How a Discursive Shift Signals the Presence of a New Liberal, Progressive Taiwan in British Foreign Policy Conceptions

Written by Max Dixon.

Image credit: House of Commons Chamber (landscape) by UK Parliament/ Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A debate in the House of Commons on February the 10th saw the emergence of a qualitatively divergent discourse on Taiwan within British politics. The motion, which all parties support, saw Alicia Kearns MP calling for tangible action from the government on UK-Taiwan relations. However, more important than the specific requests made was the nature of the debate and the language used within it to address Taiwan’s relationship to the UK and China. Kearns and Tom Tugendhat MP, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, led a debate that branched beyond insular references to specific trade or healthcare connections between the UK and Taiwan that accounts for most passing references to Taiwan in the Commons. Nor did the debate fall into the geopolitical clichés often voiced in fleeting mentions of Taiwan and its proximity to China in Parliamentary security debates. Indeed, Kearns stressed the crucial importance of meticulous use of language regarding Taiwan to avoid Taiwan becoming a ‘useful pawn in our wider competition or debates.’ Moreover, this sentiment defined the UK-Taiwan Friendship and Co-operation motion, which introduced a unique Parliamentary discourse that recognised Taiwan and its peoples above all else. In the two-hour debate, the foundations of Taiwan and its recognition in the UK were re-built. It ceased to be a security issue and instead became a vibrant, blossoming democratic island nation with whom the UK shares many veins of cultural, trading, and political resemblance.

The debate was not entirely unique; since 2019, there has been a concerted rise in the amount of references made to Taiwan in the Commons, with a frequency not seen since the Such a clear correlation with seismic dates in British foreign policy vis-à-vis Hong Kong, cannot be ignored. Yet, perhaps this connection animated the discourse about Taiwan seen in the debate. Kearns made explicit that a tangible shift in British foreign policy towards Taiwan now is crucial in avoiding another ‘tragedy’ as seen in Hong Kong.

In the presence of the Taiwanese Ambassador, who was addressed as such by Kearns, the language framed a new Taiwan in the British imagination. Allusions to the Cold War language of ideologies that dominated references to Taiwan in the 1960s through to the 1990s were replaced by an outpouring of support, passion and recognition of the shared values that bind Taiwan and the UK.

Taiwan’s blossoming democracy was highlighted frequently. It was described as a ‘beacon’ of liberal democracy, with many references to The Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s report, which placed Taiwan as Asia’s foremost democracy. Recognition of the path to democracy forged by the peoples of Taiwan following the repression of successive post-war governments before the democratisation processes in the 1980s was voiced. This nuance in discussions of Taiwanese democracy added weight to the appeals made by MPs for Britain to defend Taiwan’s democracy in light of diplomatic, physical, and grey-zone pressure from China. The defence of a liberal democracy with free and fair elections, with a buoyant free press and a stable political system, were often emphasised as central to the UK’s and the West’s foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific. However, this debate underscored Taiwan’s illogical position in British foreign policy. Indeed, Taiwan’s ‘vibrant, independent judiciary and legal framework’ and rule of law were frequently celebrated in the debate. This inclusion tellingly chimed with the British government’s 2021 Integrated Review, which promised to refocus British foreign policy towards upholding the rule of law and democracy, yet failed to mention Taiwan. The Integrated Review, which was heralded as an entire recalibration of Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy – and which followed two years of consistent government and parliamentary criticism of China’s approach to Hong Kong – failed to make a single reference to Taiwan. This is despite the emergence of protracted Chinese air-force incursions in October 2020. February’s debate worked to establish the very image of a key potential ally for Britain’s Integrated Review rhetoric in the Indo-Pacific and then highlight the glaring inconsistency of said ally, Taiwan, not being recognised.

