Whisky or Weapons? Britain’s Changing Tone on Taiwan

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Whisky or Weapons? Britain’s Changing Tone on Taiwan

Taiwan has quickly come to occupy a different role in British foreign policy amid growing perceptions of the “China threat.” 

Whisky or Weapons? Britain’s Changing Tone on Taiwan

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (standing at podium) meets with a delegation led by U.K. Trade Envoy to Taiwan, Lord Faulkner of Worcester (to the left of Tsai), in Taipei, Taiwan, Sep. 25, 2023.

Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan) / Wang Yu Ching

March 25 was a frantic day in Westminster, following startling revelations of a Chinese hack into British democratic institutions. The same day, Scottish National Party MP Stewart McDonald secured an intriguing parliamentary debate on the United Kingdom’s approach to Taiwan. 

Crucially, the language of the debate and in particular the framing of Taiwan employed by Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific Anne-Marie Trevelyan underscored a change in the British approach to Taiwan that has run parallel to growing British concerns about China’s international conduct. 

This increasingly nuanced approach to Taiwan in British foreign policy becomes clear in comparing Trevelyan’s statement to similar ministerial statements made in analogous House of Commons debates in 2017 and 2022. Indeed, where Taiwan was once seen merely as an economic opportunity, and a crucial market for Scottish whisky, it is now increasingly framed as a crucial security issue with its defense vital to Britain’s economic security. This marks a substantive shift in British foreign policy. 

Fundamentally, however, Taiwan’s position in British foreign policy conceptions remains inherently indiscernible at the official level, as highlighted by the failure of Deputy Prime Minister Olivier Dowden to mention Taiwan in his March 25 parliamentary statement on the Chinese hack – despite referencing Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea as evidence of China’s growing “hostile activity.” This discrepancy is all the more potent given that it is Taiwan that has faced the most sustained form of Chinese online espionage of the kind uncovered by British security services.

Moreover, a marked reluctance to escalate Britain’s official position on Taiwan is noticeable through the fact that Taiwan was not mentioned at all in the original 2021 “Integrated Review” of British foreign policy and was only tentatively referenced as the “Taiwan issue” in the 2023 “refreshed” British foreign policy white paper. 

Yet, in contrasting Trevelyan’s language on Taiwan in March 2024 with her predecessor Mark Field’s framing of Taiwan-U.K. relations in a 2017 parliamentary debate, and former Foreign Office Minister Amanda Milling’s references to Taiwan in a 2022 debate, it becomes clear that British perceptions of Taiwan are shifting. Taiwan is becoming an increasingly salient story in ministerial narratives of Britain’s growing role in the Indo-Pacific and the challenge posed by China.

Strong But Unofficial Ties 

First, Trevelyan set out the parameters of Britain’s official engagement with Taiwan. Her statement described  the “strong unofficial” links between London and Taipei, echoing Field’s 2017 reference to “strong, albeit unofficial, relations” and Milling’s 2022 framing of “unofficial but undoubtedly important” Taiwan-U.K. relations.

However, where her predecessors limited the collaborative opportunities in Taiwan-U.K. relations to the realm of aviation safety, climate change, and organized crime, focused on British-Taiwanese common “economic, scientific and educational interests,” Trevelyan noted another “shared interest” in the relationship, namely the maintenance of “security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.” 

Such a framing echoes the language of the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the U.K., and the United States, seemingly elevating Taiwan’s position in Britain’s approach to the region and its agency in facing and addressing the region’s growing insecurity. In essence, this statement serves to broaden Taiwan’s importance in London’s regional approach. 

Moreover, in 2017, Field chastised MPs who referred to former Taiwanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Lin Yung-lo, then serving in London, as an ambassador during the debate. Field emphasized that “the gentlemen concerned, who is in the Public Gallery, is the unofficial representative to this country, not an ambassador.” Furthermore, upon being invited to visit Taiwan by a fellow MP, Field joked that he “could argue that I have already been to the country to which he refers – we recognize the People’s Republic of China.” 

Such insouciance was noticeably absent in the 2022 debate. Milling did not take umbrage with the MPs who referred to Taiwan’s ambassador, and prefaced her statement by “addressing up front the increased tensions” initiated by Chinese sorties in close proximity to Taiwan, striking a more melancholy tone. 

Likewise, Trevelyan’s direct critique of China’s refusal to “renounce the use of force” and threats to undermine “peace and stability in the strait” underscore the distance traveled in British ministers’ approaches to Taiwan. Indeed, in analyzing ministerial discourse, it is possible to see how Taiwan has shifted, from a jovial language-game in 2017, to an area of concern in 2022, and finally to an island under threat in 2024. 

