Taiwan military vessel as seen from a warship of the navy of the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army PLA 050822 CREDIT Lin Jian, Xinhua, Alamy Live News
Taiwan military vessel as seen from a warship of the navy of the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army PLA (Picture: Lin Jian, Xinhua, Alamy Live News).
Comment

Does Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific region matter to the UK?

Taiwan military vessel as seen from a warship of the navy of the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army PLA 050822 CREDIT Lin Jian, Xinhua, Alamy Live News
Taiwan military vessel as seen from a warship of the navy of the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army PLA (Picture: Lin Jian, Xinhua, Alamy Live News).

The risk of conflict between China and Taiwan, and any involvement from the USA, is a challenge because it not only threatens the UK economy directly but raises concerns that it has the potential to drag Britain into a wider, unwanted conflict.

A visit by Speaker of the US House Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August has caused a regional security crisis.

The visit, the first in almost 30 years by a senior US government figure has enraged the People's Republic of China (PRC), which views such a visit as an unacceptable infringement on its own national interests.

The Chinese response was significant, including large-scale military exercises and missile firings, cancellation of bilateral links with the US, and a reduction in diplomatic contact.

This response seems to be overkill for a single visit but reflects the scale of Chinese concerns about the links between the US and Taiwan.

Why, though, is this such a flashpoint, why is the region so strategically important, and what does this mean for the UK?

The current complex history of China-Taiwan relations dates to the 1940s and the end of the Chinese Civil War. This was a long and immensely bloody conflict, fought in various phases over several decades.

Following clashes over many years, interrupted by the Second World War, the forces of the Chinese Nationalist Party which had governed China were defeated by the Communist Party in 1949 and evacuated their remaining forces to the island of Taiwan, where they formed a government in exile.

Since this date, there has been an uneasy and, at times, hostile relationship between the two governments, both of whom maintain that they are the official government of all China.

Both the Republic of China (ROC) and PRC claim sovereignty over each other's territory, and both maintain that they are the legitimate government of all China (including Taiwan).

This complex state of affairs has resulted in a situation where the PRC is recognised by most nations as the legitimate government of China, but Taiwan continues to have quasi-official diplomatic recognition through a series of national offices run by different states that function as embassies in all but name.

Historically, support for the PRC and ROC was shaped through the lens of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and other Communist states supporting China, both diplomatically and through the provision of military equipment.

In the same way, Taiwan enjoyed significant tacit US support, receiving large amounts of relatively modern US military equipment to defend itself.

The US has traditionally stopped short of signing a formal mutual defence treaty with Taiwan but has strongly implied that it would assist Taiwan in the event of an attack by the PRC. 

Map of Taiwan 030822 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
A map showing Taiwan with the People's Republic of China (PRC) to the northwest.

The nature of US support has also included very physical capability demonstrations – in the mid-1990s the PRC attempted to intimidate Taiwan to influence the outcome of elections.

This included the test firing of missiles near Taiwanese waters. To demonstrate US support, President Clinton dispatched no fewer than three US Navy aircraft carrier battlegroups to demonstrate both the speed and scale with which the US could support Taiwan if needed – a message not lost on the PRC who recognised they were powerless to intervene.

This incident reportedly was responsible for the decision for the PRC to acquire a modern navy and aircraft carriers to tackle this challenge.

Since the 1990s, the PRC has grown significantly in both military strength and capability, with their armed forces growing to become some of the most capable in the world.

The acquisition of new ships, including domestically designed aircraft carriers and amphibious vessels poses a direct risk to Taiwan as they are now able to both threaten Taiwanese security, and pose a credible threat to any US reinforcements sent in times of war.

The result is a growing strategic tension in the Strait of Formosa as the PRC and ROC face off against each other, with increasingly capable armed forces and a wider decline in their strategic relationship.

While the PRC has become an increasingly repressive one-party state, ruthlessly stamping down on any protests or efforts to introduce or sustain democracy (for example the clamping down in Hong Kong where the 'one country, two systems' structure has all but disappeared), the ROC has become a democratic state and arguably could be considered a developed 21st Century western liberal democracy.

