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Volume 406: debated on Wednesday 4 June 2003

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4 pm

I start by declaring my interest in seeking this debate: I am the co-chairperson of the all-party group on Taiwan, which has members from all political parties in both Houses. It is an active group, which is fully supported by the Taiwanese office in London. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) is replying to the debate. We are all aware of his interest in Taiwan.

The United Kingdom and Taiwan have a good relationship, which benefits both countries. Some 155 Taiwanese companies operate in the UK. Taiwan has invested vast sums of money in the UK, creating many thousands of jobs for British workers, and has brought in some of the most advanced technological developments in the world.

Taiwan has the world's 16th largest economy; it is the 14th largest trading nation in the world, the eighth largest outward investor, and the world's third largest exporter of information technology. The UK is the third largest trading partner of Taiwan in Europe, and receives 48 percent. of Taiwan's investment in Europe. Taiwan invests more in the UK than in any other European country. Those are impressive figures that demonstrate how the UK benefits from its involvement with Taiwan. The importance to Taiwan of the relationship is seen by the high calibre of the person appointed to head its London office. That person has always been a senior diplomat, as is the current representative, Dr. Tien.

I hope. as does the rest of our group, that contacts between the UK and Taiwan can he upgraded, through discussions between Ministers, Dr. Tien and his officials, and senior civil servants and through the exchange of ministerial visits between our countries. I welcome the recent visits to Taiwan by my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment and by the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths).

Discussions such as those to which I referred could form the basis for the establishment of joint projects between the UK and Taiwan to develop trade and business links with mainland China. In Taiwan, many thousands of companies have links with mainland China. Taiwan has invested the equivalent of $100 billion in China, and fully understands the attitude and culture of the Chinese. I hope that the Government will enter into serious discussions on the setting up of joint venture projects, and I will welcome the Minister's comments on that point.

Every year, thousands of Taiwanese students come to this country to study—at present, the figure is 14,000—and that obviously brings us enormous benefits. However, those students could go to many other countries to study, which leads me to say that the problems that they have in obtaining visas must be greatly improved. British nationals visiting Taiwan can have a visa-free visit of up to 30 days, but it certainly is not as easy for Taiwanese people wishing to visit the United Kingdom to obtain a visa. I would welcome the Minister's comments on how the problem can be improved.

Another issue that the all-party group wishes to see greatly improved is the treatment of visits and stopovers in the United Kingdom by Taiwanese Ministers and senior officials when en route to other countries. Sadly, the Government place restrictions on such visits and stopovers, and I clearly ask the Minister why that is still happening. He must be aware that the United States Government and a number of European countries are far more responsive than the United Kingdom in assisting such visits. It is time for improvements to be made, so I ask: will they and, if not, why not?

I turn now to an issue that causes Taiwan and the British all-party group deep concern and disappointment. That is the refusal, yet again, to admit Taiwan as an observer to the World Health Organisation. Early-day motions are regularly tabled—they attract a great deal of support from Members of all parties—that clearly call for the Government to be seen to support the request for observer status to be given to Taiwan. The British Medical Association, a respected organisation in this country and in the world, fully supports that request. Taiwan has one of the most advanced health and medical care systems in the world, so why is it being denied observer status?

In January 2002, Taiwan became a member of the World Trade Organisation. If the country can qualify for membership of that organisation, what is the real reason for its being refused observer status at the World Health Organisation? I ask my hon. Friend to be frank in replying to that point. The United States Government and the European Union fully support Taiwan's application for observer status, so why does it not have that status? What is the United Kingdom's position on that matter? Does the United Kingdom support Taiwan's application for observer status at the World Health Organisation?

Taiwan has a population of about 23 million people. It is a democracy with a deep respect for human rights and freedom of the press. It obviously wants a role within the United Nations, yet it has been excluded from the UN since 1971. Here is a country that in the view of many people, and certainly in the view of the all-party group on Taiwan, has a right to be seriously considered for playing a positive role in the United Nations. Let us compare Taiwan with some members of the UN. Some countries are certainly not democratic, and human rights and press freedom either do not exist or have little respect paid to them, but those countries are still members.

