Taiwan’s strategic significance to Britain

Tension is rapidly rising between the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan and Taiwan’s friends and allies, among whom the United Kingdom (UK) is numbered. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) media have claimed that ‘war could be triggered at any time.’ The PRC has significant military resources, including cutting-edge strategic capabilities. But given the level of international engagement, the impact on global peace and security of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be devastating, including to the PRC itself. What intentions lie behind such bellicose rhetoric, and what should be the response of governments who support Taiwan’s right to freedom and self-determination? 

On 9th October, shortly after a spate of intimidatory flights by PRC military aircraft, Xi Jinping, Leader of the PRC, announced that ‘re-unification’ of Taiwan with mainland China was inevitable, and that the interests of the ‘Chinese nation’ – including Taiwan – would be best served by achieving this peacefully. Such language clearly does not rule out alternatives, a tacit element of threat typical of CCP discursive rhetoric. 

The next day, Taiwan’s National Day, Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan, forthrightly rebuffed Xi’s uncompromising diktat. Taiwan was determined to defend itself – in context, meaning by force of arms – against being coerced down a ‘path that China had laid out’, which would deny the Taiwanese people their fundamental rights of freedom and democracy. 

President Joe Biden’s support for Taiwan has been apparent from the time of his inauguration, to which a senior Taiwanese representative was invited. His administration has repeatedly expressed support for Taiwan as a fellow democracy, undertaking to help it to defend itself ‘sufficiently’ while carefully avoiding endorsement of Taiwanese independence. In this way a balance has been struck between maintaining the status quo and challenging the CCP directly. The critical United States (US) military support which enables Taiwan to hold PRC ambitions in some form of check, is presented by the American administration as a contribution to peace, security and deterrence.

As tension over Taiwan has increased, the Japanese government signalled that it was increasingly troubled by growing PRC-US tension over Taiwan. Japan has begun to state in terms that it considers its interests to be at risk from the PRC’s aggressive stance. Even the guarded language of the first official reference provoked CCP mouthpieces to issue threats of ‘unbearable consequences if Tokyo supported Taiwanese “secession”’. Nevertheless, more recently there have been indications that Japan might consider working in tandem with the US military to deter PRC hostilities against Taiwan. This shift in Japanese positioning away from hedging in favour of actively supporting the status quo no doubt adds to CCP concern and displeasure. 

Beijing’s public anger is chiefly focused on the US, whose arms sales have enabled Taipei to build up defensive capabilities that would make a PRC invasion much more difficult, bloody and costly. Its other principal challenge is that the great majority of Taiwanese citizens now reject the notion of inevitable integration with the CCP state. 

The CCP’s brutal putsch in Hong Kong has entirely destroyed the credibility of its cherished ‘one-country two systems’ formula, originally intended as a roadmap for the future of Taiwan as well as Hong Kong. Despite losing almost all its erstwhile allies to the lure of PRC patronage, and enduring attrition of decades of intense military, political and economic pressure, along with the gamut of CCP espionage, subversion and influence operations, Taiwan has nurtured and reinforced its own liberal democracy. It has, in effect, succeeded Hong Kong as a paradigm of resistance to the rise of the expansion of CCP authoritarianism.

As its economic and military power has grown, the CCP has increasingly represented the task of annexing Taiwan as an existentially important policy objective. In addition to the concrete military, political and economic dispositions made to this end, CCP ‘discursive statecraft’ directed at Taiwan, its allies and their activity in the region is a useful barometer of the developing crisis. Recent CCP media have framed the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as the ‘death-knell of US hegemony’ in the context of threats against US support for Taiwan, described as ‘colluding in provocation’.