This increasing divergence in visions does not bode well, as Taiwan is unlikely to want to reintegrate with the PRC knowing that to do so would almost certainly mean the end of their way of life and democratic tradition.  

The result is a growing strategic deadlock between these two states – both of whom maintain that they represent China.

The PRC under President Xi is determined to complete its mission of reintegrating Taiwan back under mainland control by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.

While Taiwan accepts it is unlikely to ever regain control of the mainland, it has yet to formally declare its independence and irrevocably step away from the mainland and become a nation state in its own right – to do so would provoke an enormous and extremely aggressive reaction from the PRC and may lead to war.

Watch: China and Taiwan, a military comparison.

Why does this matter for the UK, given that this all refers to complex territorial disputes thousands of miles away from home?

What is the UK interest in all of these hugely complex debates? It is not as straightforward as assuming that because these events are occurring a long way from home, they are not of interest to the UK or MOD – if anything these are increasingly relevant to long-term British strategic interests.

Currently, the British Government is taking an increased interest in the Indo-Pacific region as part of its so-called 'tilt' that will see more resources (trade, diplomatic and military) invested in the region as part of efforts to grow the UK presence and engagement with the region.

The tilt is central to British national security planning efforts for the next few years. The reason for this is to expand diplomatic influence with new partners, maintain close strategic links with existing ones and create opportunities for more trade and commercial relationships to boost the UK economy, particularly post Brexit.

For the UK the risk of conflict between China and Taiwan (and the USA) is a challenge because it threatens the UK economy directly and may drag the nation into a wider unwanted conflict.

The South China Sea sees an enormous amount of commercial shipping which would be disrupted because of conflict – one estimate suggests that around 13% of all commercial global traffic sails through these waters, worth some £97bn.

An outbreak of conflict would cause repercussions that could disrupt the supply chain and do huge economic interests back in the UK, even if not directly involved in hostilities.

A wider reason why stability matters is because of Taiwan's importance as a manufacturer of semiconductors that are central to the modern way of life.

Just one firm in Taiwan produces 54% of all global semiconductors, which are used in a vast array of products from phones to computers to cars. Even the PRC does not produce them in quantity, meaning that any war would quickly disrupt the entire global economy and supply chain. 

This was seen during the initial part of the COVID lockdowns when a global shortage of semiconductors meant mass disruption across the supply chain, reducing availability of essential goods.

While this has been overcome, a war would potentially do damage to the main factory that could take many years to repair, causing lasting damage to the global economy.

The final key reason why Taiwan matters so much to the UK is the importance of protecting democracies from aggressive expansionism.

As has been seen in Ukraine, where Russian forces have invaded to 'liberate' territory they perceive as their own, the global order today is under threat from leaders who seek to expand their borders and empires at any price.

The risk with Taiwan is not only that an aggressive Chinese attack would mark the end of democracy, but it would also open the door to wider aggressive Chinese moves in the South China Sea, particularly around the Spratly Islands and other areas where some highly debatable and spurious claims of Chinese sovereignty have been made on various island groups like the Spratly islands.  

In practical terms, the UK is unlikely to play a major military role in this region directly, but the fact that there is a permanent UK military presence in the region means its likely to continue to take an interest in the ongoing stability of the area.

The presence of British Gurkhas in Brunei, naval facilities in Singapore and the permanent presence of two River class OPVs (to be replaced/augmented by Type 31 Frigates in the next few years) points to an ongoing low key but credible military interest in the region.

This is augmented by a growing number of exercises and deployments, including RAF deployments to Alaska and Australia, and bilateral Army exercises with partners across the region. There is also likely to be a return visit by Royal Navy carrier strike groups, operating with partners across the region to train together and improve interoperability.

This military presence is supported by the growing importance of the two main defensive agreements that the UK participates in.

The Five Power Defence Agreement (FPDA) brings together the UK, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore to collaborate on defensive exercises, and provide some mutual support to each other. Operating for more than 50 years, the FPDA has been of increasing importance to the UK in the last couple of years, with significant British participation in its key exercises including ships and aircraft.

