China’s abuses offer opportunity for Taiwan to play a greater role in UK foreign policy

Written by David Green.

Image credit: David Cameron welcomes The President of The People’s Republic of China to Downing Street by Number 10/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The UK is in dire need of a coherent China policy, and that policy should provide for deeper ties with Taiwan. The last white paper on how Britain treats with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was drafted in 2009, just after the Beijing Olympics’ conclusion. Back then, a misguided belief that constructive engagement would soften China’s authoritarianism still held sway. Furthermore, Hu Jintao’s Scientific Outlook on Development was in full swing, and the Chinese stimulus was driving a global economic recovery in the wake of the financial crisis.

Xi Jinping has taken China down the darkest of paths in the interim, facilitated by a tragic complacency among Western leaders. In 2015, prime minister David Cameron’s decision to pose for photos while sharing a pint with his Chinese counterpart in Buckinghamshire typified a willingness to turn a blind eye to China’s abuses. After all, Document No. 9, a CCP treatise setting out a worldview vehemently at odds with Western values, had already spawned a ruthless crackdown on human rights defenders.

However, rather than confront Xi’s contempt for Western values, the Cameron government pursued a “golden era” of bilateral relations. This was gilded by the UK agreeing to become a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which opened the door for the City of London to cement its position as the primary offshore hub for renminbi finance. The fact that Mr Cameron now presides over a fund designed to spur investment in China’s Belt and Road Initiative illustrates the ease with which elites were captured by the lure of the world’s second-largest economy.

The UK-China relationship did not deepen without economic benefits. UK exports to China almost doubled in the subsequent four years, reaching GBP30.7bn in 2019 as part of bilateral trade now worth about GBP80bn. The number of Chinese students studying at UK universities surged to more than 115,000 (at least pre-pandemic), more than from the entire European Union. Those students contribute fees worth GBP1.7bn a year, according to the National Institute of Scientific and Social Research (NIESR). Nevertheless, even here, there is cause for caution. “There are 13 higher education institutions where more than 10% of the students are Chinese and which would therefore be particularly vulnerable to any loss of Chinese students,” the NIESR said.

The number of UK firms acquired by Chinese companies also rose sharply, prompting Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, to review the foreign investment regime. Consequently, a National Security and Investment Bill will give the government power to review investments in sensitive areas of the economy, including artificial intelligence and cryptographic assets, on national security grounds. The aim is to protect critical national infrastructure and stem the leakage of technologies. These are leaks that could help China further its goal of becoming what German Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Didi Kirsten Tatlow has described as “the world’s first technology-enabled totalitarian superpower.”

The UK’s response to this looming threat has been confused and anaemic. Responding to overwhelming evidence of industrial-scale torture, sterilisations, forced labour and arbitrary detentions in Xinjiang, foreign secretary Dominic Raab reneged on a promise to the press that the UK would enact Magnitsky sanctions on the CCP officials involved. Instead, Mr Raab announced revisions to the Modern Slavery Act to prevent British companies from profiting from forced labour; a purely mercantile countermeasure to such egregious crimes. Current prime minister, Boris Johnson, later warned of the dangers of “unthinking Sinophobia”, telling select committee leaders that a balance must be struck, presumably between moral rectitude and commercial interest.  

Nowhere are those commercial interests more deeply intertwined than in Hong Kong, where the draconian National Security Law is being used to irrevocably undermine the city’s autonomy, persecute its human rights defenders, and force democracy advocates into exile. Last week, one of those, Ted Hui had his bank accounts frozen by HSBC, a British bank that counts on Asia for 90% of its income. HSBC now faces huge pressure to split its Asia and UK operations, caught between the legal obligation to persecute customers on behalf of the CCP and a UK parliament that will not tolerate such behaviour.

Charles Parton, a former diplomatic envoy who spent more than two decades in China, offers guidance for striking the balance Mr Johnson seeks. The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies senior associate fellow has defined the British dispute with China, and the CCP’s dispute with us, as a values war. “That means agreeing to disagree in certain areas while maximising cooperation in areas where interests overlap. It is implicit in the European Union (EU)’s designation of China as a cooperation partner, economic competitor, and systemic rival.”