In September this year at a meeting of the UN, Taiwan will again press its claim for involvement in the UN. Can the Minister tell me what the United Kingdom's view will be on the issue? In recent years when the issue has been discussed, the UK has sadly opposed Taiwan. Will we do that again, and, if so, for what reason? Why is it necessary for the UK to do that? Who are we seeking to please by showing opposition to Taiwan and the role that it wants in the UN?

I also wish to refer to the ongoing pressure—indeed, threats—which Taiwan faces from mainland China. President Chen of Taiwan has repeatedly sought to build a good relationship with China, but has received a poor response. We know that China has several hundred missiles aimed at Taiwan, and I want to know where we stand on China's attitude. China is a major country, but many would question several aspects of the policies that it follows within China and with other countries throughout the world. It wants to play an ever-increasing role in the world, but we have standards, such as respecting the views of a country and its people as to how they want to live. That applies to Taiwan and its people. The Minister can be in no doubt that, although Taiwan wants to co-operate with China, it will not be taken over by China. I hope that he and certainly the British Government fully understand that. If they do, should we not make that clear in our discussions with China?

I welcome this debate, and close my remarks by saying that I and many other Members, irrespective of party, will continue to work to develop the co-operation that exists between the United Kingdom and Taiwan. As I said, the relationship is good, but it can be improved. I have highlighted several ways in which that can be done. We have greatly benefited from the contacts that exist between our countries, but the all-party group on Taiwan looks to the United Kingdom to be, and to be seen to be, more supportive on key issues related to Taiwan. We must make it clear to China that its policy of threats against Taiwan is not acceptable to this country or to many other countries. I hope that that statement will be made clearly by the British Government in its dealings with China.

4.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Bill Rammell)

I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to this debate, which has been secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). I pay tribute to his assiduous work on this issue.

I think that I am correct in saying that this is the first debate on Taiwan in the House for three years. It is therefore a welcome and timely opportunity to reflect on relations. I will certainly argue this afternoon that I believe that our bilateral, commercial, educational and cultural links are in excellent shape. Before setting out the state of relations between the United Kingdom and Taiwan, it is perhaps worth while reflecting on two major changes that Taiwan has seen since our previous debate. I want also to say a few words about the SARS epidemic, which is clearly affecting Taiwan.

With the election of Chen Shui-bian in March 2000, we witnessed an historic event: the first democratic transfer of political power in Taiwan. It was the first time that a non-Kuomintang leader had been elected. The transfer was smooth and peaceful, demonstrating once again Taiwan's impressive achievements in establishing a fully functioning democracy in recent years. I am sure that I will be joined by hon. Members throughout the House in welcoming that event and in applauding it.

The pace of reform has led to an evolving and sometimes tense relationship with the mainland. Clearly, my hon. Friend was referring to that. We consider that the future of Taiwan is a matter for people on both sides of the Taiwan straits to settle among themselves. Conflict in the Taiwan straits would be destabilising for not only those concerned but the whole region and beyond. I say directly to my hon. Friend that we would view with extreme concern any raising of tensions or recourse to military action.

We take every suitable opportunity to convey to the Chinese Government and, informally to the Taiwanese authorities, that we are strongly opposed to the use of force. We believe that practical steps to build confidence, such as the recent indirect charter flights between Taipei and Shanghai, are the best way forward to lower tensions and to find a mutually acceptable basis for the resumption of a peaceful dialogue.

The second major change happened in January 2002. Taiwan joined the World Trade Organisation as the separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Kinmen, Matsu and Penghu. The United Kingdom was a strong supporter of Taiwan's WTO membership, and I am pleased to place that fact on the record. We welcome its increased substantive engagement with trading partners. Their commitment to the WTO can only strengthen our commercial relationship. Such participation highlights the importance of Taiwan's economy in the global marketplace.