Scottish Whisky

The role of international trade, both between Taiwan and the U.K. and as a feature of cross-strait relations more generally, is crucial to understanding the shift in approaches to Taiwan. In 2017, Taiwan’s salience in the eyes of Field stemmed principally from the opportunities it provided for “trade and investment.” Indeed, all three ministers made reference to the export opportunities Taiwan provides for Scotch whisky in their statements celebrating the trade opportunities provided by stronger British-Taiwanese relations. However, there is a qualitative difference in the manner in which trading opportunities were discussed.  

Speaking during the “Golden Era”  of Sino-British relations, Field highlighted the “thickened” economic ties between Taiwan and China, recognizing that despite the lack of official contact between Beijing and Tsai Ing-wen’s government, elected in 2016, the potency of economic “interaction” between Taiwanese and Chinese peoples exercised a clear pacifying influence on cross-strait relations. 

Such an assumption betrayed a distinct lack of detail in the then-British government’s understanding of Taiwan, given the clear popular refutation of former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s economic enmeshment with China outlined in the Sunflower Movement that had taken place three years prior. This was reinforced by Tsai’s determined policy of counterbalancing cross-strait economic engagement with investment in South and Southeast Asia. 

Whereas Field’s focus on trade appeared to be London’s only priority in Taiwan-U.K. relations in 2017, trade was merely “another priority” for Milling in 2022. She celebrated the 86 percent rise in British exports to Taiwan between 2016 and 2020 and Taiwan’s proficiency in tackling the COVID-19 crisis. Vitally, where semiconductors were not mentioned once in 2017, Milling did raise Taiwan’s expertise in semiconductors and their crucial role in driving the U.K.’s “digital economy.” 

Indeed in recognizing Taiwan’s “critical role in the technology supply chains that underpin global markets,” Milling subtly referenced the damaging impact Chinese aggression could have globally. Still, she framed Taiwan’s expertise primarily as an opportunity for British-Taiwanese collaboration, celebrating an MOU signed between British and Taiwanese research centers on semiconductors. 

Crucially, in March of this year, Trevelyan also referenced the importance of trade and the role semiconductors play in the “global digital economy.” Yet she went further in securitizing the role of trade. Trevelyan stated that a Chinese blockade or invasion of Taiwan “could destroy world trade by up to 10 percent of the global economy,” directly tying Taiwan’s trade opportunities to security. As such Trevelyan reasserted that any “unilateral attempt to alter the status quo” in the Taiwan Strait would have ruinous global “economic repercussions.” 

Moreover, concluding the debate, Trevelyan stressed that while the U.K. would operate “within the bounds of our unofficial relationship,” the British government would also “continue to work closely with our international partners to advocate for peace and stability and to discourage any activity that undermines the status quo.” This pointed framing of Taiwan – as a natural partner for the U.K. with shared values and norms and as an irreplaceable player in global trade facing a clear and real Chinese threat – is a clear development in understandings of Taiwan as depicted in ministerial discourse in the House of Commons. 

A Loss of Innocence

In the years since David Cameron and Xi Jinping shared a pint in a Buckinghamshire pub, the Golden Age of Sino-British relations has lost much of its sheen. Beijing’s complete clampdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong served as a loss of innocence for British perceptions of China. Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and along the Sino-Indian border, as well as its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, have all drawn parliamentary consternation. Accusations of espionage by parliamentary staff, concern about Chinese infrastructure bids in Britain, and the hack into the Electoral Commission have led to calls for the government to designate China as a “threat.” Vitally, Britain’s foremost ally, the United States, has embarked upon a distinctly adversarial approach to China, first under President Donald Trump and now under President Joe Biden. 

Yet against such a backdrop, references to expanding British engagement with Taiwan have been scarce, despite China’s increasingly bellicose approach to cross-strait issues since the election of Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. Taiwan is one of China’s “core interests,” a red-line issue that it deems central to its sovereignty. Yet, the U.K.’s AUKUS partners, the U.S. and Australia, make increasingly less ambiguous statements on protecting Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. As a result, London’s reluctance to be drawn on Taiwan appears increasingly futile. 

By studying ministerial statements, the shifts in Taiwan’s position in British foreign policy are clear. The amiable references to Taiwan and cross-strait relations by Field in 2017 underscore the naiveté of the Golden Era approach to China, in which Sino-Taiwanese animosity was viewed as a Cold War relic destined to fade amid growing economic exchange. 

In 2022, following the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, a cautious and concerned tone dominates the debate, with Milling recognizing the tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Finally, in 2024 Trevelyan’s securitization of Taiwan as a vital cog in Britain’s economy and expansion of Taiwan’s regional role in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific serves to underscore the distinct development of Taiwan in British foreign policy thinking. 

In seven years, Taiwan has gone from an economic opportunity to a vital security issue.