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After Ukraine, Britain should help defend Taiwan

‘We are determined to work with our allies to make sure that Taiwan is able to defend itself’, declared Liz Truss, the British Prime Minister, in a Cable News Network interview on 25th September. ‘The fact is the free world did not do enough to counter Russian aggression early enough. And Putin was emboldened to start this appalling war. And we can not see that situation happen in other parts of the world.’

Truss was not quite answering the question put to her (whether Britain would intervene to defend Taiwan) and it was not quite the ‘strategic unambiguity’ that Joe Biden, the President of the United States (US), has now brought to the table, but it was consistent with her previous warnings that deterrents are needed. In a policy speech in late April, Truss, then foreign minister, stated that ‘We need to pre-empt threats in the Indo-Pacific, working with allies like Japan and Australia to ensure that the Pacific is protected.’

If Truss and His Majesty’s (HM) Government think the United Kingdom (UK) ‘must ensure democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves,’ as she put it in April, the natural response would be to provide the Taiwanese government with the materiel and training they think is necessary for such an endeavour today. But there are problems. 

First, Britain has scant defence ties with Taiwan. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute database, the UK has not sold any arms to Taiwan since 2000. By comparison, the US has sold around US$6.5 billion (£5.9 billion) worth of arms. In early September, Biden announced a new package of arms sale to Taiwan worth US$1.1 billion (£1 billion). 

Further, it is doubtful whether Taipei would want to begin purchasing British weaponry when they are already paying the US for similar munitions – and while Taiwan’s defence budget remains limited. Military aid, though, would likely be welcomed by Taipei due to intensifying geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific and the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) increased military posturing across the Taiwan Strait. But in June, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said replacing the UK’s stockpile of weapons to pre-February levels could take ‘several years’ due to constraints on Britain’s industrial capacity. London is not about to divert arms from Ukraine to Taiwan anytime soon. 

At the same time, London still lacks an institutional policy on Taiwan. HM Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, released in March 2021, spoke of a ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific. But the review did not mention Taiwan once. It did, though, list as one of nine objectives: 

Strengthening defence and security cooperation, including in maritime security, building on our overseas military bases and existing contribution in the Indo-Pacific…and increasing our engagement with regional security groupings.

Defence in a Competitive Age, a separate command paper from the Ministry of Defence, also did not specifically mention Taiwan. Yet, it stated that the ‘rising power of China is by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today.’

Another issue is public opinion. The German Marshall Fund’s latest Transatlantic Trends survey, released on 23rd September, allows for a solid grasp of what the British people think to be had. Respondents from 15 (mostly European) countries were given five options of response if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched an invasion of Taiwan. Most (40%) of British respondents said that the UK should join other countries in imposing sanctions on the PRC. The second highest percentage of people (28%) thought that the HM Government should work only diplomatically to end the conflict. Just 5% want to send arms to Taiwan, and only 3% want the British military to be sent to help defend the island. Some 8% think the UK should take no action at all. However, these numbers suggest that Britons are relatively gung-ho, compared to other Europeans, in wanting to help defend Taiwan. 

Another recent survey, by the Democracy Perceptions Index, found that amongst Europeans, the British were the most in favour of cutting economic ties with the PRC in the event of a military invasion of Taiwan. The PRC was the UK’s largest import partner and sixth-largest export partner for goods last year. The effect of either sanctioning the PRC or intervening in a conflict would be far more costly for the UK’s economy than the impact felt from Britain’s response to Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine. Debates around this issue – whether helping to defend Taiwan is worth the economic costs it will incur – should be influential in forming British policy. 

As such, some positives can be taken. HM Government and the British public appear rather committed to helping Taiwan defend itself, perhaps the second-most after Americans. If HM Government can control the narrative around this issue, and if a hypothetical Taiwan crisis becomes more ingrained in the public imagination, there is likely to be greater political will to assist Taipei, despite the economic risks. 

Economic and diplomatic relations matter too. Here, things between Taiwan and the UK are also improving. Kelly Hsieh, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in London, was ‘specially invited’ by HM Government to sign the condolence book for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The PRC’s ambassador was not. British Members of Parliament (MPs) are also in talks to invite Taiwanese language teachers to the UK as HM Government looks to phase out Beijing-linked Confucius Institutes. Britain-Taiwan bilateral trade has increased from £5.5 billion in 2015 to £8.3 billion between quarter one in 2021 and quarter one in 2022. The UK was the largest European investor in Taiwan in 2020.