It is impossible to discuss the current situation in Taiwan without mentioning the SARS epidemic. Only a few weeks ago, it seemed that Taiwan was relatively unaffected by SARS. Tragically, since then there has been a rapid deterioration. I understand that, as of today, 81 people have now died from SARS in Taiwan. I wish to take this opportunity to place on the record my sincere condolences and sympathy to those who have died or who have lost a loved one from SARS. I am sure that I speak for both sides of the House when I say that our thoughts are very much with them at this difficult time. SARS does not yet seem to have peaked in Taiwan and, in response to that, the United Kingdom has offered both expert and practical help. We remain ready to offer whatever assistance we can to the Taiwanese authorities in this difficult period.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the World Health Organisation. Clearly, there is a difficulty with Taiwanese involvement in a United Nations specialised agency, when statehood is a requirement of membership. This year, some countries proposed that the health authorities of Taiwan be allowed to participate in the WHO as an observer. Statehood is not necessarily a requirement for observer status. However, China and several other countries strongly oppose the Taiwanese application.

The United Kingdom gave serious consideration to the Taiwanese application, and we discussed it with our European Union partners. My hon. Friend is no doubt aware that the objective of the WHO is the attainment by all people of the highest possible medical care. All WHO members are anxious to achieve that goal. However, the World Health Assembly in Geneva could not reach consensus on including the issue of observer status for Taiwan on the WHA agenda.

I note that Dr. Bruntland, the WHO director general, said that Taiwan has full access to the WHO's expertise, and I trust that that is the case. We certainly welcome the fact that the WHO's experts are in Taiwan. The British Trade and Cultural Office in Taipei has liaised with them to discuss where UK expertise and/or medical supplies might complement what is already being done and is available in Taiwan.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of the United Nations, and perhaps it is appropriate for me to deal with that now. The United Kingdom spoke briefly against including the Taiwanese application on the agenda, and we did that because the UN charter makes it clear that statehood is a prerequisite for UN membership. As only 27 countries currently recognise Taiwan as a state, there is no prospect of Taiwan gaining full membership. That is fully consistent with our position on the status of Taiwan. However, in our contribution, we drew attention to Taiwan's democratic achievements.

I now turn to the main subject of the debate, which is UK-Taiwan relations. My hon. Friend made a knowledgeable and well argued speech about those relations, and he is well known and respected in the UK and in Taiwan for his knowledge and interest in that country. I want to take the opportunity to thank him and all the members of the all-party group for the very important work that they do. My hon. Friend has led groups of MPs to Taiwan and arranged visits for Taiwanese legislators to the UK. I believe that that has played an important role in contributing to the flourishing of relations between the UK and Taiwan. When such a delegation has gone to Taiwan in the past, I have taken the opportunity to meet members of that delegation following their visit so that I can learn of their experiences.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that UK-Taiwanese relations are now stronger than ever. Despite having no diplomatic relations with Taiwan, we have built up strong links in several areas. Commercial, cultural and educational ties are in excellent shape. Our position on the status of Taiwan is well known, and it remains our policy and forms the foundation of our dealings with Taiwan. The non-recognition issue should not inhibit the development of close relations in areas of mutual benefit that can help both partners.

Traditionally, trade has been the cornerstone of our relations. As the 17th largest trading economy, Taiwan has an important contribution to make in bringing about free and fair world trade. WTO membership will foster lasting reform. It should lead to more secure access to WTO members' markets, increased levels of foreign direct investment in Taiwan, and a more transparent and predictable business environment in Taiwan for British businesses, which is something that we all want. It is the case that the UK remains the favoured destination for Taiwanese investment in Europe. Historically, the UK has had 70 per cent. of Taiwanese investment in Europe, and that is concentrated in the manufacturing sector.

Many Taiwanese companies now manufacture in China rather than in Europe, and the Taiwanese are increasingly opting for low-cost manufacturing locations. As a result of that change, Taiwanese investment into the UK has slowed markedly from its peak in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the UK is still the leading location for Taiwanese investment in Europe, which is something that we very much welcome.

It is pleasing to note that the Taiwanese companies in the UK that have chosen to remain here continue to do very good business. There are about 150 such companies in the UK and we are encouraging them to diversify their work from manufacturing into research and development. It is worth noting that recent successes include the decision by China Magnetics Corporation and Ritek, the world's two leading producers of digital storage media, to invest in the UK.