As Mr Parton suggests, the UK must clearly define its core interests and inviolate red lines, including the consequences if they are crossed. In so doing, they open a path for the commercial relationship with China to flourish. There is more than enough space in this matrix for Taiwan to play an increased role. Indeed, it must do so for the UK to effectively counter the threats CCP interference poses to its strategic interests.

Speaking to a China Research Group webinar, Dr Mareike Ohlberg, co-author of The Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World, said: “Full recognition is not an option, but the most important step is to incorporate Taiwan into all sub-recognition activities, including involvement with international organisations.” Ohlberg also noted that the world would have been in a much better place to comprehend and counter the Covid-19 pandemic, were Taiwan to have retained its presence at the World Health Organization (WHO).

Actions could include lobbying for Taiwan to regain its WHO observer status and take up similar roles in Mr Johnson’s D10 group of democracies, or Joe Biden’s “Summit of Democracies” idea. Johnson is reported to see the EU’s signing of a Comprehensive Agreement on Investments with China as an opportunity to align more closely with Joe Biden on foreign policy issues, suggesting further scope for joined-up, Trans-Atlantic thinking on Taiwan.

Indeed, growing awareness of the multipronged threat the Party poses to the core interests of liberal democracies is an opportunity for Taiwan to expand its international role. Taiwan is widely recognised as the frontline of the CCP’s United Front influence operations, which extend across media, particularly social media and messaging services, as well as business and elite capture, and espionage activities. The UK and its allies have much they could learn from Taiwan as they wake up to the reality of covert, coercive or corrupting CCP operations in their backyard. A review of the use of WeChat to direct such efforts in the UK is long overdue.

Adopting a tougher line with the CCP will likely enjoy broad-based popular support. An October 2020 survey of European public opinion of China showed attitudes in France, Germany and the UK were “decisively negative”. The British report demonstrated the most pronounced worsening of views in the last three years; more than two-thirds of respondents’ opinion of China dimmed while only about 6% said their views improved.

France, Germany and the Netherlands have all recently announced Indo-Pacific strategies that involve pivoting defence and diplomatic assets to the region. The European strategies do not address Taiwan directly, but it can be hoped this is a deliberate oversight designed to avoid an unnecessary backlash from Beijing. The strength of the Dutch and German trade offices in Taipei suggest there is awareness in The Hague and Berlin that deeper relations with Taiwan can be pursued around the edges of the ink. 

The UK is poised to announce its own Indo-Pacific shift as part of a forthcoming Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Foreign Policy and Development. Speaking in parliament last week, Richard Graham, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on China, said that this integrated review should be the vehicle that defines the UK’s China strategy.

Meanwhile, it is incumbent on the Taiwan side to speak up and make resources available for knowledge exchanges. Nor should these be divorced from realpolitik. For example, the UK has trade interests, such as access for British lamb exports and British companies’ involvement in Taiwan’s offshore wind power expansion, which could be advanced in return for more wholehearted support for Taiwan’s multilateral participation forums.

The accretion of anti-CCP sentiment among Western governments and their peoples is a chance for Taiwan to expand its international role. A year into her second term, Tsai Ing-wen has yet to articulate a grander vision for Taiwan’s foreign policy. Perhaps there is an opportunity to shift Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy a little further to the West.

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

One comment

  1. Is “the accretion of anti-CCP sentiment among Western governments and their peoples” “a chance for Taiwan to expand its international role”? If it is indeed, in what ways could Taiwan use that chance? Would “access for British lamb exports and British companies’ involvement in Taiwan’s offshore wind power expansion” and similar trade benefits outweigh any trade restrictions a disgruntled China might impose on the UK because of the UK’s “more wholehearted support for Taiwan’s multilateral participation forums”? What else could Taiwan do to harness “anti-CCP sentiment among Western governments”?

    Where would a shift of “Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy a little further to the West” land the Taiwanese? I look at the map and I can see only the huge landmass of China a little west of Taiwan. Taiwan would have to look much further west but it does not look to Europe and to the UK because the Taiwanese know that the countries over there have no strategic interest in Taiwan. Only the US has such interest and that’s the reason why the Taiwanese are focused on the US.

    Indeed, “The UK” and, even more so, the EU “is in dire need of a coherent China policy, and that policy should provide for deeper ties with Taiwan”. But I cannot see how deeper ties with Taiwan would bring them benefits that outweigh incurred trouble.

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