For now, it seems that many in Washington think London would not join the US in trying to directly defend Taiwan. ‘US military planners are not counting on Germany or France sending warships, or Britain sending a carrier in the case of a conflict over Taiwan,’ Heino Klinck, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia, was quoted saying earlier this year. But there’s a gaping chasm between doing nothing and direct intervention. Sending arms and military instructors to Taiwan, as has been done in Ukraine, would be one method. Some obvious areas include increasing cooperation on cyber defence and bilateral exercises with the Taiwanese coast guard to stymie so-called ‘grey-zone activities’ by the PRC. Cooperation and training is key, as it has been for Ukraine. The US has secretly maintained a contingent of military trainers in Taiwan for at least a year. 

Britain’s military capabilities are neither too strong to lead the PRC into a preemptive strike on Taiwan, nor too weak to be merely laughed off in Beijing. As such, London could say what others are thinking.

Britain ‘should explore avenues that allow Taiwanese defence officials to partake in educational opportunities in the UK’s defence establishments, whilst also promoting similar opportunities for British defence officials in Taiwan,’ argued Alessio Patalano in a Britain’s World article last month. So, too, should Britain continue military exercises with allies in the Indo-Pacific. A few weeks ago, the Royal Air Force began joint exercises with Australia, Japan, South Korea and other Indo-Pacific nations that will last until December. Continuing freedom of navigation exercises is another component; at the end of September 2021, the UK sent a warship, HMS Richmond, through the Taiwan strait for the first time since 2008. 

Britain should also continue its efforts in strengthening Euro-Atlantic security to free up vital American resources needed in the Indo-Pacific; Taiwan will need some of the military hardware that Washington is now sending to Ukraine in the event of a PLA invasion. This has naturally been happening because of Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine; Truss has pledged to increase defence spending to 3% of GDP by 2030 and welcomed increases in defence spending across Europe. The UK-Ukraine-Poland trilateral should be built upon and greater cooperation with France and Germany, the continent’s two main military powers, will be essential, something made easier by the warm reception Truss received at the recent (and first) ‘European Political Community’ meeting. Truss should also continue to bilaterally engage partners such as Poland and Romania, who have displayed a strong commitment in resisting Russian aggression against Ukraine and coercion against Europe. 

Another possible way for Britain to assist would be for it to help reinforce the US military in the Indo-Pacific. In the event that the PRC invades or blockades Taiwan and the US decides to help defend it, the UK could assist with logistics, if not active fighting. US vessels could refuel at the British Defence Singapore Support Unit, a naval facility in Singapore, for instance. British aircraft carriers could be sent to the Indo-Pacific to assist American troops. London could also attempt to increase its military footprint in the Indo-Pacific, including access to bases in the region. That could be with Japan – with which the UK agreed in principle a Reciprocal Access Agreement in May – or potentially the Philippines – which recently renewed its Visiting Forces Agreement with Washington that allows US troops to be stationed on some of the country’s bases. Manila recently indicated it might allow the US to use bases in the country in the event of a conflict with the PRC. 

Equally important, Britain needs to show, in conjunction with other democracies, that it would not hesitate to respond to an invasion of Taiwan by levying considerable economic sanctions against the PRC. That is a hot topic at the moment. The Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, currently being debated by the US Congress, would, if passed, threaten severe sanctions against the PRC for any aggression against Taiwan. The European Union is under pressure from Taipei to start debating sanctions. British MPs could get to work discussing a similar bill. Even if it is vague, a show of unanimity amongst the Conservative and Labour parties over this issue would send a signal to Beijing that the UK is prepared to risk economic costs in assisting Taiwan. 

If Taiwan wants actual support from the international community, there needs to be more global attention on why Taiwan matters – and why punishing the PRC for an invasion or blockade would be worth the economic calamity that would incur. Britain is a prime position to confidently articulate this narrative.

There is another way Britain could help, too. The UK has carved out something of a niche as one of the most gung-ho proponents of Ukrainian victory. One reason why is that Britain lacks the Cold War baggage, and certainly the direct threat, of the US. Moscow knows London could not enter the Ukraine war unilaterally, which cannot be said of Washington. The UK alone could not defend Taiwan, either. And London does not precipitate the same opprobrium from Beijing that the US does. A visit to Taipei by Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker of the House of Commons, would not elicit the same response as the August visit of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, for instance. As such, relative weakness is a strength. 

Britain’s military capabilities are neither too strong to lead the PRC into a preemptive strike on Taiwan, nor too weak to be merely laughed off in Beijing. As such, London could say what others are thinking. It could ventriloquise the concerns of its allies, not just the US but also that of Japan, South Korea and Australia. If Taiwan wants actual support from the international community, there needs to be more global attention on why Taiwan matters – and why punishing the PRC for an invasion or blockade would be worth the economic calamity that would incur. Britain is a prime position to confidently articulate this narrative.

David Hutt is a journalist and analyst who writes about Europe-Asia relations. He is a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies and a columnist at the Diplomat.

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