David Spencer is the Chief Executive of the Taiwan Policy Centre.
In her Mansion House speech last month, Liz Truss did something almost unprecedented for a sitting Foreign Secretary: she spoke about Taiwan.
It was a fleeting comment in the context of a broad speech entitled ‘The Return of Geopolitics’, but no less significant for it. “We must ensure that democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves,” she said.
Those of us who have been pushing the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office to do more with Taiwan for many years now will be forgiven for our slack-jawed amazement.
After all, last year, the Government managed to publish an Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy that launched its Indo-Pacific tilt and yet failed to include a single mention of Taiwan. Not one.
Casual observers might wonder why this omission was so notable. After all, Taiwan is easily perceived as a small island, halfway around the world, and of little interest or relevance to the UK.
Nothing could be further than the truth.
Firstly, Taiwan is not a small island. It is approximately the same size as Switzerland and home to more than 23 million people. It has the 21st-largest GDP in the world (again similar to Switzerland), according to the IMF, and shares £4.35 billion in annual bilateral trade with the UK.
Crucially, Taiwan is responsible for the production of around 92 per cent of the global supply of advanced semiconductors. Without these chips, none of our modern technologies and creature comforts would work.
So why does the Foreign Office largely overlook Taiwan?
The answer, quite simply, is the People’s Republic of China which maintains a spurious claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, and requires all its diplomatic allies to not only hold no official ties with the Taiwanese Government but to recognise its so-called ‘One China’ policy.
The One China Policy has been enthusiastically embraced by the Foreign Office.
But British relations with the People’s Republic have soured significantly in recent years, as the Chinese authorities have breached the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, locked more than a million Uyghur Muslims up in concentration camps, and sanctioned numerous British politicians for daring to speak out about it.
Yet, to look at the Foreign Office’s approach to China, you would be forgiven for thinking that Sino-British relations were still in the Cameron-Clegg ‘golden era’, when Xi Jinping was given a state visit and given the rare privilege of addressing a joint session of both Houses of Parliament.
The geopolitical development that has thrust Taiwan back into public view is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Commentators were quick to draw parallels with the threat China poses to Taiwan and question whether an invasion might be imminent.
As the Taiwan Policy Centre’s new report, Ukraine Today, Taiwan Tomorrow?, makes clear, the respective circumstances of Ukraine and Taiwan are very different. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned.
The report considers in detail what steps the UK could take to fulfil Truss’ pledge of enabling Taiwan to defend itself and makes a series of recommendations for the Government.
We suggest that Britain should join with the USA and other democratic allies in helping to ensure that Taiwan has the military hardware, training, and skills it needs to defend itself.
Shinzo Abe, a former Japanese Prime Minister, recently said that the west needed to end its strategic ambiguity when it comes to Taiwan. He is right, and we urge the UK Government to work with allies and make it abundantly clear to the Chinese authorities what the military, political, and economic consequences of an invasion of Taiwan would be.
Only this week, we have seen Joe Biden doing exactly that, stating during a visit to Japan that the US would defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion. So far, there has been nothing nearly so clear cut from Liz Truss and the Government.
Such steps also need to be backed up with diplomatic clarity. It is time to end the self-imposed ban on ministerial visits between the UK and Taiwan. We should welcome Taiwan’s democratically-elected representatives with open arms, and there is much our ministers can learn from Taiwan too.
Let’s not forget that the 2021 Democracy Index not only rated Taiwan as the number one Asian democracy, it also ranked it above the UK.
We should also do much more to help Taiwan participate in the huge number of international organisations that bar them at China’s behest. Taiwan’s 23 million people deserve proper representation at these bodies, and it became abundantly clear during the Covid-19 pandemic that ‘Taiwan can help’ is much more than just a trending hashtag on social media.
It was terrific to see Sajid Javid acknowledge this and directly reference Taiwan’s absence in his speech to the World Health Assembly this week.
It is also encouraging to see the Foreign Secretary begin to say the right things about Taiwan. Truss has instinctively been hawkish in her approach to China up to now. But holding that position once you move into the Foreign Office is not easy, as successive previous holders of the office have found.
Now she needs to follow up her words and her values with concrete actions and stand side by side with our US allies on Taiwan. The recommendations in our report are a very good place to start.