The UK’s ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’ and Taiwan Policy

The UK’s ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’ and Taiwan Policy

The UK’s ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’ and Taiwan Policy

As the war in Ukraine rages on, European countries have naturally been responding with alarm to Russia’s naked aggression against a democratic country in the region and its assault on the liberal world order. Arguably, none has been more vocal than the United Kingdom (UK). While responding to the direct threat from a revisionist, authoritarian Russia, London is also keeping a close eye on Asia. In a telling statement of London’s global concerns, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson asserted recently that: “If Ukraine is endangered, the shock will echo around the world. And those echoes will be heard in east Asia, will be heard in Taiwan […] People would draw the conclusion that aggression pays, and that might is right.” This remarkably straightforward statement by Johnson is reflective of a subtle but important shift in how the UK approaches its Asia policy—and by extension Taiwan. While the prime minister’s charge does not indicate that the UK will alter the foundational components of its cross-Strait policy anytime soon, it suggests that the UK will be less inhibited going forward by the constraints imposed by the lack of diplomatic ties with Taiwan as it works to advance its renewed and shared interests in the Indo-Pacific with like-minded allies and partners. 

The UK’s De Facto “One-China Policy”

The United Kingdom has diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and maintains only unofficial relations with Taiwan. Although not explicitly in name, the United Kingdom adopted a de facto “One-China Policy” when it established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1972 with the exchange of ambassadors. According to the UK government: “Under the terms of the 1972 agreement with China, HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) acknowledged the position of the government of the PRC that Taiwan was a province of the PRC and recognized the PRC Government as the sole legal Government of China” [emphasis added]. Specifically, the communique states: 

The Government of the United Kingdom, acknowledging the position of the Chinese Government that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China, have decided to remove their official representation in Taiwan on 13th March, 1972. The Government of the United Kingdom recognise the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China.

Many countries that maintain diplomatic ties with the PRC have adopted a “One-China Policy.” [1] Yet, these policies are, in most cases, not synonymous with Beijing’s “One-China Principle” (一個中國原則), and the manner in which each country practices its “One-China” policy differs to varying degrees. 

It is important to point out the deliberate distinction between how the UK acknowledges the Chinese government’s position that Taiwan is part of China—thereby not explicitly endorsing PRC sovereignty claims over Taiwan—yet recognizes the PRC government as the sole legal government of China, which would be necessary for the purpose of establishing diplomatic relations. In this sense, the underlying understanding of the UK’s “One-China Policy”—even though it is not formally referred to as such by UK officials—is quite similar to the US “One-China Policy,” which is based in part on its 1972 and 1979 communiques signed with the PRC, among other instruments like the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). And even as the UK’s interests in Taiwan are clearly growing, a recent House of Commons Debate Pack on “UK-Taiwan friendship and cooperation” made clear that the UK “has no plans to recognize Taiwan as a state.”

The UK’s Indo-Pacific Shift in Policy Predates Ukraine

In a recent op-ed, my colleague Mike Mazza noted that “[t]he United Kingdom embraced an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ in the course of its 2021 ‘integrated review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy.’” While the Integrated Review is indicative of the UK’s formal ‘tilt,’ subtle cues in the UK’s approach with regards to Taiwan could be gleaned even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, this shift arguably began in recent years in tandem with the US rebalance to Asia that began around the mid-2010s. 

In 2015, the name of the United Kingdom’s de facto embassy in Taiwan was changed from the British Trade and Cultural Office to the British Office Taipei, while the title of its de facto ambassador was changed from director-general to representative. These largely symbolic moves were emblematic of a broader rethink about Taiwan that occurred against the backdrop of China’s increasingly aggressive military posture in the Indo-Pacific, which has led successive US administrations to focus greater attention on the security situation in the region. However, in the last several years, the UK has taken on a more important profile in the Indo-Pacific region, partly in response to China’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea. This growing confrontation with China was also accentuated by Beijing’s brutal crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong, a territory with long and complex ties with the UK. According to one estimate, there could be as many as 300,000 Hong Kong persons expected to flee to the UK over the next five years. 

Most notably, the deployment of the carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth—accompanied by a carrier strike group—to the South China Sea in the fall of 2021 was unprecedented for reasserting the UK’s military presence in the region. In September 2021, as Chinese military sorties into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) were surging to record highs, the UK warship HMS Richmond—a Type 23 frigate of the Royal Navy—made a rare transit through Taiwan Strait. The last time that a Royal Navy warship transited through the Strait was over a decade before, in 2008. While another transit was conducted by the HMS Enterprise in 2019, that vessel was an unarmed survey ship. In July 2021, the UK announced that it was to permanently assign two warships in the region.

