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Preparing Britain for rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait

Taiwan is, in some core respects, the embodiment of what the Integrated Review indicated as the values Britain stands for in the international order. It is an open society, a thriving economy, and a strategically located actor in the Indo-Pacific. Its fate matters to the United Kingdom’s (UK) closest partners in the region, notably Japan, as Tokyo’s 2022 Defence White Paper clearly stated, and the United States (US).

What steps, therefore, should Liz Truss, the new British Prime Minister, take to contribute to avoid war over the Taiwan Strait? There are four policy actions that Truss should consider to better prepare the UK for the role it could play in a future conflict, whilst also seeking to actively deter any potential crisis from escalating further.

The first and most obvious step is to continue to actively support Taiwan’s involvement in, and contribution to, international organisations. The more Taiwan remains an integral part of the fabric of the international order, the higher the visibility of stability across the Strait as an international issue. In this respect, different departments of government should consider Taiwan’s participation in the work of organisations like Interpol, the World Health Organisation and the International Civilian Aviation Organisation as particularly meaningful to advance the tackling of international criminal activities, public health, and air traffic and transport.

Further, members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership should consider closer engagement with Taipei as Taiwan seeks to align its trade standards to those championed in the agreement.

A corollary to this first step is the importance of listening to Taiwanese counterparts about their agenda and ambitions. This should better finetune and evolve Britain’s engagement with Taipei and response to a future escalation in tensions across the Strait. Listening and supporting Taiwan are the two faces of the same policy coin.

Second, as the threat of military force remains a real prospect in cross-Strait dynamics, the UK should nurture a more robust multilateral debate on its international impact. In particular, assertive Chinese behaviour should be denounced and policies adjusted to prevent new levels of more assertive military signalling from normalising.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s new strategic concept and the European Union’s Indo-Pacific strategy represent important frameworks to foster dialogue – ideally through dedicated working groups – within the Euro-Atlantic area over the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including on flashpoints such as Taiwan. Similar actions should be pursued within the Group of Seven, which includes other actors with direct interests in the stability of the Indo-Pacific. With Russia set to deepen its strategic dependence on the PRC, it is desirable to regard the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific as interrelated regions of geopolitical competition in forming solutions.

Third, Britain should review its defence interactions with Taiwan, much as it has done in the realm of trade. The UK has consistently expanded its economic ties with Taiwan over the past few years, with British exports to the island increasing by 86% during the period from 2016 to 2019.

However,  the UK maintains no significant defence ties based on the position that British policy favours a peaceful resolution between the PRC and Taiwan. This is a narrow understanding of the value of defence links, and one that is becoming increasingly difficult to justify in the face of growing Chinese military pressure that leaves Taiwan exposed and a peaceful resolution harder to  achieve.

As such, His Majesty’s (HM) Government 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. Similarly, possibilities for capacity building aimed at supporting stability across the Strait should be considered given the lessons learnt from assisting Ukraine’s Armed Forces, particularly through Operation ORBITAL.

Fourth, and of no less significance, HM Government should explore ways to enhance its understanding of what responses to differing levels of conflict over Taiwan from its closest partners in the region – notably the US, Japan, and Australia – would entail. Tabletop exercises bringing stakeholders from the different countries together to explore potential scenarios would represent a relevant first step in that direction.

Assertive Chinese behaviour should be denounced and policies adjusted to prevent new levels of more assertive military signalling from normalising.

Indeed, taken altogether, these policy recommendations should enhance the ability of UK policy-makers to better understand what a British contribution to managing a crisis across the Strait would require.

In a context in which military escalation across the Strait remains likely, the recent experience of providing support to Ukraine offers relevant insights. At the most fundamental level, it demonstrates how crucial it is to be prepared to act decisively when a crisis demands it.

Grasping what capabilities are available for pursuing a line of action, and what options are available to be taken together with relevant partners, as well as the capabilities available for actioning these, are vital preliminary steps. The four policy actions suggested above should ensure that HM Government knows what it can do if the geostrategic environment demands it.

Alessio Patalano is the Hebert Richmond Associate Fellow in Maritime Strategy at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Professor of War and Strategy in East Asia in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. He previously wrote an article for Britain’s World laying out the current geostrategic context of the Taiwan Strait.

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