Moreover, the debate celebrated the shared values between the UK and Taiwan, not least Taiwan’s recognition of the right of LGBTQ+ couples to wed. At the time of writing, Taiwan is the only Asian nation where same-sex couples can legally wed. Britain must recognise a fellow progressive society when such freedoms and human rights have been frequently curtailed. Unfortunately, these are rare and singular social achievements, and a new British foreign policy that seeks to couple the UK with like-minded nations must recognise their value in places like Taiwan. It was to this end that MPs made repeated references to Taiwan’s tolerance, in highlighting the cultural similarities between the UK and Taiwan, the language that defined Taiwan in a parliamentary discourse on February the 10th sought to dispel the Cold War idea of Taiwan as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’, replacing it with the image of a diverse, vibrant beacon of democracy with a progressive society of 23 million people instead. This is a powerful change.

Such language underscored Taiwan’s position as an international anomaly in British foreign policy, a nation seemingly ideal in its shared principles and governance to be coupled with the UK, but which Britain has not officially recognised since the 1950s. It was in framing this absurdity that the debate achieved so adeptly, underscoring the clear opportunities for collaboration between Taipei and London that are so curtailed by Beijing’s campaign to eviscerate all mention of Taiwan. That the burden of Britain’s current position on Taiwan serves to directly obscure Britain’s aim in championing democracy and the rule of law in its reimagined foreign policy.

Moreover, the trading benefits of developing British-Taiwanese trade were made clear, where a shared commitment to climate action between Taiwan and the UK was frequently alluded to. After the chastening end to the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow last year, where achievements on coal emissions seemed to be extinguished in an instant in no small part due to Chinese manoeuvring, Taiwan’s evident commitment to green energy offers a stark comparison. Moreover, Taiwan’s expertise in producing cutting edge green technology was intrinsic to MP’s arguments for more government support for the burgeoning trade between Taiwan and the UK. As post-Brexit Britain seeks to establish new trade routes, there is a direct comparison between the British government’s objectives for clean energy and the reality of who it seeks to trade with. Across the Cross-Strait, there is a clear comparison, and it is for Britain to decide where it sees the trade of the future leading. The debate on February the 10th made an incredibly powerful argument for progressive, green trade links and again shifted the reality of Taiwan in parliamentary discourse from a military issue to a green, diverse, and progressive economy.

During the debate, the language used to construct a new image of Taiwan in British foreign policy is important in a chamber where foreign policy is constructed through the language deployed. Gaskarth’s 2006 study of the social construction of British foreign policy highlighted the extent to which the language used to shape debates frames the viability of the actions that emerge in addressing certain issues. To this end, the emergence of Taiwanese nation-building campaigns under Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian and their aim to develop a distinct Taiwanese identity have borne fruit in one of Europe’s most foremost democratic chambers. In last week’s debate, Taiwan was recognised as a ‘country’, with an ‘Ambassador’. This de facto recognition of a vibrant, independent nation with many similarities with the UK did not chime with the ‘de jure’ government response outlined by the UK Minister for Asia. Instead, it served to highlight the extent to which the continual omission of Taiwan’s influence is increasingly nonsensical.

Within the realm of discourse, actions become possible or impossible, and as ministers spoke at length about the progress and cultural value of Taiwan, shared with the UK, the persistent threat of Chinese aggression becomes all the more unpalatable. It is no coincidence that MPs such as Kearns and Tugendhat, who have so eloquently outlined the course for a revised British foreign policy, are the ones leading the discourse about Taiwan. Indeed, it was the latter who in August stirringly underscored the damage of withdrawing support from countries under threat from autocracy. On that day, he spoke at length on Afghanistan, yet his words hold a weight on Taiwan’s issue that equally rings true. If Britain has sincere objectives in supporting democracy and progressive societies, it must hold the line in defending them. Thus, through the discursive construction in the House of Commons of a vibrant, progressive, democratic Taiwan, a new frame in British foreign policy emerges that – as it grows – will shape the options of the UK in the Indo-Pacific and to what extent the UK will challenge China’s assertiveness in the international arena.

Max Dixon is a recent graduate of International Relations at The University of Portsmouth, having previously studied at the University of Warwick. He has produced research for MPs and foreign policy think tanks focusing on Chinese foreign policy approaches in Hong Kong, Taiwan and in the South China Sea. His current research interests include UK-Taiwan relations and the impact of state deployment of tear gas on protesters in East Asia.

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