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Taiwan Strait: A key geostrategic consideration for Britain

The Integrated Review defined the Indo-Pacific as a region that is crucial to the British economy, security, and global ambition to support open societies. The document did not mention the United Kingdom’s (UK) ties with Taiwan directly, but the escalation of coercion over Taiwan affects British interests in the region – as well as those of its core strategic partners in United States (US), Japan and Australia – and its responsibilities as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Crucially, tensions across the Taiwan Strait are unlikely to wane in the foreseeable future; Chinese military activities continue in the aftermath of recent major exercises.

A live issue for Britain

Indeed, there is a real chance that in the coming months a ‘fourth Taiwan Strait crisis’ will take place in which Chinese military aggression will increase. Others have suggested the events of this summer are just the beginning of a dangerous pattern of escalation in military signalling as part of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) political and psychological warfare. The reputable Japanese Nikkei newspaper went a step further and suggested that a Chinese aggression towards Taiwan represents one of Asia’s top geopolitical flashpoints, and the likeliest of six potential wars. In particular, some observers have reported that Beijing’s own timeline for aggressive action towards Taiwan would be now within the next eighteen months.

Regardless of the extent to which one agrees with the likelihood of war over the next year and a half, it is clear that this is a live issue for Britain, and that the next prime minister should review how growing tensions across the Taiwan Strait affect the country’s national security and international standing. In particular, the next prime minister should consider whether the UK has the political and security relationships with its closest partners in the region, and with Taiwan, that are adequate to meet the challenge of degrading US-PRC political signalling and potential cross-Strait military incidents. This will be critical to continue to deliver on the expectations set by the Integrated Review to be the European actor with the ‘broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific’. 

Taiwan in Britain’s evolving debate on the PRC

One of the remarkable features of this summer’s Conservative Party leadership contest concerned the role of the PRC as an international actor within the national policy debate. This is not entirely surprising. Since the announcement of the foreign policy goal of a more internationally-oriented post-Brexit Britain, consecutive governments have sought to reset the country’s engagement within, and especially beyond, European boundaries. 

This leadership contest has confirmed that Taiwan is now part of the wider debate on the PRC, and the Indo-Pacific, in British politics.

The engagement of Indo-Pacific and Commonwealth countries in it were the first visible manifestations of the UK’s renewed diplomatic push beyond Europe. Whilst such efforts were informed by an understanding of the wider economic significance of this region to international affairs, they came to include a more robust defence engagement agenda as well in light of growing challenges to the maritime order which underwrote regional prosperity. This phase of re-establishing sustainable and persistent Indo-Pacific engagement culminated with the first carrier strike deployment to the region in two decades and the forward deployment of two offshore patrol vessels in its aftermath.

The widening geographic horizons of British foreign policy ambitions for a stable and prosperous international order brought into sharp relief the challenge that the PRC presented to it. The decision by Her Majesty’s Government to remove the Chinese telecommunication provider Huawei from the UK’s 5G network marked the first sign of a major policy shift in regards to UK-PRC ties and an end to the proclaimed ‘golden-era’ of the bilateral relationship. 

Pressure from Washington and other allies and close partners had a role in the British decision-making process, but concerns were brewing within the wider policy and security communities too, with Parliamentary committees holding specific inquiries on Chinese economic practices and their compatibility with the open international system as well as human rights practices in Xinjiang. Other dubious Chinese Communist Party (CCP) behaviour has increasingly received attention from British media and Members of Parliament.  

The Integrated Review represented the climax of this new phase of the British debate over international geopolitics. For the first time in more than two decades, states like Russia and the PRC were clearly presented as the geopolitical factors at the heart of the challenges of the stability of the international order. They behaved in a way that was inconsistent with British values of open economies and societies.

In this respect, the document defined the PRC as the most consequential ‘systemic competitor’ of the next two decades. Here, the document set the framework to contextualise the type of challenge the PRC represented. It did not describe the PRC as an ‘acute’ military threat to the UK – unlike Russia – but highlighted that the PRC behaved in a way that undermined British values and other open societies and economies. Specifically, it did so by threatening both UK allies and interests in the key maritime and digital domains that underwrite the stability and prosperity of the international order.

