Written by Ian Inkster.

In the 27 September 2017 issue of Taiwan Insight I spelled out in ‘Taiwan, the UK and the Chinese Factor’ some remarks on this subject that were extensions of my column in the Taipei Times of 13 September entitled ‘Fostering Economic Ties with UK .

So, these were just ahead of the Parliamentary Debate of 24 October 2017 (9.30am), a Debate nominated by the Backbench Business Committee under the heading UK Relations with TaiwanThe reference materials for this parliamentary debate included my Taipei Times column. It might be of some interest to readers of Taiwan Insight to compare the points I had considered of greatest importance in my two September papers to the report from the Parliamentary Committee of October.

“(…) one small conclusion on the Taiwan side might be that it is probably worth making effort with Britain in that it will be welcomed due to Brexit uncertainties.  For Taiwan, the UK still looks welcoming as a growing economy compared to other European markets, aided by a common usage of English in commerce and cultural exchanges.”

In the Taipei Times column, I situated the meeting of August 3 in Taipei, between a British parliamentary delegation and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in the context of developing commercial relations over the last few years. I argued that the strong restraining factors were the new and doubtful character of British commerce during and after Brexit, combined with both British and Taiwanese attitudes towards mainland China.

Cutting through each of these, I suggested that the focus should be on high-tech trade under the guidance of the new Chinese Five Year Plan. In particular, what might be called high-end cultural products that directly address demand arising from the English-speaking and reading middle-class Chinese, would be a good tactic cementing some stability in wider UK-China trading relations.

Investment relations might be more tricky. At any rate, this might supply enough of a soft-power window of opportunity in which a stronger UK-Taiwan relationship might develop. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) declared aims of moving away from reliance on China trade might then fit reasonably into this relationship between the larger powers. Now these trends do not in themselves address investment flows and because it is presently very difficult to measure the strength of tussles within the Chinese governing elite.

I suppose the conclusion was that we might best visualise the Taiwan-UK relationship in the long term and on the basis of comparative advantage.

In the Taiwan Insight article, I argued that sort of conclusion with respect to Taiwan, as fostering the British trade relationship does appear to be somewhat to Taiwan’s comparative advantage.

I also suggested that the years since 2008 have seen substantial change in almost all global understandings and institutions, further hastened by the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House. As I also argued, the Chinese generally have no real reasons to consider the UK as their historical friend – indeed, much the opposite. As a result, adding these arguments all together complicated into hazard any proclamations about the future of Taiwan-UK relations. But one small conclusion on the Taiwan side might be that it is probably worth making effort with Britain in that it will be welcomed due to the wider uncertainties emanating from Brexit.  For Taiwan, the UK still looks welcoming as a growing economy compared to other European markets, aided by a common usage of English in commerce and cultural exchanges.

How did the UK Committee of late October see such matters? They began with an exact reiteration of the 1972 agreement, that ‘we support the further economic development of Taiwan. We also welcome Taiwan’s political development and the democratic elections that have taken place there.’ Implicitly, then, the geopolitical context has seen no-change, despite the enormously changing dynamics of East Asia since 1972. They emphasised the continuing British trade deficit with Taiwan, which peaked at £2.6 billion in 2012.

More importantly they saw the British mission to Taiwan of  18-20 October as centred only on renewable technology and designed primarily to ‘introduce innovative British technologies and services to Taiwan, not perhaps exactly the way in which it was seen in Taiwan.

As reported in Hansard, the debate was tepid. An exchange between two Conservative members captures the thoroughness of the stalemate:

Desmond Swayne MP:

‘Early in my ministerial career, it became abundantly clear to me what huge importance our principal ally, the United States, attaches to free movement within the South China sea. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must bear in mind in all our future relations with China the importance that our principal ally attaches to the South China sea?’

Bob Blackman MP:

‘The military position with respect to Taiwan and the statements made by the People’s Republic of China—not least this week, as representatives have met to determine their future strategy and reconfirm their view that Taiwan is a province of China—strengthens my view that we must stand steadfast with our allies in the United States and in Taiwan to ensure Taiwan’s future economic prosperity and independence.’

From that point, any possible leads into real debate on UK-Taiwan relations were bogged down in the mire. I doubt that many reporters have waded through it. Blackman avoided the reasonably salient question from Labour’s Ian Murray MP:

Given all the delegations that take place and all the ministerial support that the UK and Taiwan give each other, will he encourage the Minister to encourage his Chinese counterparts to allow Taiwan observer status in international bodies? That status has been stripped of Taiwan recently, which has set back its whole economic development and strategy. The best way of improving Taiwan’s relations across the world is to allow it to have observer status in international bodies’.

It fell to Conservative Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, to state firmly the unshifting UK position – distinguishing between an Ambassador and an Unofficial Representative:

‘Taiwan continues to behave as a de facto state, but the UK does not recognise it as an independent state. Therefore, with great respect to all of my hon. Friends who referred to the ambassador, the truth is that the gentleman concerned, who is in the Public Gallery, is the unofficial representative to this country, not an ambassador in any official way. That is obviously a position we maintain, with our policy on China.’

Lessons to be learnt for all students and scholars of Taiwan? Firstly, do not be too pleased when your published thoughts are used as resources for governance. Secondly, learn how to analyse but not misuse the complexity of the relations between economy and polity, and between nation and globality. Finally, arguments of some substance can – in the hands of politicians–  be reduced to no more than exchanges driven by ego and partisanship, something we as academics should strive to avoid.

Ian Inkster is an FRHS,  a  Professorial Research Associate Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, London; a Senior Fellow at the Taiwan Studies Programme and China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham and editor of History of Technology (London) since 2001. Image credit: CC by Office of the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr.


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