Foreign Affairs

The UK Must Recognise Taiwan

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To protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States organised a boycott, involving 65 nations, of the 1980 Summer Olympics due to be held in Moscow. Looking forward to the present day, the World Uyghur Congress has asked the International Olympic Committee to reconsider the holding of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. This is due to evidence of crimes against humanity committed by the Chinese government in the Xinjiang region.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, a senior minister has leaked that the Government may be considering some kind of boycott and that ‘awkward conversations are having to be had about it’. Whilst desires to show a symbolic opposition to the actions of the Chinese Communist Party over its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet are understandable, Britain should instead make a symbolic move that really shows its commitment to tackling Chinese aggression; recognising Taiwan as a sovereign state. 

When it comes to the international battle for recognition, Taiwan is losing to an increasingly internationally dominant China. In the past year, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati have both renounced their previous recognitions of the island as a sovereign nation. Though many in the UK may have never heard of either of these states, most of the countries who officially recognise Taiwan are small or island states like Honduras and Haiti.

Formed when the losing Nationalist faction in the Chinese Civil War fled the mainland, modern Taiwan was originally meant to be the land base for the Nationalist Chinese government in exile. After having transformed into a full democracy in the mid-1990s, the island of Taiwan is now home to 23 million people and acts like a sovereign state in most ways. 

The island has always been careful to never provoke China excessively. For instance, they have avoided issuing a formal declaration of independence by suggesting that there is no need make such a statement as the island is already independent. 

Though there is internal division within the nation about their day to day relationship with China and whether in the long term they should seek reunification or official independence, it is clear that for now the people of Taiwan support the idea that the island is already independent of China and desire international recognition of this reality. We know this from the fact that the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen won a landslide victory in the recent Presidential elections on a clear platform of rejecting Chinese sovereignty. She enumerated this in her victory speech in Taipei where she insisted that ‘we must work to keep our country safe and defend our sovereignty’. 

For decades, liberal democracies have refused to officially recognise Taiwan as a state due to an acceptance of the Chinese government’s desire to have the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy that it has with Hong Kong. However, the recent clampdown on democracy and freedom in Hong Kong, which caused many to flee to Taiwan, has shown that China has no real intention of respecting any such agreements. 

In fact, it is because of this wanton violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that the UK should recognise Taiwan. The reasoning is clear: if the Chinese government will not follow the One Country, Two Systems ideal then neither should we. 

The reticence to recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state is understandable. China is increasingly willing to attack nations who get in the way of their policy objectives. After Nick Clegg and David Cameron merely met with the Dalai Lama in 2012, the Chinese government insisted in a formal apology at a bilateral meeting. Whilst in office, neither Cameron nor Clegg ever met with the Dalai Lama again. 

The government’s current policy towards Taiwan, whilst being cautious, does attempt to increase the clout of the island internationally. As the Foreign Office Minister Lord Ahmad recently put it in a debate in the House of Lords: ‘we support Taiwan’s participation in international organisations where statehood is not a prerequisite’. One such institution is the World Health Organisation. The problem with this is that China has made it clear that they will never allow it to happen.

The starkest, and embarrassing, example of this was a video, which subsequently went viral, in which a journalist asked the WHO’s assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward about whether they would consider Taiwan’s membership and how the island was dealing with Coronavirus. After he attempted to change the subject, ignore the question and even hang up, he made clear his real agenda by stating: ‘We’ve already talked about China’. 

This cowardice by a senior figure in the international community should lay bare the impossibility of the UK’s cautious strategy towards increased recognition of Taiwan. Incidentally, as Coronavirus was hitting the UK in mid-April, Taiwan donated well over a million masks to the UK in a truly honourable display of international solidarity with a fellow democracy. Surely, it is our duty to respond to this generosity with a little more than fair-weather friendship? 

Though an instant recognition might elevate tensions with China in a way that is undesirable, we should at least begin to lay the groundwork for eventual recognition. Intermediate steps should include sending senior officials to the island, increasing military support through arms and possibly even training. 

The recent visit of the US Secretary for Health and Human Services Alex Azar, the highest level US official to be sent to island in four decades, means that the sending of a British cabinet minister would be following a precedent set by an ally rather than dramatically setting a new one. Beyond that, President Tsai Ing-Wen should be invited to the UK for diplomatic meetings. During this visit, for example, a trip to LSE where President Ing-wen completed her PhD would be a powerful symbolic counterweight to Xi Jinping’s tour of Imperial College during his state visit in 2015. 

In the same way the Chinese have slowly stripped more freedom from Hong Kong, we should slowly but surely build up our friendship with Taiwan until the point where we can clearly recognise the free and democratic island’s sovereignty.

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