After a tumultuous autumn 2022, the United Kingdom’s political system found some stability in October 2022 following Rishi Sunak’s election as prime minister. In March 2023, Sunak’s government released the Integrated Review Refresh, a revamp of the country’s foreign policy approach. The Refresh outlines the government’s aims to protect Britain’s national security interests, and to align with like-minded global partners (and non like-minded partners, when it serves the United Kingdom’s national interests). Notably, the document expanded upon the government’s “Indo-Pacific Tilt” strategy, which was originally outlined in the 2021 Integrated Review. While both publications emphasized Downing Street’s vested interests in securing peace and economic stability in the Indo-Pacific, the Refresh took the unprecedented step of including discussion of Taiwan. This demonstrates the United Kingdom’s intent to make a greater effort toward maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait and maintaining the status quo.
It is clear, however, that other parts of the British government want Sunak to take a stronger stance on the Taiwan issue. In their review of the Refresh, titled Tilting Horizons, the Foreign Affairs Committee—in charge of reviewing the executive’s foreign policy—stated that “Taiwan is already an independent country, under the name Republic of China (ROC)” and that it already “[possesses] all the qualifications for statehood.”
This is a departure from past rhetoric out of the United Kingdom on this topic. While critiques of China—typically regarding human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, alongside the threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to the UK’s national security—are fairly common, open support for Taiwanese independence had yet to be seen.
Despite this shift, the United Kingdom continues to maintain substantial ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), making a meaningful turn toward Taiwan difficult in the near-term. In fact, the Tilting Horizons review was published while former Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was meeting with CCP officials in Beijing in an effort to rekindle relations. It is clear that Sunak wants to maintain a relationship with China where it benefits the United Kingdom, but how does Taiwan factor in? And what steps has his government taken to protect, align, and engage with Taiwan to ensure stability in the strait?
The United Kingdom has been working to foster stronger relationships around the globe in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum. As part of the “Global Britain” strategy, London has aimed to reinvest in preexisting relationships, champion the rules-based international order, and demonstrate that the United Kingdom is outward-looking on the world stage. The Indo-Pacific has become a primary target of these efforts. While it has paid close attention to protecting its consistent regional allies, like Japan, the UK government is coming to understand why Taiwan should also become a policy priority.
On October 24, the House of Commons Defence Committee published a report stating that “Conflict over, or a blockade affecting, Taiwan would have an acute global impact and directly affect UK households due to the significant flows of trade and shipping through the region.” The report cites the high volume of trade that passes through the Taiwan Strait, as well as the indispensable nature of Taiwan’s semiconductor chip industry for military equipment and consumer electronics manufacturing. The Defence Committee’s report, along with Tilting Horizons from the Foreign Affairs Committee, indicates that Parliament is seeing that maintaining stability in the strait is increasingly relevant to the United Kingdom’s national security interests.
It seems that Sunak has also realized this, and has tested the waters in terms of providing Taiwan with defense aid. While the rhetoric out of London regarding its involvement in the Taiwan Strait has thus far focused on seeking a “peaceful resolution first,” Sunak has not ruled out sending arms to the island.
Under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, two patrol vessels were permanently deployed to the Indo-Pacific to support maritime security. He also deployed a carrier strike group to the region in 2021—including the carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth—and had one of the frigates, HMS Richmond, sail through the Taiwan Strait. Sunak has built upon these actions by promising to send the Royal Navy’s other Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, to the Indo-Pacific in 2025.
In March 2023, London also approved an increase in sales of submarine parts and technology to Taiwan that will help to upgrade its naval forces. It is very likely that these sales contributed to the construction of the ROC Navy’s new Hai Kun submarine, revealed in September. These exchanges began when Johnson was still in office; submarine-related exports to Taiwan during his final 9 months as prime minister totalled GBP £167 million (USD $201.29 million).
Sunak is building upon what his predecessors did to protect Taiwan through military aid, but his overall goal is to ensure that the United Kingdom’s democratic allies in the Indo-Pacific are well-equipped and trained to protect the region in the case of violence in the strait.
The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is a trade agreement composed primarily of American and Indo-Pacific states. While initially led by the United States, then-President Donald Trump withdrew the country from the CPTPP in 2017. However, the United Kingdom joined in March 2023, becoming the largest western economy signed onto the deal. At the time, Sunak claimed that the ability to join the partnership was an advantage of Brexit. Furthermore, he argued that the partnership offers benefits to British businesses through eliminating tariffs with the world’s fastest-growing economies, primarily those in the Indo-Pacific.
This announcement came as applications to the CPTPP from both China and Taiwan were—and still are—simultaneously being considered. China sent its application in early 2021, and Taiwan followed suit a week later. While the Foreign Affairs Committee has called upon the United Kingdom to support Taiwan’s bid to join the partnership, the government has not given any indication as to whether it will accept the applications of Taiwan, China, or both. As these are the next two bids in line for consideration from CPTPP member states, a decision must be made soon.
