On 3 March 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to consider the following question for short debate:

Baroness D’Souza (Crossbench) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking, if any, to support democracy in Taiwan.

Democracy in Taiwan

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) describes Taiwan as a “stable, vibrant democracy with a free press and independent judiciary”. An island of 23.6 million people located across the Taiwan Strait from mainland China, Taiwan holds presidential and legislative elections for the Legislative Yuan, its unicameral parliament, every four years. It also holds city mayor and prefectural magistrate elections on a four-year cycle, the next set of which will be held later in 2022.

President Tsai Ing-wen, who leads the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was first elected in 2016 alongside concurrent elections to the Legislative Yuan in which the DPP also won a majority. She was re-elected in 2020, again alongside a majority for the DPP in Taiwan’s legislature. Voter turnout at the 2020 presidential election was 75% with Tsai winning 57% of the vote (8.2 million votes). The next set of presidential and legislative elections are due in 2024.

Taiwan’s status as a stable democracy is recognised by a wide range of bodies that track democratic standards worldwide. For example, in its ‘Democracy Index 2020’ report, published in February 2021, the Economist Intelligence Unit described Taiwan as that year’s “biggest winner”, having risen 20 places relative to other countries to 11th place globally. This compared to the UK’s ranking of 16th in the same index. Upgrading Taiwan from a “flawed democracy” to a “full democracy”, the report hailed the island as a “beacon of democracy in Asia”. It added:

To a degree, this spectacular rise reflects a consolidation of positive political and legal developments over recent years. The transparency of the financing of political parties has improved and legislative reforms have more explicitly affirmed the judiciary’s independence from government influence. […] Taiwan’s leaders and citizens seem to have concluded that active engagement in the democratic process represents the best strategy to secure its future.

The unit’s more recent ‘Democracy Index 2021’ report, published on 10 February 2022, placed Taiwan in 8th place globally, ahead of Canada (12th), Germany (15th) and the UK (18th).

The US-based pro-democracy organisation Freedom House describes Taiwan as having a “vibrant and competitive democratic system” that has “allowed three peaceful transfers of power between rival parties since 2000”. It also characterises protections for civil liberties on the island as “generally robust”.

In a November 2021 report, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) praised Taiwan as a “mid-range democracy” that alongside countries such as Japan and South Korea were “generally able to manage the [Covid-19] pandemic while also respecting basic democratic principles and freedoms”.

The Brookings Institution has said “Taiwan has gotten high marks when it comes to holding clean elections and protecting political rights”. It has added that evidence suggests the Taiwanese public “strongly supports democracy in principle and by and large approves the island’s system in practice”.

Taiwan sent a delegation to the US-convened Summit for Democracy, held in December 2021.

Taiwan’s relations with the People’s Republic of China

Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China heavily influences both its domestic politics and capacity to engage with other countries on the international stage. On the domestic side, for example, the FCDO has noted that the “main issue at stake” during the 2020 presidential election was how Taiwan should deal with its “increasingly difficult relationship with China”.

Taiwan, which refers to itself as the Republic of China (ROC), does not officially recognise the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its constitution still asserts sovereignty over the mainland. In turn, the PRC considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province and claims sovereignty over the island as part of its “one China” policy. The PRC also demands that countries break off formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan as a precondition for engagement with itself.

These respective positions have influenced relations between the two entities since at least the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. The House of Commons Library briefing ‘Taiwan: Country Profile and International Relations’ (21 June 2021) summarises how this history has influenced relations and developments between the ROC and PRC in recent years. It summarises the PRC’s position as follows:

China passed an Anti-Secession Law in 2005. The law commits Beijing to “do its utmost with maximum sincerity to achieve a peaceful unification” with Taiwan. It states, however, that in the case of Taiwan’s “secession” from China, or if the PRC concludes that possibilities for peaceful unification have been exhausted, “the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

The briefing notes that relations between Taiwan and China improved significantly between 2008 and 2016. However, it added there has since been a deterioration in relations and military tensions have escalated rapidly in recent years. This follows both Tsai Ing-wen’s election as president in 2016, as she does not endorse the PRC’s “one China” policy and has stated that Taiwan is “already an independent country”, as well as a more assertive stance on the issue from the PRC under President Xi Jinping.

As described above, President Tsai and the DPP support autonomy for Taiwan. President Tsai has said that “democracy is the lasting path and the only game in town” for the island. In addition, during a national day address delivered in October 2021, President Tsai called on Taiwan’s people to renew four commitments: to a free and democratic constitutional system; that the ROC and PRC should not be subordinate to one another; to resist annexation or encroachment upon sovereignty; and that Taiwan’s future “must be decided in accordance with the will of the Taiwanese people”. The PRC denounced the speech, alleging it “advocated Taiwan independence”, and the following month placed DPP figures including Taiwan’s prime minister, foreign minister and parliamentary speaker on a blacklist prohibiting them from entering the mainland, Hong Kong or Macau. In November 2020, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Taiwan was “on the front line facing Chinese expansionism”.

In addition, the FCDO has noted that since 2018 members of Taiwan’s economic and cultural office in Hong Kong have been asked to sign a pledge to observe the “one China” principle as a precondition for receiving visas. A condition that they have not been able to accept, and which has left the office with only one remaining staff member.

Taiwan’s relations with the UK

In line with most other countries, the UK does not recognise Taiwan as an independent sovereign state and has no formal diplomatic relations with the island. It does however maintain a ‘British Office in Taipei’, which promotes economic and cultural ties and can offer practical assistance to British nationals.

Under an agreement with the PRC, the UK accepts that Taiwan is a province of China and recognises the PRC Government as the sole legal government of China. However, the UK Government does support Taiwan’s participation in international organisations as an observer. It also says the ongoing dispute over the island’s status should be resolved through dialogue between the two sides.

In July 2020, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, summarised the Government’s position on the UK’s relationship with Taiwan as follows:

[…] the United Kingdom’s long-standing policy on Taiwan has not changed. We have no diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but a strong unofficial relationship based on dynamic commercial, educational and cultural ties. We regularly lobby in favour of Taiwan’s participation in international organisations where statehood is not a prerequisite, and we make clear our concerns about any activity that risks destabilising the cross-strait status quo. We have no plans to recognise Taiwan as a state.

In September 2020, in response to a question on tensions between Taiwan and the PRC, Lord Ahmad said the UK was “concerned by any activity that risks destabilising the cross-strait status quo. All sides should refrain from taking provocative actions and resolve their differences through peaceful dialogue”. A G7 foreign and development ministers’ communiqué issued ahead of the 2021 G7 summit held in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, similarly called for a calming of tensions across the Taiwan Strait. It said:

We remain seriously concerned about the situation in and around the East and South China Seas. We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues. We reiterate our strong opposition to any unilateral actions that could escalate tensions and undermine regional stability and the international rules-based order and express serious concerns about reports of militarisation, coercion, and intimidation in the region.

In a debate about UK-Taiwan friendship and cooperation held in the House of Commons on 10 February 2022, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Amanda Milling noted the UK had a “clear interest in ensuring peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. She said it was in this context that the Government had expressed its concern over the “numerous Chinese military flights that have taken place near Taiwan in recent days and months”, adding:

These flights are not conducive to regional peace. We need a peaceful resolution to the tensions through a constructive dialogue by people on both sides of the strait. We will continue to work with our international partners on this issue.

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Cover image by Timo Volz on Unsplash.