The FPDA is a cornerstone of regional stability, bringing together some of the key local powers and helping build trust, co-operation and improving the ability to operate together on operations.

The other key link for the UK is the newly announced 'AUKUS' (Australia / UK / US) treaty signed in 2021.

This new body is responsible for improving defence links between the three nations, including sharing research on advanced areas like cyber, hypersonic missiles and nuclear propulsion.

A key goal for AUKUS will be the commitment for Australia to gain access to British and American nuclear submarine technology to help build a fleet of around eight nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) that will help support naval operations in the Pacific.

As part of this there has been a general increase in UK co-operation with both nations, for example, visits to Australia by the RN submarine HMS Astute in 2021, and Australian naval personnel are now attending nuclear-related training courses in the UK.

AUKUS matters because while not a defensive alliance, it does improve information sharing, helping ensure all three nations can develop advanced military equipment, and it enables burden sharing too.

The USA is particularly concerned about the threat from the PRC and is increasingly focused on ensuring its armed forces are capable of deterring and defending against a PRC attack on Taiwan or elsewhere.

AUKUS helps because it means that Australia and the UK can help share the wider burden, taking on responsibility for meeting some of the US defence commitments, for example nuclear submarine patrols, freeing up resources to help plan to deter the PRC.

Would the UK be more actively involved in helping Taiwan defend itself?

It remains unclear what steps the UK would take to support if the PRC attacked, as unlike the USA, Britain has not formally pledged to defend Taiwan. What is likely to happen is that the Royal Navy will continue to be used to visibly maintain a presence in the region, conducting freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, and while not visiting Taiwan, sailing close enough to send a message of tacit support.

UK companies have also helped Taiwan on its quest to build new submarines, with export licences being approved by the British Government to send technology to assist with the new Taiwanese submarine construction project.  

This is particularly urgent as the current Taiwanese submarine force comprises two Dutch submarines and two ex-US Navy WW2 veteran hulls which are now around 80 years old and are the oldest submarines in use anywhere in the world.  

Plans are now under way to build eight new diesel submarines, but these will not enter service until the mid-2020s.

British support, along with other nations, to help provide the parts, technology, and engineering support to make this a reality is essential here as Taiwan will need a credible submarine force to deter any Chinese amphibious attack on the island.

It is likely that British support for Taiwan may become more vocal if Liz Truss ends up becoming the next Prime Minister.

Earlier in 2022 she called for more to be done to stand up for democracies like Taiwan, comparing the situation to the support given to Ukraine by the West after Russia attacked.

This incurred the wrath of the PRC and led to a deterioration of bilateral relations. It is possible that under her leadership the UK may take a more proactive approach, increasing military presence, supporting defence and security export licences, and working more closely with the US and others on contingency plans on what to do in the event of a PRC attack.

Taiwan may not be an immediate security issue for the UK, but the repercussions of conflict in the South China Sea and the potential escalation into major warfighting will be felt globally.#

It is particularly notable that the recently released UK National Strategy for Maritime Security focuses on the importance of the South China Sea and keeping trade open, highlighting the significant importance of this trade route to the UK economy.

Taking steps now to build Taiwanese capacity, deter Chinese efforts to threaten Taiwan and help reduce tensions, focusing on diplomacy and not bullets will be vital here.

As a major global power, with global interests, the UK is well placed to play a leading role in delivering this. The challenge for the UK is to work out how to carefully balance its policy towards both Taiwan and the PRC.

Support for democracy is vital, but equally any engagement needs to understand the PRC perspective and work out how to balance the two views out.

The challenge is that while there is a clear global security risk posed by China in the context of its increasingly assertive and bellicose responses to being challenged over Taiwan, there is also a trade angle too.

The UK has huge trade interests with China that could be disrupted, and the Chinese are masters of using diverse approaches like weaponizing trade and economic engagement to make a diplomatic point.

British policy makers will have to tread very carefully and strike a fine balance between national security and prosperity and balancing off managing bilateral relations with the PRC and Taiwan, and also managing the wider relationship with the US and other key allies.

This will require deft diplomacy and an ability to develop complex solutions to meet very complex challenges.

This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today's Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today's military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.