A Vital Partnership: How Strengthened UK-Taiwan Ties Can Help Maintain Stable Cross-Strait Relations

Darren G. Spinck

The success of the United Kingdom’s post-Brexit Indo-Pacific tilt and its security and economic interests throughout the entirety of the region are increasingly dependent on maintaining stable cross-Strait relations between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Any change in the fragile status quo that endures in the Taiwan Strait would have a ruinous impact on the region and, resultantly, on the national interests of the United Kingdom.

Taiwan is a key focal point of the region, both economically and strategically, and any conflict resulting from Beijing attempting to forcibly reunify China and Taiwan would lead to upended sea and air trade routes, disrupted global supply chains and, potentially, the destruction of Taiwan’s semiconductor foundries which produce 90% of the world’s advanced chips, the brains of all modern electronic equipment. A semiconductor shortage alone would be “catastrophic” to the world economy, according to a Rhodium Group analysis on the economic disruptions of a Taiwan conflict.

A PRC invasion of Taiwan, a thriving democracy, would allow the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to project power past Taiwan in the First Island Chain and north toward Japan, a key UK security partner, and the Second Island Chain, which includes US territory. Forced reunification of Taiwan would have a catastrophic human toll as well, with the Pentagon estimating a death toll of approximately 500,000 should a Taiwan conflict occur. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted its largest military training exercise east of Taiwan in September 2023, with the Shandong and 20 other PLAN vessels in Indo-Pacific waters surrounding Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan. Regional experts believe the training simulated a blockade of Taiwan. During a single day of the training exercise, a reported 103 PLA aircraft flew over or near Taiwan, with Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense indicating that 40 PRC planes crossed the air defence identification zone (ADIZ).

A successful denial strategy in the Indo-Pacific, aimed at preventing a PRC-initiated cross-Strait conflict and/or preventing the PLA from attaining hegemonic control of regional shipping and air routes, will require ensuring Taiwan’s Armed Forces are adequately armed and properly trained and that the UK and other Indo-Pacific partners modernise their militaries sufficiently and increase industrial base production. As any continued UK commercial dependency on trade and investment with the PRC would allow the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to maintain some leverage over London policymaking regarding Taiwan, the UK Government should take a cautious approach toward its commercial ties with China while hostilities in the region worsen.

As the UK continues its tilt toward the Indo-Pacific, British support for Taiwan is more critical than ever and relations should form a vital economic, security and cultural partnership. Through two-way trade and investment; an increased UK regional naval presence to ensure open trade routes; enhanced interoperability between the UK and its allies/partners; and diplomatic efforts with Beijing aimed at deconfliction, the UK–Taiwan partnership can better help shape a free and open Indo-Pacific.

 

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HJS



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