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Taiwan is an island in the South China Sea, around 100 miles off the coast of China on which nearly 24 million people live. The Communist Party-controlled People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers Taiwan as a breakaway province that must return to the mainland’s control.

According to Taiwan’s constitution its official name is the Republic of China (ROC). This is a remnant of a political entity formed on the Chinese mainland more than 100 years ago. The ROC does not officially recognise the PRC, and its constitution still asserts sovereignty over mainland China.

UK policy on recognition of Taiwan

The UK, like most other countries, does not recognise Taiwan, nor maintain formal diplomatic relations with the island. The UK Government says the dispute between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) should be resolved “through dialogue, in line with the views of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait”. It has no plans to recognise Taiwan as a state. The UK does support Taiwan’s participation in international organisations as an observer.

The UK was the first Western power to recognise the PRC, doing so in January 1950, and sending a Chargé d’affaires to Beijing. The UK broke off its recognition of the ROC at the same time. The PRC did not reciprocate diplomatic relations with the UK, demanding the UK support its bid to take up the UN seat occupied by the ROC at that time.

The UK and the PRC finally exchanged ambassadors in 1972, and the UK closed down its consulate in Taiwan that same year. As part of establishing formal diplomatic relations, the UK and the PRC signed an agreement (pdf) that “acknowledged the position of the government of the PRC that Taiwan was a province of China and recognised the PRC Government as the sole legal government of China”.

This UK’s policy was most recently set out in a House of Lords debate on 14 July 2020, with Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon saying on behalf of the Government:

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.

The UK’s diplomatic presence on the island is maintained through an outpost called the “British Office Taipei”. According to the Office’s UK Government website, it “promotes trade, investment, innovation, culture, education and other links between the UK and Taiwan”, and “provide[s] practical assistance to British nationals in Taiwan”.

Recent trade talks

The subject on which the UK and Taiwan most regularly engage is trade, and the two sides hold annual rounds of trade talks. In October 2021 UK Trade Policy Minister Penny Mordaunt co-hosted the 24th UK-Taiwan trade talks, with Taiwan’s Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs, Chen Chern-Chyi. Discussions in the talks covered bilateral collaboration on renewable energy, with the UK committing to share expertise on floating offshore wind and multi-use port development as well as skills and workforce planning for the renewable energy sector.

The two sides also discussed the UK’s role in advancing Taiwan’s English language education, teaching and assessment. At the same time as the trade talks a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the British Council and the Ministry of Education to cultivate language proficiency and support Taiwan’s ambition to become a bilingual society in Mandarin Chinese and English by 2030.

In 2020, the UK exported £2.4 billion of goods and services to Taiwan and imported £3.6 billion. Taiwan was the UK’s 39th largest export market, accounting for 0.4% of UK exports of goods and services and the 30th largest source of imports, accounting for 0.7% of the UK’s imported goods and services.

Defence and security

There is now a greater focus on the UK’s foreign and defence policy towards Taiwan and the surrounding region. This is in part because of the recent Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, that said the UK would “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” region. The review also described China as a “systemic competitor”.

The UK has no defence ties with Taiwan. Asked over the years if the UK would consider lending military support to Taiwan, Governments have repeated the position that the UK’s policy is for a peaceful resolution between China and Taiwan.

The UK has increased its naval exercises in the South China Sea over the last few years. HMS Albion conducted a US style freedom of navigation operation by the Paracel islands in August 2018, and in early 2019 the Royal Navy conducted two joint military exercises with the US Navy in the South China Sea.

At the end of September 2021, the UK sent a warship, HMS Richmond, through the Taiwan strait for the first time since 2008 (HMS Enterprise, a survey vessel, navigated the strait in 2019). HMS Richmond, a frigate then deployed with the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier strike group, sailed through the strait on a trip from Japan to Vietnam.

The Chinese military followed the vessel and were reported to have warned it away. The People’s Liberation Army also condemned the move saying it was behaviour that “harboured evil intentions”.

Further information

For further information on Taiwan’s international relations, its historical relationship with mainland China, and the UK’s policy towards the region see the follow Commons Library publications:

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