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Ties with Taiwan easier than most countries think

UK parliamentary hearing explains how Taiwan can deepen relations with world

U.K. parliament committee hearing. (AP photo)

U.K. parliament committee hearing. (AP photo)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — Watching a parliamentary committee meeting from a foreign country is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially when it runs to nearly two-and-a-half hours.

However, on Tuesday (Nov. 16), the U.K. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee sat down for a session focused exclusively on Taiwan, and it made for fascinating viewing. The experts talking about Taiwan included a former British representative to Taiwan, an academic who specializes in East Asian strategy and conflict, and a former editor of Taiwan News.

Together, they made several fascinating points that can be applied not just to U.K.-Taiwan relations but to Taiwan’s relationship with most friendly, democratic countries around the world. Many of the points deserve a far wider audience than this rather niche committee meeting will get.

After it was established that U.K.-Taiwan relations are “cordial but not substantive," there was a detailed discussion about why bilateral relations aren't closer than they are. The main reason, unsurprisingly, is British fears of reprisals from China.

Even so, all witnesses agreed, this was a case of an "institutional mindset" within the British Foreign Office rather than any serious risk of action by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Examples given included the occasion in 2012 when former British Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama. This provoked a furious barrage of criticism from the CCP, and ministerial visits halted for about 18 months.

Even so, trade between the U.K. and China grew in that period, and there were no substantial consequences for the U.K. as a result of the meeting. It was a similar scenario when the CCP got upset with Norway after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo — albeit for six years on that occasion.

The point is that, although the CCP will complain vociferously, this is largely aimed at a domestic audience and the actual reprisals are minimal. The CCP’s bark is far worse than its bite.

Trade precedents

When it comes to Taiwan, all the witnesses agreed that provided the red line on the issue of statehood is not crossed, everything else is on the table. There is no reason why the U.K. could not sign a free trade agreement with Taiwan; there is no reason why the status of the Taipei Representative Office in the U.K. could not be upgraded; and there is no reason why there shouldn’t be increased exchanges between the two countries at an academic and professional level.

New Zealand was one example given. There has been much media coverage of its growing relationship with China in recent years. It was noted in the meeting that New Zealand has a free trade agreement with Taiwan, and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New Zealand is better established too.

When quizzed about the extent to which U.K.-Taiwan relations could be furthered, the example of Singapore was given. Singapore even has troops on the ground in Taiwan — yet still retains cordial relations with China.

While this session was focused on U.K.-Taiwan relations, the same points can be applied to just about any country around the world, provided the political will is there.

The hearing also saw questions being put to the witnesses that are rarely given an airing in an official forum like this. One MP asked what would happen if the British foreign secretary were to visit Taiwan, while another asked what China’s response would be if the U.K. was to formally recognize Taiwan.

On the former question, it was agreed the U.K. ambassador would be thrown out of China and the Chinese ambassador in London recalled. The CCP might order the U.K. to close a minor consulate somewhere in China for a spell. Nothing too major in the grand scheme of things.

When it comes to formal recognition, it was agreed that Beijing would sever all diplomatic ties with London immediately, and there would doubtless be economic consequences as well.

The question of what would happen if multiple developed economies took this step at the same time was not raised. It does, however, remain an interesting thought.

Another question asked was how the democratic world could persuade the CCP to step back from their ambition of annexing Taiwan. The most convincing response to this was that Xi Jinping (習近平) would need a narrative to sell to the Chinese people that looked like a victory, even if it wasn’t the full "reunification" he talks about at the moment.

It was also noted that Taiwan is not looking for formal diplomatic relations with the U.K. or most other Western nations. This bought the session to one of the most salient and relevant points for Taiwanese viewers.

Taiwan must push harder

Michael Reilly, a former British representative to Taiwan, said the Taiwanese government and the Taipei representative office in London could push a lot harder for deeper ties with the U.K.

His point was that while there is nothing to stop the U.K. (and, by implication, other nations too) from deepening ties with Taiwan, the Taiwanese government has to show more inclination to want that as well. In the current climate, when governments and people in the West are more aware of the CCP’s abuses and aggression than ever before, he is right.

There is an inherent caution to Taiwan's foreign affairs at the moment which, while understandable given what is on the table, could be loosened a little to bolster relations further and faster.

These are the views of just three individuals, of course, but all have significant expertise and understanding of the issues around Taiwan. All of them raised points that are generally absent from the international debate on Taiwan, which rages more fiercely today than it has for a long time.

This session made it clear that, as long as the issue of statehood is avoided, there is no reason why a lot of countries around the world can't have closer and stronger relations with Taiwan.

To achieve that, the Taiwan government has to be seen to want it too. The precedent and the potential are there, but both sides have to want it more if it is going to be fulfilled.