The suggestion here is that as the US has abandoned the Afghans, so too would it be bound to leave Taiwan in the lurch. As is so often the case, the CCP blames a rival for dangerous misdeeds while at the same time dismissing it as impotent. CCP mouthpieces’ reaction to the formation of AUKUS implicitly indicates CCP anger that Britain and its closest allies are increasingly willing to cooperate in upholding an open international order – which should include thwarting perhaps the most existential imperative of the CCP leadership: to subdue and annex a free democracy of 23 million people. 

Not only are global norms and values challenged by the CCP’s assault on Taiwanese autonomy; it has major geo-economic and geostrategy significance as well. Basil Germond, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Lancaster, has described how ‘Global Britain’, a founding member of AUKUS, is committed to upholding freedom and openness in the Indo-Pacific, which arguably includes that of Taiwan. The deployment of the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group has already confirmed this commitment. 

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s established presence in the South and East China seas enables the CCP to cut Taiwan’s maritime lifelines at will. Doing so would greatly increase the PRC’s existing threat to global freedom of navigation. A blockade of Taiwan would disrupt shipping lanes that are also vital for Japan and South Korea, and important for other regional and extra-regional powers. In 2018 the United Nations (UK) estimated that the South China Sea carried around one-third of global shipping, reportedly including 12% of Britain’s seaborne imports and exports, worth some £97 billion. UK interests would be seriously affected in the event of hostilities that would follow a PRC invasion of Taiwan, and even more so were conflict to escalate further afield. 

A further factor worth wider attention is that one Taiwanese firm supplies around half of the world market for semiconductors. These include the most powerful and sophisticated currently available. Only South Korea’s Samsung can currently match this quality on a commercial scale. The PRC has never been able to supply its own demand. During the last year its relevant industries – particularly the automotive sector – have been thrown into disarray by loss of access to Taiwanese supplies. 

The US is similarly dependent; it sources a large proportion of its microchips from Taiwan and South Korea. In the context of an accelerating technological ‘arms race’ between the US-led free world and the PRC, maintaining access to and control of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry would be a major strategic prize. What might remain of this industry in Taiwan following a PRC invasion is a matter for conjecture.

Other internal drivers inform the objectives of the CCP leadership. Xi plans next year to prolong his tenure as paramount leader for a further five-year term. Debate among China-watchers varies as to how strong his position may be to achieve this – there are indications that the worsening state of the economy may tarnish his case – but it is likely that having achieved historic advances down the road to PRC unification with Taiwan would be a robust basis on which to campaign. Having launched an invasion of Taiwan, however, with a likely series of disastrous consequences including potential nuclear conflict, and at the very least causing a massive drain of State funds and wider damage to the PRC economy, would probably not be such a basis. In fact, Xi’s intention to extend his control of the PRC state and its armed forces for at least three more years may reflect his calculation that during that time, their power may increase to a point that global and local resistance to the annexation of Taiwan may simply fade away.

On balance, therefore, for all its bellicosity, current CCP rhetoric over Taiwan can probably be read more in terms of discursive statecraft in fact, than a literal threat of imminent Armageddon. Where the CCP is concerned, with risk-gain calculations that may be entirely dissimilar to those of democratic governments, nothing can be ruled out entirely. But Biden’s reported agreement with Xi in September to ‘abide by the Taiwan agreement’, and the prospects of a virtual bilateral between the two before the end of 2021, perhaps indicate that the two competitors are prepared for a step back from the immediate risk of conflict. 

Either way the most urgent task for the UK and trusted allies and partners is surely to focus discreetly on consolidating joint efforts to ramp up practical deterrence – as much in the discursive and economic as in the military fields – where the prospects of exerting effective leverage rather than provoking over-reaction are likely to be better. Direct military challenges alone are potentially dangerous. Only a robust international front linking military political and economic deterrence can usher the CCP into realising that its own long-term interests would in fact be better served by continuing tolerance of Taiwan’s ambiguous status as a free democracy.

Matthew Henderson is a James Cook Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy. He studied China at the universities of Cambridge, Peking and Oxford, before serving as a diplomat with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for nearly 30 years.

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