Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 6 May 2024


It’s high time Britain did more for Taiwan

The Times

The curtain is rising on an annual geopolitical farce. Taiwan is seeking admission to the World Health Organisation’s annual meeting this month in Geneva. On paper, the self-governing democracy of 23 million people is a model member. It has (unlike mainland China) an admirably transparent public health system and co-operates freely on research. It donates generously to medical and other relief efforts worldwide.

But this year, as every year, the bid will founder. Like all western countries, including Britain, the WHO will kowtow to pressure from Beijing. It insists that Taiwan is not a country, but unfinished business from the civil war that ended on the mainland with the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists in 1949. This is no mere geohistorical affectation. Beijing demands absolute compliance with its neurotic rule, with Taiwan labelled as “Province of China” on websites, maps and labels. It is excluded from the UN and its associated bodies. Its Olympic athletes must compete under a “Chinese Taipei” flag. Even here in Britain, the Lord Mayor’s Show, the City of London’s annual street festival, excludes Taiwan to appease the Chinese authorities.

This makes no sense. Xi Jinping’s regime has whipped up nationalist hysteria over its demand for reunification but its claims are flimsy. The People’s Republic has never ruled Taiwan. While the mainland communists starved and massacred their people, and falsified history, Taiwan became free and rich. Taiwanese voters habitually boot out their rulers, sue the government and complain without fear of retribution. While China’s communist (actually ethno-nationalist) regime persecutes minority cultures, Taiwan, since it turned to democracy in the 1990s, is admirably multicultural.

As we finally wake up to the real threat from mainland China, we should rethink our Taiwan policy and stop allowing Beijing to dictate our approach to this important economic, political and security partner. The best way to do this is through symbolic steps that show we do not accept being bullied.

Under Beijing’s “One China” policy, diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic exclude full recognition of Taiwan. But we could beef up our quasi-embassy in Taipei. Our spooks already have an outpost there (underlining Taiwan’s importance as a listening post and partner). We should send a military attaché, as France and the US do.


We should also boost our diplomatic exchanges. Customarily, the only government representatives we send are trade ministers. Other countries, such as the Czech Republic, send more senior figures. We should too. The inauguration of the new president this month is a good chance to signal a new spirit of robust resolve.

And we should make Taiwanese guests more welcome. South Korean and Singaporean visitors can use our e-passport gates; Taiwanese people deserve the same privilege. The outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen is a proud alumna of the London School of Economics. When she steps down this month, we should roll out the red carpet for a visit later this year. David Cameron could meet her, for example. The government should also make clear that it expects the Corporation of London to invite Taiwan to the next Lord Mayor’s Show.

We could also do more to give Taiwan a role in international affairs. Beijing’s veto means UN bodies will be hard to crack, but there are others. We could beef up Taiwan’s participation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based club for rich, well-run countries. It belongs there. Communist China doesn’t. A big looming decision for our government involves the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). This cumbersomely named free trade agreement includes Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Britain agreed to join last year. We should push hard for Taiwan (not China) to be the next member.

At home, we should accept Taiwan’s help in boosting our shrivelled expertise in Chinese language, culture and politics. Disgracefully, we still permit 30 Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes to be based at UK universities. Ostensibly academic projects, in reality they channel Chinese Communist Party snooping, bullying and influence-peddling. We should replace them with Taiwan’s Centres for Mandarin Learning. We have just three of these, and their language teachers struggle to get visas.

But Taiwan should do more too. It dropped the ball when Lithuania bravely ramped up its diplomatic relations in 2021, offering to host a “Taiwan” office in Vilnius (normally these missions have a name like “Taipei Representative Office”). That produced a blizzard of Chinese diplomatic and other sanctions on Lithuania, but not the expected boom in Taiwanese trade and investment. Taiwan’s diplomacy and PR are all too often stodgy and underpowered.


We are tiptoeing forward. A foreign affairs select committee report in August broke a taboo by referring to Taiwan as a “country”. Its chairwoman, the formidable Alicia Kearns, said Britain acknowledged China’s position but did not accept it: a distinction well worth making. A new “enhanced trade partnership” signed last November produced a snarl from Beijing. The hawkish SNP MP Stewart McDonald organised a parliamentary debate on Taiwan in March, prompting further subtle shifts in rhetoric. The Foreign Office tells me we have a “strong unofficial relationship based on deep and growing ties”. High time to grow them faster, and trumpet them.

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