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Taiwan: Elections

Volume 835: debated on Thursday 18 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the implications of the outcome of both the presidential and legislative elections recently held in Taiwan.

My Lords, the elections on 13 January are a testament to Taiwan’s vibrant democracy. My noble friend the Foreign Secretary issued a statement following the result congratulating Dr Lai on his victory and calling for both sides of the Taiwan Strait to renew efforts to resolve differences peacefully through constructive dialogue, without the threat to use force or coercion. The UK, of course, has a clear interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

I thank the Minister for his response. The PRC warned Taiwan that voting the wrong way might lead to war, and threatened force. Nevertheless, reunification remains central to President Xi’s China dream. It is reported that President Biden is about to send a high-level delegation in support of Dr Lai’s victory in Taiwan, and the success of this election will allow Taiwan to continue its commitment to human rights and democratic values. But what further support will the UK Government provide for Taiwan’s global integration, including membership of international organisations, as well as protecting safe passage of commercial shipping through the strait, and the semiconductor industry?

My Lords, the noble Baroness rightly raises important issues of trade. The United Kingdom has a thriving trade relationship with Taiwan, worth about £8 billion, and I assure her that we are focused on key sectors such as trade, education and culture. I have already addressed the issue of stability and security, and it will continue to be stressed in our representations to China directly. Peace in the strait is important in the global world as it stands today.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Taiwan. I would like the Minister to convey to his noble friend the Foreign Secretary how great the sense of appreciation in Taiwan was on receipt of the message of congratulations on the elections at the weekend. He is right to say that it is a vibrant democracy. In fact, it is democracy, more than anything else, that won the election. A turnout of over 70%, with 14 million people voting in a completely peaceful environment, is a huge testament to democracy in Taiwan. I echo what the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, says about help with further initiatives in which we do not go as far as formal recognition, but which involve Taiwan in world bodies to which they are placed to contribute, such as the World Health Organization. I hope that the Minister was able to give some encouragement on that too.

I thank the noble Lord for his work in this area and I will of course convey his thanks to my noble friend the Foreign Secretary. I assure him, and the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, that there are occasions—for example, at meetings of the World Health Assembly—when we have been very much at the forefront of campaigning for Taiwan’s engagement and involvement. On Taiwan as a state, this is not just about Taiwan and China; it is important for the whole world, and ensuring security and stability in the Taiwan Strait is reflective of that priority for His Majesty’s Government.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the £8 billion in bilateral trade. He will be aware that there has been a significant amount of Taiwanese investment in East Anglia, particularly in semiconductors, renewable energy and other technologies. Can he say something about the recently signed enhanced trade partnership? Post Brexit, could it be upgraded to a full trade treaty, and will our Ministers be working on that?

We certainly welcome the partnership agreement. As I understand it, the Department for Business and Trade has no current live plans for an FTA. However, the diversity of our trade with Taiwan across goods and services has been bolstered, and Taiwan is now the 35th largest trading partner with the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I was very happy to write to the president-elect on behalf of these Benches as he is the leader of our sister party; it is always welcome to congratulate a Liberal who has won an election. I know it is a rare occurrence, but it is a particularly welcome one in this regard, given that having a liberal democracy in the region is important. However, closer relationship with Taiwan is also in our strategic interests in the context of the resilience of the UK’s relationship with China. Further to the Question, does the Minister agree that, in advance of discussions about a full FTA, a much wider UK-Taiwan industrial strategy would be in our strategic interests, particularly involving the sectors of our economy that would benefit from closer links with a liberal democracy, rather than with China?

On the noble Lord’s first point, I fear that if he is asking for a reciprocal letter of congratulations from Taiwan, he will be waiting a long time. I take on board the point he raised. The manufacturing base that is Taiwan provides a huge opportunity for us to do more in that space.

My Lords, I will pick up a theme that I have already covered in Question Time today. One important ingredient of Taiwan’s path to democracy has been an active, vibrant civil society. I would not leave things to the Liberal party—in fact, it is that civil society that has guaranteed democracy. What are the Government doing to support that development, not only in Taiwan but in the region as a whole? That can be a strong beacon for economic prosperity for the whole region.

My Lords, the noble Lord knows how much I agree with him on this point. Civil society is intrinsic to any progressive society, particularly democracies, be they emerging, fragile or indeed established. The more we can do to encourage civil societies, strengthening their constitutions and encouraging their consultations with policy and programmes, the better, and we will of course do so in Taiwan and in the wider region. I recently visited India, for example, and importantly, part of my engagement there, at times discreetly, was with civil society to ensure that its voice is part of our thinking.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, already mentioned the risks that regional tensions pose to tech-enabled sectors due to their dominance in the semiconductor and connected sectors. The UK’s semiconductor strategy sets out a number of measures to try to mitigate these risks. Will the Minister have conversations with colleagues in DSIT to try to update this strategy in the light of these election results, and could he mention some of those recommendations today?

My Lords, I have already alluded to the importance of our relationship with Taiwan, the need to strengthen global trade and the role Taiwan plays in that regard. I will certainly take back my noble friend’s question on current live conversations and build in her suggestions.

My Lords, does the Minister share my disappointment that the Taoiseach of Ireland, a so-called neutral country, made a very strong statement yesterday in Davos that Taiwan was part of China?

My Lords, although we recognise Taiwan’s place and its relationship with China, we have always been very clear, while recognising issues of sovereignty, that the vibrancy of Taiwan’s democracy and its autonomy—we have seen it again in the vibrancy of its election—are important principles to protect. Therefore, in the important engagements we have with China on a whole raft of issues, we ensure that those points are raised directly with it. I cannot speak for the Taoiseach or indeed a Prime Minister or president of another country.

But of course, my Lords, the People’s Republic of China has never been able to claim that Taiwan has ever been part of the PRC, so talk of reunification is completely wrong. Great emphasis has been placed on the congratulatory messages sent to President-elect William Lai, and rightly so. However, what about the bellicose and intemperate remarks from Beijing and the People’s Republic of China denouncing those statesmen and women who have sent those congratulatory messages? What does that say about China’s own aggressive intentions towards Taiwan in the future? Are we making proper preparations and risk assessments on everything from the economy to defence arrangements in the light of the potential invasion of Taiwan? In particular, will the Minister return to the questions about our own reliance on things such as advanced semiconductors, 90% of which come out of Taiwan, and the failure to provide observer status for 24 million people at the World Health Organization, in light of our experiences during the pandemic?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, I have already said that we have led on that and will continue to campaign for Taiwan’s direct engagement as an observer at the World Health Assembly. On the issue he raises regarding China, we will of course emphasise this in the continuing bilateral representations that we make in our relationship with China. However, like many others, including the noble Lord, we are concerned about the consequences should peace and stability fail in the Taiwan Strait. As I have said before, this is not just about China and Taiwan; there are also global implications, and of course we recognise that and are planning accordingly.