Such investment has by no means been one-way traffic. UK exports to Taiwan last year amounted to £853 million. During his recent visit to Taiwan, my hon. Friend will no doubt have been impressed by the number of familiar high-street names from the UK that he saw present in Taiwan. We very much welcome the recent announcement by China Airlines that it will produce 12 Airbus A330–300s for regional passenger traffic. BAE Systems will build the wings for those airframes, and Rolls-Royce is currently bidding for a £500 million order to supply aeroengines to China Airlines. Both Shell and BP hope to be involved in the supply of liquefied natural gas. I hope that such world-class, flagship British companies will continue to prosper and succeed in Taiwan.

The UK Government are keen to play their part in promoting and strengthening our trade relationship. The British Trade and Cultural Office, the non-governmental office in Taiwan that represents UK economic and cultural interests, is active in boosting Britain's profile in Taiwan and in improving our unofficial links. The BTCO now has more than 50 staff promoting Britain's economic and cultural interests in Taiwan, not only in Taipei but in Kaohsiung too. Despite not being able to carry out the normal range of consular work, the BTCO gives valuable assistance to the 2,500 or so British nationals in Taipei.

Last year, the BTCO handled 40,000 visa applications from Taiwanese visitors and businesspeople who wanted to visit the United Kingdom. I noted my hon. Friend's comments about visas, and I shall look into the issue. The Home Office, not the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is responsible for immigration policy, and I shall raise his concerns with my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration.

The BTCO is supported in Taipei by an active British chambers of commerce and by the Taiwan British Business Council. Founded in 1999, the TBBC is an industry-led, Government-supported organisation, which aims to promote business in and investment between Taiwan and the UK. It held its fifth annual meeting in Taipei in April this year. A total of 18 companies attended from the UK, and the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), who has responsibility for small business, has supported and participated in the last two annual events. That has been worth while and welcomed in Taiwan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting mentioned joint ventures between UK and Taiwanese companies and mainland China, and that was one of the key themes discussed at the recent TBBC meeting. It is one of several ways in which British companies can work with their Taiwanese counterparts. I have outlined the steps that the Government take to support British companies in Taiwan, and the Department of Trade and Industry is similarly active in mainland China. Last year, trade between Taiwan and mainland China grew by 36 per cent., as my hon. Friend mentioned. I also want to make it clear that our relationship is not simply commercial. As my hon. Friend said, education plays a vital role. Approximately 13,000 Taiwanese students are enrolled on courses of various lengths in the United Kingdom, which is a significant increase from about 300 some 10 years ago. We now have a 30 per cent. share of the Taiwanese overseas student market, and the BTCO offered 29 scholarships to help Taiwanese students to study in the UK. That is valuable, and we want that educational cross-fertilisation to continue.

Cultural links also form a major element of our relationship with Taiwan. The British Council is active and does significant work in Taipei, and its work in promoting British education and culture with UK and Taiwanese partners has expanded rapidly in recent years. Last year, the British Council organised events in Taiwan that brought 750,000 people into direct contact with UK expertise and ideas, which should lead to a significant strengthening of our relationship. Some 17 arts events were presented to audiences totalling 83,000 people, and in collaboration with the Taiwanese national museums, the British Council showcased UK expertise in science education to more than 600,000 Taiwanese young people. It is also worth noting that, in February this year, the Taiwanese Minister for Culture visited the UK to learn from our experience in the creative industries. That provided further opportunities to deepen our relationship.

The Taipei representative office in London must take a great deal of credit for improving relations. It shares our aim of developing substantive links between the UK and Taiwan, and as my hon. Friend noted, it is headed by Dr. Tien Hung-mao, who is well respected as both a politician and an eminent academic, following the track record of previous appointments to the post. We have a substantial programme of visits by Ministers for non-political reasons in both directions, and we want that to continue.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's comments about visits by senior Taiwanese politicians. I must say that we treat all applications on a case-by-case basis. There is no outright ban on their visits, but we must treat such requests in line with our non-recognition policy. However, there have not been such adverse comparisons with other European countries and the USA in the figures that I have seen, and we may want to pursue that point further.

This has been an important debate. Within the policy of non-recognition, relations with the Taiwanese authorities continue to prosper at a series of levels. We are happy to see that continue, and the deepening of that relationship can only be helped by the contributions of my hon. Friend and the all-party group that he chairs. I hope that he will continue that work and that we can move forward for the benefit of both the UK and Taiwan.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.