The West must protect Taiwan from China

Roberto White

October 7, 2021

The past few days have seen Taiwan subjected to another wave of continuous harassment by China. Of course this is nothing new; China has violated Taiwan’s airspace since at least 2014. But, on Monday, a record 34 fighter jets were dispatched to Taiwan. Beijing’s increasingly erratic behaviour towards Taiwan brings to the fore why the West must defend them.

Taiwan is a free-market democracy that, despite its overbearing northern neighbour, has managed to create a vibrant economy that ranks as the sixth freest economy in the world. Crucially, it is a major producer of semiconductors (a device that helps power everything from cars to satellites), accounting for 92 per cent of all production of the world’s most sophisticated and important chips. Thus, from both an ideological and strategic standpoint, defending Taiwan is a mutually beneficial move.  

The case for Taiwan’s defence is further strengthened when we look at what could happen in Asia should China take Taiwan by force.

With Taiwan’s ports and air bases, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could extend its maritime militia northwards through the Ryukyu (the chain of islands between Taiwan and Japan) and the Senkaku Islands (disputed by China and Japan). This would give China increased leverage over Japan in a time of crisis by, for example, restricting its maritime commerce.

The CCP could further use Taiwan as a base for tighter control of the South China Sea by blocking the Luzon Strait (between Taiwan and the Philippines) and the Balintang channel, which would cut off the traditional route used by the US Navy to navigate regional waters. In essence, China would immediately become the foremost power in the Indo-Pacific that could eventually kick the US and its allies out of the region. Unfortunately, the threat of a Chinese invasion is not a distant reality. In March of this year Admiral Philip Davidson, the United States’ top military officer in the Asia-Pacific, warned that China could invade Taiwan by 2027.  

Given the perilous scenario that would emerge from a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, it is vital that, should an invasion happen, the West comes to Taiwan’s defence. However, until such a time, Western allies should aim to help Taiwan by promoting its participation in international forums. The first step would be to allow diplomats and other officials with Taiwanese passports to enter UN buildings, which they currently cannot do. This would most likely provoke a backlash from China, yet it would also confer Taiwan the dignity and respect that officials from every other state have.  

The West should also stand firm against Chinese attempts to exclude Taiwan from international organisations. Between 2008-2016, Taiwan was invited to be an observer at the World Health Organization (WHO) under the name “Chinese Taipei”. In 2016, after Tsai Ing-Wen was elected Taiwan’s President, Beijing rescinded the invitation and Taiwan has not been allowed to participate since.

In this case, the UK or another ally should have extended Taiwan an invitation to apply and become a member of the WHO. Not only does the Taiwanese government have all the requirements of statehood under international law, but its impressive handling of the Covid-19 pandemic exemplifies how it can be used as a source of knowledge in times of crisis.  

What should the UK do? In essence, the government should forge closer ties with Taiwan. In a speech at this year’s Conservative Party Conference, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she wants the UK to “strengthen economic and security ties” to create a “network of liberty” around the world. Foreign Secretary Truss mentioned Indo-Pacific allies such as Japan and Australia, yet Taiwan was not mentioned in her speech.

The UK could build on existing bilateral trade (£7.1 billion in 2019) to develop closer ties that could eventually result in a security arrangement with Taiwan similar to that which exists between the US and Taiwan. This would not only provide Taiwan another ally it can count on against Chinese aggression, but in its pivot to the Indo-Pacific, the UK would become closer with a key regional actor.   

Ultimately, China is unlikely to stop its campaign of harassment against Taiwan. If Western countries like the US and the UK are serious about not only standing up to China but maintaining a free Indo-Pacific, it must focus on Taiwan.

In the event of an invasion, it would be imperative for Western militaries to come to Taiwan’s defence, the consequences of not doing so would be devastating. Until that moment, we should strengthen our diplomatic, economic, and eventually security ties with Taiwan.  

Author

Written by Roberto White

Roberto is a Masters Student of International Relations at the University of Bath.

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