What is perhaps even more striking than the deployments themselves is that these Royal Navy actions in the region also included joint submarine warfare exercises with Japan. Tokyo has been even more outspoken about its concerns about the potential for a contingency over Taiwan. The former prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, has boldly asserted how “a Taiwan contingency is a Japan contingency,” and recently appealed to the United States to abandon its approach of strategic ambiguity with regards to the defense of Taiwan. 

These bilateral moves by the United Kingdom have also been layered on top of multilateral actions. Also in September 2021, the Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States announced the trilateral security pact AUKUS, which “will significantly deepen cooperation on a range of security and defense capabilities,” with a primary aim of assisting Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. Then, in November 2021, the Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton stated that it would be “inconceivable” for Australia not to join the United States should Washington take action to defend Taiwan.

Reflective of this broader shift in British strategic thinking about the Indo-Pacific and Taiwan’s role in it, a senior member of parliament, Tom Tugendhat—a member of the British Conservative Party who serves as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee—stated during a virtual event hosted by a think tank based in Washington, DC, in May 2021: 

…making sure that we demonstrate commitment is not just about protecting Taiwan, but it’s also about demonstrating to countries in the region, Indonesia and the Philippines and many others, that actually you don’t need to do the deal with Beijing. You can stick to your existing deal with free countries, you can defend your people and their interests, and maintain your economic growth without handing over your security to a country you know is looking to control and change the way you operate. So, I think that our military presence, although of course it’s about Taiwan, is not directly about Taiwan, it’s actually much more about shaping the freedom of the entire region.

UK Parliament Debates Underscore Growing Support for Taiwan

Tugendhat is not the only MP speaking out on Taiwan in recent years. Indeed, his comments have been followed by a notable uptick in substantive debates on the floors of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, reflecting London’s ongoing transformation in its views of Taiwan. During these unprecedented debates, discussions have increasingly focused on the possibility of ministerial visits, deepening economic cooperation, and granting legal status to Taiwan’s representative in the UK, among other measures. 

Underscoring the urgent nature of this transformation, Baroness Frances D’Souza, a member of the UK House of Lords who serves as vice-chair of the British-Taiwanese All-Party Parliamentary Group, noted at the outset of her remarks at a recent parliamentary debate that “Taiwan is the Ukraine of the Far East, and it behooves us to note the threats that it endures daily from its neighbors across the strait and its commitment to the democratic process and to its democratic institutions.”

Amidst the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, President Joe Biden sent an important signal by authorizing an early March visit to Taiwan by a delegation of senior former American officials led by the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen, who highlighted in his opening comments: “Maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is not just a US interest, but also a global one.” And as the top representative of the United States in Taiwan, Sandra Oudkirk, noted at a different forum: “Just as Europe has a lot to offer Taiwan, Taiwan–as a primary target of malign PRC activity–has a deep expertise it can share with European partners.” 

Against the backdrop of growing Sino-Russian alignment, the elevated aggressiveness of revisionist authoritarian powers, and increasingly credible Chinese military threats against Taiwan, there have been noticeable changes in how London, and Europe writ large, have approached their Indo-Pacific policies—and within that context, approaches to Taiwan. Although the UK’s “Indo-Pacific tilt” suggests that we are only at the beginning stage, the tilt may become a leap sooner than later. Even though Taiwan was not explicitly mentioned in the Review, Lord Tariq Ahmad, a minister in the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, stated while responding to questions from members concerning the Integrated Review and the UK’s response to China’s use of coercive economic measures that “We should be working equally hard with Taiwan in putting together the protocols to protect each other, particularly for Taiwan, and to bring about a deterrent for anyone thinking of trying it on.” Indeed, Ukraine may be the turning point for London—and perhaps other European countries—in accelerating the recalibration of their approaches to Taiwan. 

The main point: There has been a subtle but important shift in how the UK approaches the Indo-Pacific region, as well as Taiwan policy within that context. Such changes are unlikely to portend a fundamental change of its cross-Strait policy anytime soon. However, going forward the UK may be less inhibited by the constraints imposed by the lack of diplomatic ties to advance its renewed and shared interests in the Indo-Pacific with like-minded allies and partners. 

[1] According to former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Beijing had 173 diplomatic ties among 196 nation-states in 2017. All but 36 signed communiques with Beijing. Among those 137 countries with communiques with China, there are three distinct categories in how those countries treated the issue of PRC’s sovereignty claims over Taiwan: 52 states recognize PRC sovereignty over Taiwan (e.g., Portugal, South Africa, and Israel), 29 states use vague language to express their attitudes (e.g., United States, Japan, and Canada), and 56 states did not mention the issue (e.g., Germany, Ireland, and Mexico). See: Maeve Whelan-Wuest, “Former Taiwan President Ma on One China, the 1992 Consensus, and Taiwan’s Future,” Brookings Institution, March 16, 2017.

The author would like to thank Adrienne Wu, Dominika Remžová, and Marshall Reid for their research assistance.