Red Lines, Taiwan, and the UK Foreign Secretary Visit to Beijing

By | September 04, 2023 | No Comments

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly (詹姆斯·克莱弗利) was in Beijing this past week for meetings with Wang Yi and Han Zheng. The Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) official readout of the meetings put cyber at the top of the agenda, with Hong Kong coming in a close second:

The Foreign Secretary was clear about the UK’s position on China’s malign cyber activity. In detailed discussions on Hong Kong, he stressed the damage caused by the Beijing-imposed National Security Law to rights and freedoms and consequently to China’s international reputation and raised the case of Jimmy Lai.

On the technological front, James Titcomb at the Telegraph noted the sensitivity of Beijing’s possible participation in an upcoming Artificial Intelligence (AI) in London. The FCDO press release said Cleverly and his interlocutors “agreed on the potential of AI to unlock huge opportunities but stressed the need for global coordination to mitigate risks and put protections in place.”

Further information on the depth of discussions over Hong Kong was not forthcoming in either English or Chinese media, although the Hong Kong Trade Office in London appeared to have been vandalised around the same time. Li Guanjie [李冠杰], one of the PRC’s more visible British experts in a Shanghai think tank, complained in the Huanqiu Shibao that the mere existence of UK government reports on Hong Kong human rights constituted “interference in internal affairs” of the PRC. Li’s point on UK migration route for Hong Kong dissidents seemed more aimed at a Chinese domestic audience, however — no statistics were given on the exodus, and the implication that that British state should be grateful that China has not reciprocated by offering migration to dissident republicans in Ulster was laughable. (In May, Robert Jenrick informed Parliament that 150,000 Hong Kongers had migrated to the UK in 2022 alone, and local governments expect that cumulative number to surpass 300,000 within the next four years.)

However, it was on the Taiwan issue where the surrounding environment generated the most overt friction. While the Cleverly visit — as intended — elicited no unexpected sparks from the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson on Taiwan, the MFA did take the time to comment on a new report which coincided with the high-level visit:

TASS: A report by the UK’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee says Taiwan is an “independent country”. Does the foreign ministry have any comment?

Wang Wenbin: Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory. The one-China principle is a universally recognized norm in international relations and the political foundation of China-UK relations. The relevant report of the British parliament blatantly referred to Taiwan as “an independent country”, which distorts the facts and is totally misleading. We urge the relevant committee of the British parliament to abide by the one-China principle, observe international law and the norms governing international relations, respect China’s core interests, stop sending wrong signals to “Taiwan independence” separatist forces, take concrete actions to fulfill the UK’s political commitments on the Taiwan question and maintain the sound and steady growth of the China-UK relations. 

The report in question is here; entitled “Tilting Horizons,” it runs 85 pages, within which these two sentences of indelicate language appear to have struck a nerve:

Taiwan is already an independent country, under the name Republic of China (ROC). Taiwan possesses all the qualifications for statehood, including a permanent population, a defined territory, government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states—it is only lacking greater international recognition.

One would have thought that a statement like this might have been better vetted, but instead the citation goes written evidence for the committee by Grey Sargeant, and a report by the same from his year (2020-21) as a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Institute. Alicia Kearns, a Conservative Party MP who chairs the committee, doubled down when speaking to Politico, and was all over the place in a BBC interview, concluding with a need for a “legitimate alliance” with Taiwan.

Apart from the preemptive MFA complaining about the report, the Taiwan issue was not at the forefront of Chinese readouts of the Cleverly mission. However, there was a section in this Global Times editorial (oddly, a Chinese version in Huanqiu Shibao went unfound) which merits mention:

In addition to the latest report from the UK parliament, the UK government announced in late July that the UK will co-host the 26th annual “UK-Taiwan Trade Talks” with the Taiwan island later this year, and will start talks on an “Enhanced Trade Partnership” with the region in due course.

The decision, disregarding the fact that China strongly opposes official interactions of any form between China’s Taiwan region and countries that have diplomatic relations with China, is a clear violation of the one-China principle and its own commitment to maintain only unofficial relations with the island, according to a statement from the Chinese Embassy in Britain.

The article ends with an unveiled threat to use economic leverage against the UK if it goes forward with building links to Taiwan:

From China’s perspective, the pursuit of pragmatic cooperation means that a country cannot trample on China’s bottom line while developing economic and trade relations with China. However, from the Western perspective, separating political and economic issues is pragmatic, that is, these countries can provoke China’s core interest over the Taiwan question, and China is supposed to maintain economic relations as usual. Yet, when they use politics as a tool to put pressure on China, isn’t it ridiculous for them to think that the foundation of economic ties remains intact?

To be clear, the UK is engaging in regular annual trade talks as it has for 26 years with Taiwan — as the government’s explainer on the talks describes, the two countries have a bilateral trade volume of £8.6 billion annually (as of 2022), or an amount which is about 8% of the size of the total value of UK-PRC trade (which was £107.5 billion annually in 2022-23).

So what is there to be mad about? The Global Times is lumping in regular UK-Taiwan talks with the newer discussions over an “Enhanced Trade Partnership,” or ETP.

There is a certain frisson of residing in the post-Brexit landscape with the proliferation of such mechanisms, which are actually preparatory to more comprehensive trade bilateral trade deals. The UK currently has ETPs with India and Thailand, with Taiwan arriving as a possible third such partner. The inescapable Liz Truss, in her role as International Trade Secretary, inked an ETP with India in February 2021 — this has not lead into a blitzkrieg toward, or consummation of, a fully fledged Free Trade Agreement, but instead a dozen rounds of ongoing negotiations toward an FTA in which the UK strategic documents link back to Conservative Party manifesto agreements that “the National Health Service is not on the table.” The point is an ETP with Taiwan would not be a full Free Trade Agreement, but merely preparatory to the main event — and a preparatory action which has itself been promised “in due course” rather than imminently. This is hardly the stuff of red lines, but perhaps when bundled in with buried-in-the-fine-print yet noteworthy Parliamentary rhetoric it is clearly meant to add to the overall desired PRC impression of British intransigence.

In February, this website published an assessment of Sino-British relations through the prism of the Taiwan issue, noting the role of Parliamentary visits to Taiwan (as well as interventions by ex-Prime Minister Liz Truss), which might be worth revisiting. The role of Parliamentary select committees, versus US Congressional delegations to Taiwan and rhetoric around that island’s defense and strategic value, might make for a very interesting comparative paper in an academic journal.

To conclude with Alicia Kearns and the domestic drumbeat around the Cleverly mission that the UK lacked a public China strategy — this is a point that might be better made by first acknowledging that Foreign Secretary Cleverly had given a major speech on China in April, and that the Integrated Review had received a substantive “refresh” in March 2023:

We will update the UK’s approach to China to keep pace with the evolving and epoch-defining challenge it poses to the international order. First, we will increase our national security protections in those areas where Chinese Communist Party actions pose a threat to our people, prosperity and security. Second, we will deepen our cooperation and increase alignment with both our core allies and a wider group of partners. Third, we will engage directly with China bilaterally and in international fora so that we leave room for open, constructive and predictable relations: diplomacy is a normal part of state-to-state business, and supports the national interest. We will double funding to build China capabilities across government to better understand China (emphasis added) and allow us to engage confidently where it is in our interests to do so.

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