Where Britain stands on the China-Taiwan tensions

The UK does not recognise the island, but rhetoric has heated in recent months

Smoke trails from projectiles launched by the Chinese military are seen in the sky during drills
Smoke trails from projectiles launched by the Chinese military are seen above the Taiwan Strait
(Image credit: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

China has launched missiles into the sea as part of its biggest-ever military exercise around Taiwan following US politician Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to the island.

China “appears to be rehearsing for an attack on the island”, which it regards as a breakaway province, said the Daily Mail. Taiwan’s ministry of defence has said that “we don’t stand down when it comes to security and sovereignty”.

The escalating tensions have led to questions over which nations would defend Taiwan, which is home to 23m people, if the island came under attack, and what the UK’s response would be.

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Does the UK recognise Taiwan?

No, it “does not recognise Taiwan”, nor “maintain formal diplomatic relations with the island”, as explained in a 2022 parliamentary debate pack. When the UK and China exchanged ambassadors in 1972, the UK closed down its consulate in Taiwan the same year. It maintains a simple outpost called the British Office Taipei.

Although the UK says it has no plans to recognise Taiwan as a state, it does support Taiwan’s participation in international organisations as an observer. In 2020, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said on behalf of the government that the UK has a “strong unofficial relationship” with Taiwan “based on dynamic commercial, educational and cultural ties”.

Does the UK have defence ties with Taiwan?

There are “no formal defence ties with Taiwan”, but PM hopeful and foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has made some “bullish” statements about defending the island, noted veteran foreign policy and defence writers Mark Curtis and Richard Norton-Taylor at Declassified UK.

In his first public speech, made last year, MI6 chief Richard Moore said “Beijing’s growing military strength” and “desire to resolve the Taiwan issue, by force if necessary... pose a serious challenge to global stability and peace”, noted Taiwan News.

The same month, the government said it was “concerned by any activity which raises tension” but stopped short of suggesting it would assist militarily, saying it considers the Taiwan issue “one to be settled peacefully by the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait through constructive dialogue”.

But in April this year, Truss said “we must ensure that democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves” and, in May, Attorney General Suella Braverman said the UK must be willing to respond to “hostile cyber activity” by China against Taiwan.

There is an economic dimension to relations as Taiwan is a “burgeoning market for UK arms exports”, said Curtis and Norton-Taylor at Declassified, noting that since 2017, Britain has sold £338m worth of military equipment to the island.

Some suspect the Aukus defence pact between the UK, US and Australia could lead to Britain being embroiled in a war with China over Taiwan. Australia has already vowed to help US defend Taiwan from Chinese attacks, noted the FT, begging the question of how the UK would respond in such a scenario.

Last September, former prime minister Theresa May asked Boris Johnson: “What are the implications of this pact for the stance that would be taken by the United Kingdom in its response should China attempt to invade Taiwan?”

Johnson was “careful not to rule anything out”, said The Guardian. The PM replied that the UK “remains determined to defend international law and that is the strong advice we would give to our friends across the world, and the strong advice that we would give to the government in Beijing”.

Should the UK change its position on Taiwan?

Writing in The Telegraph, Benedict Rogers said the UK should draw strength from Pelosi and visit Taiwan at “the earliest opportunity”. But Rogers, the author of a The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny, said London “should not recognise Taiwan’s independence diplomatically” - yet.

He added, “we should do everything possible to escalate ties with Taiwan short of full recognition”, meaning “British cabinet ministers should go, to explore and strengthen ties in trade, technology, education, health, tourism, arts and culture” and “send a clear signal that Taiwan is our friend and we will stand by them”.

Others, such as Francis Pike at The Spectator, think statements and visits like Pelosi’s are “not worthy of risking war with China – a war, even if kept within the boundaries of conventional weapons, that would likely collapse the global economy”.

China’s UK ambassador has threatened “severe consequences” should British MPs set foot in Taiwan, reported The Guardian. In a statement yesterday, the UK and the other six members of the G7 struck a conciliatory tone, saying “we encourage all parties to remain calm, exercise restraint, act with transparency, and maintain open lines of communication to prevent misunderstanding”.

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