Opportunities abound to ram up UK-Taiwan relations

Written by Huynh Tam Sang and Phan Van Tim.

Image credit: 03.20 總統接見台英國會小組訪問團 by 總統府/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

Growing UK-Taiwan ties

The UK’s ties with Taiwan have greater potential to grow significantly due to London’s evolving strategic tilt in favour of Taipei and the current Sino-British diplomatic impasse. The deteriorating Sino-British relations “could present opportunities for cooperation between the UK and Taiwan, particularly if Taipei can present itself as a viable alternative to Beijing,” put by Marshall Reid, the programme manager at the US-based Global Taiwan Institute.

The backbone of the UK-Taiwan relationship is, in fact, the growth of economic collaboration during the past few years. With import-export trade hitting US$6.64 billion in 2022, a rise of 1.7 per cent over the previous year despite the lingering COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the UK overtook Germany and the Netherlands as Taiwan’s third-largest trading partner in Europe. By the end of 2022, British companies had invested a total of US$11.55 billion in 1,370 projects in Taiwan, making them one of the latter’s major foreign investors. Taiwan has emerged as British investors’ trustworthy partner thanks to its relatively effective strategies in managing the COVID-19 pandemic and various investment incentives, especially in the manufacturing sector.

According to the 2022 survey by the British Office Taipei and the British Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, more than 70 per cent of UK firms with operations in Taiwan are optimistic about the island’s economic prospects over the next three years. Meanwhile, both sides are still engaged in annual trade talks, allowing them to forge stronger bilateral ties. In the words of Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons, Taiwan is “an excellent springboard for British investment in China, as Taiwanese have deep knowledge and experience of the Chinese business environment, being itself a major source of foreign direct investment in China.”

The educational exchange has also distinguished itself as a point of common interest for the UK and Taiwan. The UK’s experience would certainly be helpful to Taiwan in achieving its lofty aim of being a bilingual nation in Mandarin and English by the year 2030. In 2020, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed to strengthen collaboration in English education and learning, reflecting the two partners’ expanding educational cooperation. In addition, the UK and Taiwan have been boosting bilateral educational exchanges, such as funding Mandarin teaching projects in Britain and inspiring British students to enrol in degree programmes or study Mandarin in Taiwan.

Because of the UK’s deteriorating relations with China and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to close all of Beijing’s controversial Confucius Institutes in the country, Taiwan is seen as a viable alternative for British students, scholars, and politicians interested in learning Mandarin. The good news is that both sides are in talks to replace Chinese institutions, which are largely viewed as “propaganda tools” of the Chinese Communist Party, in the UK with Taiwan-affiliated Mandarin programmes. In the forthcoming time, London could profit from Taipei’s attempt to boost its soft power through language teaching and learning programmes in Mandarin.

Other areas of collaboration, like energy transition, particularly offshore wind energy, could help advance UK-Taiwan relations. With more than 36 UK offshore wind businesses investing in Taiwan, Britain is presently the top offshore wind investor on the island. Taiwan’s goal of becoming an Asian powerhouse for renewable energy could be facilitated by the UK’s hands-on experience and its status as the “world leader” in the offshore wind energy sector.

More fresh and viable ideas are required

In general, the development of relations between the UK and Taiwan, particularly during the past three years, has coincided with several statements in London in favour of Taiwan. Nevertheless, those recent remarks do not necessarily signal a major shift in the great power’s official stance on cross-Strait issues. Therefore, to solidify the UK-Taiwan relationship and make its statements and deeds on Taiwan policy consistent, the British government should propose a fresh framework, or at the very least feasible ideas, for meaningful and constructive interaction with the island.

Given the accelerating momentum in bilateral economic cooperation and Taiwan’s semiconductor prowess, the two governments should prioritise signing bilateral investment and trade agreements. The Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) government has long expressed its desire for a trade agreement with the UK, but London has thus far seemed ambivalent toward the suggestion. But a conclusion of a trade agreement between the two sides not only elevates their ties to a new height, but also solidifies the UK’s political endorsement of Taiwan’s accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) if the European power’s application is approved this year.

In its Integrated Review Refresh 2023, the UK reaffirmed its commitments to “supporting stability in the Taiwan Strait, where we oppose any unilateral change in the status quo” and encouraging “all parties to work together to ensure heightened tensions do not lead to escalation.” Accordingly, the UK should work more closely with the US and its Indo-Pacific allies, like Japan and Australia, to develop concrete policies to help Taiwan defend itself against a potential Chinese military invasion from day one. This is in addition to underlining the importance of maintaining stability and security in the Strait while envisioning that a bleak future for Taiwan would be detrimental to the UK’s growing interests in the Indo-Pacific. The most recent statement of AUKUS—a trilateral defence partnership between the US, the UK, and Australia—which detailed the next steps of delivering nuclear-powered submarines to Canberra, is seen as an important sign of the UK’s continued engagement in the Indo-Pacific and enhanced military presence in this strategic theatre. Furthermore, at the AUKUS trilateral press conference on March 13, Sunak stated that the three AUKUS democracies “are coming together again to fulfil that higher purpose of maintaining freedom, peace, and security” across the Atlantic and Pacific.

A better strategy to dissuade Beijing while also demonstrating support for Taiwan would be to send more British warships across the Taiwan Strait on a regular basis. However, the British government did not take any such action after the UK dispatched its warship HMS Richmond across the Taiwan Strait in 2021, ignoring Beijing’s condemnation of the frigate’s passage as a “meaningless display of presence with an insidious intention”. To demonstrate the alliance’s support for freedoms of navigation in the Indo-Pacific area, of which Taiwan is an important part, the UK, the US, Japan, and Australia should cooperate in conducting routine maritime transit through the Strait.

In his 2023 New Year’s Speech, Sunak stated that this year “will give us an opportunity to showcase the very best of Britain on the world stage […] defending freedom and democracy wherever we find it under threat.” If Taiwan were to crumble due to an attack from China, the liberal world would suffer greatly. To avoid that catastrophe and fulfil its promises of defending democracy, the UK has a lot more work to do. Therefore, sending weaponry to Taiwan should be considered as a serious consideration, notwithstanding the lesson learned from the West’s failure to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine. The international community was once urged by former British Prime Minister Liz Truss to apply that lesson to Taiwan because “every piece of equipment we have sent takes months of training, so the sooner we do it, the better.”

Moreover, as enhanced cooperation with ASEAN is one of the primary foreign-policy objectives of both the UK’s “Indo-Pacific Tilt” and Taiwan’s “New Southbound Policy,” London and Taipei have the leverage to do so. It is time the UK, Taiwan, and ASEAN discussed ways to develop trilateral cooperation, such as in terms of technology exchange, maritime-security collaboration, and humanitarian assistance, to forge ties and boost their presence in the region. Opportunities for a trilateral collaboration are quite sensible given ASEAN’s long-term strategy to uphold its prominent role in the Indo-Pacific while engaging like-minded partners to buffer against China’s regional pressure.

By and large, there are ample opportunities for the UK and Taiwan to deepen their relationship, given Taiwan’s geopolitical importance and rising prominence as a robust democracy and resilient economy. Moreover, should London genuinely devote its time and energy to pushing its “Indo-Pacific Tilt”, engaging with Taiwan would benefit London as it helps the great power establish a firm footprint in the area while demonstrating the country as a responsible stakeholder in the region.

Huynh Tam Sang is a Lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations, Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Young Leaders Program member of the Pacific Forum, and a Research Fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation.

Phan Van Tim is a Research Assistant at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, and a Collaborator for “World News Desk” at PLO, a Ho Chi Minh-based online newspaper.

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