In this new context, both leadership contenders, Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, and Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor of the Exchequers, pledged to take strong positions on the PRC. The former chancellor challenged views on his past preference to favour economic links with Beijing and minced no words in defining the PRC as the ‘largest threat to Britain’ and global security and prosperity, proposing targeted action to reduce Chinese cultural and economic interference in the UK. Truss, on the other hand, has been consistently vocal about the importance for democracies to work together to counter authoritarian regimes, and to stand up to the PRC over Taiwan. In response to recent Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, she took the significant step of summoning Zheng Zeguang, the Chinese Ambassador, to the foreign office and condemned as ‘inflammatory’ Chinese reactions to Nancy Pelosi’s, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, visit.

This leadership contest has confirmed that Taiwan is now part of the wider debate on the PRC, and the Indo-Pacific, in British politics.

Military tensions that matter to the UK now

Yet, the events of this summer raise an important question: why should the next prime minister engage with the problem of the rising tensions over the Taiwan Strait now? The answer rests on three main reasons. 

Today, only 2% of Taiwanese regard themselves as Chinese, an all-time low figure

First, this summer’s military manoeuvres, when compared to prior exercises with a similar operational design held during cross-Strait tensions in 1995-96, lasted longer, pushed the operational envelope in a more aggressive direction and were significantly larger in scale and commitment of capabilities. Above all, they indicated that Beijing has the capacity and precision to calibrate the use of military power, and the political will to increasingly escalate the use of force against Taiwan. Concurrently, these escalations are designed to maintain the use of force underneath a level of conflict that would automatically invite response from external actors. This is why Beijing’s greater proficiency in employing its advanced capabilities is particularly problematic.

This leads to a second observation. The pattern of escalation is likely to increase sooner, rather than later. In the Taiwan Strait, two political wills are locked on a collision course as Beijing fails to subjugate Taipei, and Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CCP, has not produced a narrative regarding the ‘rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ in any form attractive to Taiwan. Instead, he is seemingly pursuing a strategy of military coercion underpinned by a sense of inevitability of Taiwan’s fate that the majority of Taiwanese people rebuff. Today, only 2% of Taiwanese regard themselves as Chinese, an all-time low figure, and authorities in Taipei rejected the relevance of ‘one country, two systems’ immediately after the latest Chinese white paper. To reinforce this point, the Taiwanese government also proposed a considerable increase of the defence budget. As Xi prepares to be confirmed for a third mandate this autumn, pressure will increase in the aftermath for him to show what he plans to do about Taiwan.

Unfolding from this, there is a third observation. There is wide cross-aisle agreement in Washington that Taiwan is a major flashpoint in US-PRC relations. Some observers provocatively suggested that a major war over Taiwan is increasingly inevitable. Others have argued instead that the idea of competition with the PRC is consuming American foreign policy debate, and Taiwan is contributing to an already spiralling deterioration in ties. Indeed, the events of this summer are regarded by some as the beginning of a fourth Taiwan Strait crisis that will unfold in the coming months. What is certain is that Washington shows no sign of faltering support to Taiwan and, whilst the Biden administration has shown to be unwilling to have a crisis over Taiwan just because Beijing wanted one, military aggression across the Strait casts a darker shadow over US-PRC relations.

Against this background, it should be noted that Beijing still maintains that ‘peaceful reunification’ remains its primary objective. It is therefore sensible to assume that military escalation will continue to be the main item on the menu in the near future, and that actions short of a direct assault on Taiwan itself are credible and possible scenarios against which to focus policy action. In particular, the content of the recent exercises, combined with existing assessments of the PRC’s wider amphibious capabilities, suggest that a hostile overtaking of some of the offshore islands under Taiwanese control, most notably Pratas and Kinmen, could be within the Chinese military grasp. Some form of blockade of Taiwanese air and maritime traffic could also be part of such an escalatory landscape.

Conclusions: The challenge of ‘subthreshold’ military statecraft 

Such a scenario, when considered against the political use of Chinese military manoeuvres in recent months, highlights why the next prime minister should engage in reviewing Britain’s options over Taiwan. Hostile military action against offshore islands under Taipei’s control challenges the core principles and ideals at the heart of Britain’s international standing and responsibilities.

Yet, policy action will not be easy. The PRC’s subthreshold military actions present a non-trifling challenge for Britain and its closest allies and partners too. Notably Washington and other regional stakeholders like Japan and Australia would find themselves having to consider responses against further escalation. Certainly, from Xi’s perspective, this summer has proved that the bar for military assertiveness has shifted. Overtaking a smaller target might very well play to his current agenda of forcing the Taiwanese people to realise the inevitability of their capitulation to Beijing’s plans. Now is therefore the time for Britain to engage with its partners to ensure that, if ever Beijing sought to pursue such plans, relevant action will be available to prevent them from coming to fruition.

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.

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