While Sunak and his government have not given much indication regarding their stance on Taiwan’s participation in multilateral negotiations, they have sent a message about direct economic alignment. In November, the UK Department for Business and Trade brought both sides even closer through the recently-signed Enhanced Trade Partnership (ETP), which will increase Taiwanese-British cooperation through mutual investment, digital trade, and renewable and net-zero energies. Taiwan is the United Kingdom’s tenth-largest trading partner in Asia, with mutual trade amounting to GBP £8.6 billion (USD $10.9 billion) in 2022. The areas of focus for a potential ETP line up with the primary bilateral trade markets – those being green energy, digital trade and overall two-way investment. While former Prime Ministers Johnson and Liz Truss showed an interest in increasing trade with Taiwan, this announcement is the clearest and most decisive indication of Number 10’s desire to strengthen economic ties thus far.
Through engaging with the United Kingdom’s allies, Sunak seems determined to expand upon the United Kingdom’s people-to-people ties and other cooperative efforts, including climate change and education.
The United Kingdom currently hosts 30 Confucius Institutes, the PRC’s globally present, state-sponsored language and cultural institutions. There have long been concerns about the impact these institutes have on Chinese and Hong Konger diasporas abroad, with many arguing that they infringe on free speech and serve as conduits for PRC propaganda. While Sunak initially pledged to shut them down during his original bid for prime minister last August, his government went back on its word, saying that banning Confucius Institutes would be a “disproportionate response.”
The conversation surrounding Confucius Institute operational restrictions in the government has resurfaced after two high level Conservative party researchers were arrested in March under suspicion of spying for Beijing. This shakeup has led to calls for the government to distance itself from China. As a result, the Home Office, charged with domestic security responsibilities, is seeking to restrict its Government Authorised Exchange scheme (a visa program permitting foreign language teachers to stay for work experience).
While the government claims it is taking action to eliminate UK government funding to Confucius Institutes, Sunak is simultaneously trying to increase Britain’s ability to respond to China-related issues. He recently announced that the government would be doubling funding for the China Capabilities Program, which aims to provide policy and Mandarin language training to Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) diplomats and civil servants. As most of the country’s Mandarin language teaching funding is currently funneled through Confucius Institutes, they have naturally become lightning rods for the UK’s China-skeptics.
Alicia Kearns, a Member of Parliament (MP) serving as the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, held talks to discuss shifting funding to Taiwan-based Mandarin language programs in 2022. Since then, several programs sending students from Britain to Chinese-speaking regions have slowly shifted their operations away from China and toward Taiwan. Taiwan’s Overseas Community Affairs Council (OCAC) has also provided funding to Chinese-language schools across the United States and Europe. These efforts have worked in tandem with the Taiwan Ministry of Education’s (MOE, 教育部) Mandarin Education 2025 Program, in order to promote teaching Chinese with “Taiwanese characteristics.” There are currently two of these Taiwan Centers for Mandarin Learning (TCMLs) in the United Kingdom, with hopes to establish more in the future.
As Sunak seeks to improve the United Kingdom’s ability to respond to Chinese threats while ensuring national security, it is possible that he will increasingly rely on these Taiwan-based programs as a replacement.
Rishi Sunak has built upon the actions of his predecessors to continue the expansion of the UK-Taiwan relationship. However, he has proposed further policy cooperation efforts that have yet to be enforced due to his simultaneous efforts to maintain a friendly relationship with the PRC. Although there are some policy areas in which London has closer ties to Beijing, the calls from Parliament for decoupling in favor of Taiwan are growing louder by the day.
While MPs from both the Conservative and Labour parties have welcomed the Enhanced Partnership Trade talks and potential further military deployments in the Indo-Pacific, many still believe that Sunak is being too “soft” on China, arguing that his government should do more to stand up to the CCP while fostering a closer relationship with Taiwan. This stance was made very clear in the Tilting Horizons report.
The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee also came out with its own report in July stating that “the level of resources dedicated to tackling the threat posed by China’s ‘whole-of-state’ approach has been completely inadequate.” This finding was reinforced when the two British parliamentary researchers were arrested for spying for Beijing.
One year into his term, the pressure is on for Sunak to publicly establish a policy approach toward China and Taiwan. While the government response to the Intelligence Committee’s report indicates an acceptance of Parliament’s desire for him to be more strict on China, besides the initial signing of the ETP, Sunak’s policies have yet to produce concrete action toward advancing the United Kingdom’s national interests in Taiwan.
In his next year as prime minister, all eyes will be on Sunak and his government as they decide whether or not to distance themselves from China, and whether or not they focus their attention toward Taiwan instead. While Sunak does appear to be further aligning with Taiwan, he appointed former Prime Minister David Cameron as foreign secretary on November 13. Cameron’s tenure as prime minister (2010-2016) saw a “Golden Era” of UK-China relations, so there are widespread assumptions that his onboarding indicates an attempt from No. 10 to rekindle the relationship.
After former Secretary Cleverly recently commented that “preventing [a conflict in the strait] from happening is an absolute core plank of the UK’s foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region,” it is increasingly evident that Taiwan is becoming a pressing issue for the United Kingdom. For now, we will wait to see the government response to the Tilting Horizons Report, which has been overdue since October 30, 2023.
The main point: The government of the United Kingdom, through measures such as the Tilting Horizons report issued by the UK Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee, has taken recent steps since Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s appointment in late 2022 to elevate the prominence of Taiwan-related issues in UK foreign policy.