Recognising the ‘Taiwan Issue’: Analysing the Impact of the UK Government’s Integrated Review Refresh

Written by Max Dixon.

Image credit: Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Whitehall SW1 by Robin Sones/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

The British Government’s ‘refreshed’ foreign policy document, released in March 2023, emphasised the increasing parallels drawn between the plight of Ukraine amidst Russian aggression and the threat posed to Taiwan by increasing Chinese assertiveness. The Integrated Review Refresh 2023, the first clear enunciation of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s foreign policy approach, sought to revise the 2021 Integrated Review. The Refresh formally recognises tensions in the Taiwan Strait for the first time in British foreign policy yet addresses Taiwan with a degree of tentativeness that will necessitate greater clarity in the future.

Taiwan’s precarious position vis-à-vis Chinese aggression has become an increasingly salient issue in British foreign policy in recent months, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Alicia Kearns MP, visited Taiwan in November 2022, whilst the major opposition party, Labour, launched the Labour Friends of Taiwan group in March 2023. Where the 2021 review seemingly coalesced with a growing concern about China’s increasingly belligerent approach towards democracy, specifically in Hong Kong during the 2019-2020 protest movement, no clear parallel was drawn to Beijing’s threat Taiwan’s democracy. Yet, the materialisation of this growing Sino-Russian anti-democratic belligerence, exemplified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has prompted a reimagination of British foreign policy in East Asia, with greater clarity afforded to London’s approach towards Taiwan.

Recognising a deterioration of the “international security environment” (p.7) since 2021, the paper equates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with an equivalent threat posed by “Tensions in the Indo-Pacific” (p.7) where any armed confrontation would have “global consequences greater than conflict in Ukraine” (p.7). This thinly veiled reference to Chinese assertiveness towards Taiwan and in the South China Sea tallies with the paper’s over-arching contention that China poses an “epoch-defining” (p.3) challenge to Britain and the global system. However, where the 2021 Integrated Review did not explicitly reference Taiwan, the 2023 Refresh does make a number of specific references to the “Taiwan issue” (p.31), outlining the growing appreciation of Taiwan’s plight within British politics. 

To this end, the 2023 refresh condemns “China’s more aggressive stance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait” (p.2) and Beijing’s refusal to “renounce the use of force to achieve its objectives with regard to Taiwan.” (p.30). Moreover, the paper re-asserts the UK’s position, namely that “the Taiwan issue should be settled peacefully by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait through dialogue, and not through any unilateral attempts to change the status quo.” (p.31), with the UK supporting “stability” (p.43) in the Taiwan-Strait with London encouraging “all parties to work together to ensure the heightened tensions do not lead to escalation.” (p.43).

It is crucial to note that this explicit discussion of Taiwan marks a significant development in the UK’s approach, raising Taiwan’s predicament from the content of backbench campaigns to the heart of British foreign policy. Whilst precautious terminology, specifically the reference to a ‘Taiwan Issue’, denotes that a degree of ambiguity remains, the overt discussion of Taiwan constitutes a clear departure from the once mooted ‘Golden Age’ of Sino-British relations that saw David Cameron and Xi Jinping cosily sharing a beer in an Oxfordshire pub and discussing greater engagement between London and Beijing. The support for the ‘status quo’ (p.31) underscores that the UK has not shifted its ‘One China Policy’ approach, yet the British support for Taiwan-Strait “stability” (p.43) tallies with the UK’s support for a “free and open pacific” (p.3) two aims reinforced by the sailing of a British Naval Warship in the Taiwan Strait in September 2021.

Greater discursive framing of Taiwan as a global security issue in British foreign policy is not an insignificant development, for such framing makes Chinese aggression increasingly unpalatable. The extensive public support for Ukraine evident throughout the United Kingdom and within Europe more broadly translated directly into far-reaching support for the sanctions regimes introduced by the United Kingdom and the European Union despite the direct impact levied on individual citizens through raising energy costs. Such unwavering elite and popular support have placed significant pressure on Moscow, a development that will undoubtedly be noted with concern in Beijing. Thus, recognition of Taiwan as a global security issue within elite-level British foreign policy conceptions enhances British perceptions of Taiwan’s precarious position and distils a degree of reassurance and British support. A proposed equivalence between Taiwan and Ukraine within British foreign policy instil a distinct distaste for Chinese aggression. However, to this end, the Refresh could have gone further in its allusions to Taiwan.

Reference to the “Taiwan issue” (p.31) underscores that the United Kingdom remains wary of Chinese geoeconomics, where trade embargos are frequently deployed to discipline states that Beijing accuses of ‘undermining Chinese sovereignty’. The cautious wording, in which the future of a democratic self-governed Taiwan consisting of 23 million people is described as a mere ‘issue’ emphasises the over-arching restraint that stalks the Refresh’s approach to Taiwan. The paper does not refer to Taiwan’s political system, as Asia’s foremost democracy, to the complexities of Taiwan’s historical position vis-à-vis China nor Taiwan’s specificity as a rules-based, liberal society with a diverse civil society. The absence of such specificities, which have consistently been outlined in British support for Ukraine as a fellow democracy, is a notable distinction. Taiwan’s political system constitutes the opposite of authoritarian China and a specific reference to this disparity would have emboldened perceptions of Taiwan in British foreign policy. Moreover, further discussion on how Taiwan and Ukraine haven’t been governed by the revisionist states that lay claim to them since 1895 and 1991 would have further deepened the comparison between Taipei and Kyiv.

In sum, the United Kingdom recognises that Chinese aggression towards Taiwan is an inherent threat to the global economy and this is reflected in the Refresh’s specific mention of Taiwan, a considerable and commendable development that updates the 2021 Integrated Review. This revision underscores that Taiwan is becoming an increasingly salient geopolitical issue within the domestic politics of a permanent security council member, a not-insignificant development. However, the Refresh simultaneously emphasises that further recognition is required, specifically of Taiwan’s resilient democratic system and liberal, progressive society, all of which can embolden Taiwan’s position amidst Chinese aggression. Such discussion can develop and foster a growing British contention against Chinese aggressiveness, which can disincentivise Beijing from seeking to alter the status quo. Thus, the Refresh provides a timely and important update, yet as a 2024 general election looms, amidst the Ukrainian War and a coming 2024 Presidential Election in Taiwan, it remains likely that a further ‘refresh’ will emerge placing Taiwan at the heart of Britain’s ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific.

Max Dixon is an ESRC-funded PhD student at the University of Portsmouth, researching British-Taiwan relations since the 1996 democratisation of Taiwan as part of the South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership.

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