What does the change in UK-China human rights relations mean for Taiwan?

Written by Ross Tandy.

Image credit: UK-China Summit by Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

When it comes to dealing with China, certain issues are sensitive and have to be dealt with as such. Human rights and Taiwan are two issues that certainly fit these criteria. Following the events of 4 June 1989, the West was united in condemning the acts of China. This was accompanied by economic sanctions and arms embargoes, which demonstrated the leverage that the West had over China at the time. However, if we fast forward to the present day, we see that the willingness of the UK to confront China on human rights concerns has significantly weakened. If a contentious issue like human rights has fallen off the radar, this raises serious questions about any involvement from the UK in Taiwan.

UK-China Human Rights

The starkest evidence that human rights is no longer a foreign policy priority for the UK when dealing with China can be seen during meetings between the leaders. In 1991, while the wounds were still relatively fresh from Tiananmen, Prime Minister John Major made a visit to Beijing. Despite the fact that the primary purpose of the visit was to sign off on a new airport in Hong Kong, discussing human rights was a clear priority. Foreign Office documents show draft speeches and outline key points for discussion with Li Peng, with human rights and Hong Kong rights being of particular importance (these documents can be found in the National Archives). However, when Theresa May visited China in 2018, the nature of their talks was very much different. Speeches made indicate that the visit was solely interested in improving trade relations and harnessing the “Golden Era” of UK-China relations that David Cameron had boasted about. However, in the John Major years, there was not so much a choice between human rights and trade – both were advocated – so what has changed?

The primary change has been in the global dynamic. In the early 1990s trade relations between the UK and China were not particularly important. The UK economy was larger than the Chinese economy in terms of GDP up until 2005. Over the past 30 years the Chinese economy has experienced huge levels of growth and expanded trade links with a number of countries, particularly since accession to the WTO in 2001. Another change has of course involved Hong Kong, which was handed back to China in 1997, diminishing the role of the UK in the region. The role of China in the global economy became even more significant following the financial crash of 2008, where China fared significantly better than other leading economies. The UK maintains a large balance of trade deficit with China, and it has become increasingly reliant on Chinese goods. Clearly over this period there has been a shift in leverage between the UK and China which has affected the UK’s willingness and ability to raise contentious issues such as human rights.

While a change in policy like this is likely to occur subconsciously, as economic policies are often the priority, in the UK there has been a conscious choice to de-prioritise human rights. Since David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010 there has been a purposeful decision to reduce focus on human rights, as the UK has become increasingly aware of its decreased ability to bring about desired change. Shortly after President Xi’s visit to London, FCO Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Simon MacDonald stated in a hearing that human rights was “not one our top priorities”. It would seem too much of a coincidence that moves like this came at such a time, when Cameron was pushing the idea of a “Golden Age” of UK-China relations, when the focus was on economic ties. This kind of move seems even more applicable now in light of Brexit, when there is great uncertainty and concern surrounding the future of UK trade, and a need to appease key players like China in order to secure key trade deals.

Implications for Taiwan

So, what does this all mean for the Taiwan issue? Firstly, we must recognise the significance of the fact that it is primarily economic arguments that have led to a deprioritisation of human rights. It seems likely that economic policies will drive decisions about the future, particularly following Brexit. There are some clear opportunities for economic relations with Taiwan, such as trade in renewable energy technology, and this could make it beneficial for the UK to help advance the Taiwan issue. More than just trade, there are calls for UK support in maintaining stability in the South China Sea, for which Taiwan could prove a key ally. However, we should not forget how siginifcant trade with China has proven to be, and how it can react when challenged on issues it considers important. China suspended trade relations with Norway for six years after the Nobel peace prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, and it is factors like this that will continue to be of concern to the UK government when promoting contentious issues in the region. As UK leverage with China has become less it has become less interested challenging China’s position on sensitive issues, of which Taiwan is certainly one.

Secondly, there is the question of how concerned the UK population is with the Taiwan issue. Human rights are a universal concept, and they are an area of importance to the UK population. Some issues, such as Tibet, have concerned the people of the UK for a long time. Others, such as re-education camps in Xinjiang, have gained extensive media attention in recent years. However, the issue of Taiwan-China relations can be seen as more regional, and so it is easier to fall off the radar of the UK population. This is not to say that there are not people who care, and there have been petitions to recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state, but it is comparatively less of an issue. Taiwan does represent closer links to British values, as seen in recent moves such as the legalisation same-sex marriage. If the British people can draw the parallels between advancing the Taiwan issue and values such as human rights, then it is possible that more pressure will be put on the government. However, the way that it has reacted to human rights pressure in relation to China of late does not show a promising image.

Ultimately, there is hope, but it seems unlikely that the UK will alter its position on Taiwan. As Brexit looms, fostering strong trade relations with leading economies is the foreign policy priority of the UK, and moral and ethical concerns are unlikely to make a large part of UK-China relations any time soon.

Ross Tandy is a 4th year student on the MSc International Relations and Global Issues programme at the University of Nottingham.

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