Ahead of the U.K. government’s latest attempt to re-assess its relationship with China in a strategic review, and in the context of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declaring the U.K.’s “golden era” of relations with China over, the Taiwan Policy Center has published a report that attempts to squeeze Taiwan into the conversation. Alongside emphasizing the legal basis for the U.K. recognizing Taiwanese self-determination, it offers a few practical recommendations for how that might be done.
Titled “Taiwan Respected,” the diplomatic situation the report says it is responding to is grim. On the world stage, Taiwan’s people have been “talked over, ignored, forced to adopt spurious names, belittled, shut out, patronized, scolded, and blamed for the temerity of identifying themselves as Taiwanese.” Important markers along this path include Taiwan (as the Republic of China) losing its seat at the U.N. to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, the U.S. terminating official diplomatic relations with the ROC in 1979, and Taiwan’s subsequent locking out from other international institutions — notably it was not allowed observer status at the World Health Organization during the COVID pandemic.
On top of those, the report points out the PRC has worked to expand the remit of U.N. Resolution 2758 to embed its “One China Principle” into international institutions. Resolution 2758 refers to the 1971 U.N. resolution which recognized the representatives of the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations and that the People’s Republic of China is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. It did not rule on the existence of one China or the people of Taiwan’s right to self-determination, but China often says it does.
The report’s main point is to counter China’s narrative by highlighting key pieces of international law, which it says provide the legal basis for recognition of Taiwanese people’s self-determination. These notably include the 1933 Montevideo Convention and the 1941 U.N. Atlantic Charter. Article 3 of the Montevideo Convention is highlighted as particularly important, with its assertion that “The political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states.” Meanwhile, clauses 2 and 3 in the Atlantic Charter are also foregrounded: “2. Territorial adjustments must be in accord with the wishes of the peoples concerned. 3. All people had a right to self-determination.” Under these criteria, Taiwan’s self-governance, and the decades-long rise in identification as Taiwanese, should be sufficient for greater forms of recognition within international institutions and closer diplomatic ties, the report argues.
Of course, using this kind of argument — as opposed to a moral one, or a realist one — does open up the critique that international law as a concept is less fixed than it sounds. “China is not alone in charting a path in international relations and membership of international organizations which oscillates between compliance with, and convenient disregard, for law,” the report acknowledges.
However, that caveat (and the threat of Chinese military aggression) is reflected in its recommendations to the U.K. government, which are incremental and cautious.
Firstly, the report suggests a simple updating of the language used to address the so-called Taiwan question, going beyond the phrasing of merely “acknowledging” or “recognizing” China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. Alternatives it offers include: “The United Kingdom’s respects the right of the Taiwanese people under international law to self-determination and believes that the future of Taiwan is [a] matter for the Taiwanese people alone to decide without bribe, threat, or coercion from any other party.”
Then come nine recommendations to the U.K. government that the report says would represent “normalizing interaction with Taiwan to the fullest extent, short of establishing formal diplomatic relations.” These include: Updates to nomenclature, with rules to establish the designation of “Taiwan” for use in all official communications as opposed to designations such as the Taipei Representative Office in the United Kingdom. Or updates to protocol, with rules for interactions between elected politicians adjusted to allow for further interaction. Or reduction of bureaucratic barriers such as granting Taiwanese diplomats diplomatic status in the U.K. and allowing them to participate in domestic and international forums and events held in the U.K., under the name Taiwan or Taiwanese.
These kinds of actions would no doubt be useful parameters to measure how the U.K. sees Taiwan. But readers shouldn’t hold their breaths if they expect to see big changes. The Taiwan Policy Center report was accepted as written evidence by the U.K. House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee as it sought to make recommendations for the U.K.’s updated Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, expected in February or March. But the committee’s recommendations only include the point about emphasizing the difference between “acknowledging” rather than “accepting” China’s “One China Principle.”
There is, then, presumably quite a lot of convincing for the likes of the Taiwan Policy Center still to do.