy flexibility afforded by Brexit with the reality that pugnacious trading partners such as China will demand that the U.K. be on its best behavior or risk undermining a bilateral trade relationship worth about 80 billion pounds. Witness the tariff-tipped spearing of Australia over Canberra’s calls for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 as the latest evidence of the CCP’s willingness to plunge bilateral relations into an ice bath over perceived slights to China’s integrity.

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There are already indications of a U.K. government split in this regard, though not along the lines you might expect, with the trade secretary Liz Truss reportedly in favor of enfranchising British courts with the ability to determine whether there is a genocide ongoing in Xinjiang. Opposition to this idea comes from the foreign office, articulated by Minister Nigel Adams when he told MPs there would be “asset flight” if the government went on to sanction Chinese officials for their role in the detention of Uyghur Muslims.

Amid this flux, there is think tank pressure in the U.K. to tilt foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific, again begging the question of where Taiwan might fit into such a pivot. A preview of the U.K.’s integrated review of foreign, defense, security and development policy, due to be finalized in early 2021, is not encouraging on this front as it fails to mention Taiwan entirely.

CRG chair Tom Tugendhat has expressed interest in exploring closer U.K.-Taiwan relations in interviews, but there is little jeopardy in backbench MPs acting as the voice of the U.K.’s conscience without the government following through on their recommendations.

As the U.K. assumes the chairmanship of the G-7 in 2021, and Boris Johnson heads to India to discuss the D10 in January, the willingness (or lack thereof) to embrace Taiwan is a bellwether of how serious liberal democracies are about countering CCP threats to their ideals.

David Green is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @DavidPeterGreen.