In March 2021, His Majesty’s (HM) Government announced its grand ambition to be the European power with the most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific. ‘Tilting’ towards the region, it argued, was critical to Britain’s economic prosperity and security due to the vast opportunities and grave challenges there. The latter included intensifying geopolitical competition over multiple ‘potential flashpoints’, such as ‘unresolved territorial disputes’. Yet no specific hotspot was named.
It would not be unreasonable to suspect those drafting the review of having Taiwan in mind when typing those words. Since 2016 and the election of Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party as Taiwan’s President, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has stepped up its campaign of coercion against the country. As well as using diplomatic and economic tools to squeeze the Taiwanese government and people, Beijing has stepped up military manoeuvres around the island.
These efforts have intensified over the past two years in particular. Most notably following the visit of Nancy Pelosi, then United States (US) House Speaker, to Taipei last summer, which saw Beijing conduct a series of live-fire military drills in the waters surrounding Taiwan in response (the likes of which have not been seen since the 1990s). More consequential still, the PRC seized this moment to permanently alter the status quo. Since August 2022, Chinese military aircraft have repeatedly flown across the once-respected median line, which has provided an unofficial buffer between both countries for decades.
With relations across the Taiwan Strait the most unstable in decades, it is little wonder that some in London have called for Taiwan to be included in the ‘refresh’ of the Integrated Review. The Foreign Affairs Committee labelled Taiwan’s original omission as ‘surprising’ in its recent report preempting the ‘refresh’. Alicia Kearns, the group’s Chair, has called for an explicit mention.
And these calls have been answered. The ‘refreshed’ Integrated Review reasserts the UK’s longstanding position that cross-Strait differences must be resolved peacefully, not unilaterally. Moreover, it cites as a source of concern the PRC’s more aggressive stance in the Taiwan Strait and its refusal to renounce the use of force to achieve its goal of ‘unification’.
While these words are not groundbreaking, it is notable that the Taiwan Strait receives particular attention within the document, alongside Iran and the Korean peninsula, as an area where Britain will contribute to ‘supporting stability’.
This mention is symbolic of a wider shift. In recent years, HM Government and successive prime ministers have undertaken actions demonstrating Britain’s growing interest in preserving peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
A few years ago, British prime ministers and foreign secretaries did not raise Taiwan in public. Now they do, and perhaps more importantly, the Whitehall machinery appears to be taking Taiwan’s future seriously.
In early 2022, it was reported that for the first time, UK and US officials had engaged in top-level talks to discuss how both countries could cooperate more closely to prevent a conflict over Taiwan and plan for contingencies.
London has already given some thought to the effects of worst-case scenarios. Last year, the Office for Budget Responsibility explored the effect of rising trade barriers which may occur in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. They concluded that such an event would increase borrowing by £20 billion in one year, and within four years, 2% would be wiped off Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth. After a decade they predicted this would rise to 5.2% of GDP and result in a £57 billion hole in public finances.
Meanwhile, government officials have also been considering economic and trade sanctions against the PRC in such a scenario. With an eye to Ukraine, one government source told the Guardian: ‘you would have to think in a different way than just matching what you did somewhere else’, adding, ‘it’s no secret that the supply chain problems would be greater, but just because it’s complicated that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.’
The UK has also been more vocal in signalling its displeasure with Beijing’s increasingly destabilising actions across the Strait. This has been done in concert with fellow liberal democracies, for example, through G7 statements. Yet Britain has taken the initiative too. James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, has underlined face-to-face with his Chinese counterpart the importance the UK places on peace in the Taiwan Strait, first with Wang Yi when he was Foreign Minister of the PRC in late-2022 and then with Qin Gang, Yi’s successor, last month.
Regarding actions aimed at deterring Beijing, Britain has followed the Americans and other European nations by sending a warship through the Taiwan Strait, HMS Richmond, for the first time since 2008. Meanwhile, during her time in Number 10, Liz Truss repeated her call, previously made when she was Britain’s Foreign Secretary, for the UK and its allies ‘to make sure Taiwan is able to defend itself’. Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, despite not taking the same hardline approach to the PRC as his predecessor, refused to rule out sending arms to Taiwan during last year’s G20 summit, telling reporters: ‘We stand ready to support Taiwan’.
A few years ago, British prime ministers and foreign secretaries did not raise Taiwan in public. Now they do, and perhaps more importantly, the Whitehall machinery appears to be taking Taiwan’s future seriously. The inclusion of Taiwan in the ‘refreshed’ Integrated Review, and the identification of the Strait as an area where Britain can contribute to promoting stability, reflect this shift and will likely help sustain it. The review’s upgrading of the PRC to an ‘epoch-defining and systemic challenge’ is also conducive to Britain’s role in opposing unilateral changes to the cross-Strait status quo. As too is its commitment to align its Indo-Pacific strategy with Britain’s close allies and partners, notably the US, Japan and Australia. All of this points to HM Government continuing its increasingly proactive position towards Taiwan, potentially even enhancing it.
Gray Sergeant is the Robert Swinhoe Associate Fellow in Chinese Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also currently completing an MPhil/PhD in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics (LSE).
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