The Taiwanese Election: Implications for the UK

Beijing will not be surprised by the election of Lai Ching-te as Taiwan’s next president. The polls had been pointing to this outcome for a while. Not that this will make it any more tolerable for them. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long regarded Taiwan as part of its territory, and loathes the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which rejects its notion of ‘One China’ and embraces the island’s de-facto independence and a separate Taiwanese identity.

When the DDP returned to power in 2016, with the election of the current president Tsai Ing-wen, Beijing put improving cross-strait relations on ice. Following Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election in 2020, China stepped up its campaign of coercion. In recent years, the People’s Liberation Army has increased its military manoeuvres around Taiwan. Beijing has repeatedly violated the country’s Air Defence Identification Zone and, with these incursions, has unilaterally abolished the median line which previously acted as a barrier between both sides of the strait. Military drones have begun encircling the main island and Chinese naval vessels have pushed towards the country’s contiguous zone, 24 nautical miles from its coasts. Meanwhile China’s economic coercion started with restrictions on its citizens’ ability to travel to Taiwan. Additional bans on Taiwanese foodstuffs, from fruit to fish, followed. Diplomatic tools were also deployed, further restricting Taipei’s ability to represent itself on the world stage. 

With Lai now elected, the next four years will likely look much like the past four. Indeed, within days of his victory, Nauru switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with only 12 formal diplomatic partners (Taiwan had 22 when Tsai first took office). Economic sanctions, undoing cross-strait trade agreements, may be next.

All of this has implications for the British government, which, in the Integrated Review Refresh, committed itself to ‘supporting stability in the Taiwan Strait’. The United Kingdom, as Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s statement congratulating Lai reiterated, has long argued that cross-strait differences must be resolved peacefully ‘without the threat or use of force or coercion’.  

It is the former of these, force, which receives much attention. Following Beijing’s ‘bellicose and intemperate remarks’ after the election, Lord Alton of Liverpool asked the government whether it was ‘making proper preparations and risk assessments on everything from the economy to defence arrangements in the light of the potential invasion of Taiwan?’. No doubt the government is already, alongside allies, preparing itself for such a scenario. Yet the election of Lai does not appear, for now, to have altered Beijing’s calculus. The costs and risks associated with a full-scale invasion remain high. While an unprecedented third consecutive election victory for the DPP makes the prospects of ‘peaceful unification’ slimmer, and thus the need for Beijing to act greater, the margin of that victory, and the party’s loss of a legislative majority, could keep them confident that such a possibility has not been completely exhausted. 

Rather it is China’s continued campaign of coercion against Taiwan which is the immediate challenge. With the actions listed above, Beijing seeks to break the will of the Taiwanese people to achieve their ultimate goal without being forced into a military fight. Pushing back against these efforts will require a creative response from London, particularly given the unofficial nature of bilateral relations. The UK-Taiwan Enhanced Trade Partnership, announced late last year, is one example of the sort of initiatives which could be taken. Not only will this arrangement ease Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation but it may go some way in compensating for China’s punitive trade practices. As the next four years unfold, additional measures like this will likely prove necessary.

Gray Sergeant

Gray Sergeant is a Research Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy