Westminster Hall Debate: UK Relations with Taiwan

Mark made the following contribution to yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on UK relations with Taiwan.


The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I truly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for introducing the debate, and I am relieved that he recognises that it is not in the interests of Parliament—let alone the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to upset other nations. However, I also recognise the early bid by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) to join the diplomatic corps—perhaps as a Taiwanese whisky ambassador to somewhere like Antarctica. That might be the way forward.

I thank all members of the British-Taiwanese all-party parliamentary group for their valuable contributions to this vibrant and important debate. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my ​hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), North Cornwall (Scott Mann), North East Cornwall—

Mrs Sheryll Murray

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mark Field

Would my hon. Friend bear with me for two seconds? I just wanted to praise my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont)—the new boy in our midst. He is a Freshfields alumnus, as am I, and I think his wise words on the legal matters were well received by the House.

Mrs Murray

It is not for me to correct the Minister, but my constituency is South East Cornwall.

Mark Field

I am sure that battles in Bodmin and elsewhere were fought over such matters. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I actually know her constituency rather well; close friends of mine have lived in Lostwithiel over the years. It is a very beautiful part of the world. Whether one is from Taiwan or any other part of the world, it is well worth visiting. It is not quite as beautiful as my constituency of course, but that is another matter.

Before I address the UK-Taiwanese relationship directly, I remind hon. Members of the British Government’s policy on Taiwan, as was set out by the Opposition, and will summarise where things stand with regard to Taiwan’s relationship with China and, indeed, the rest of the world. The British Government’s long-standing policy is that the issue of Taiwan should be settled by the people on both sides of the Taiwan strait. We therefore call on both sides to continue to engage in as constructive a dialogue as possible.

Bob Stewart

I may not be diplomatic, but I understand that in international law, national self-determination is a hugely important factor in determining a country’s future. Were the Government of Taiwan to ask the Taiwanese people whether they want to be independent, I suspect we know what the answer would be. The United Nations must wake up and understand that there are 23 million people who are largely unrepresented in the United Nations, but should be.

Mark Field

In fairness, I should point out that Taiwan acts independently—no one would dispute that—and the issue is that Taiwan is in a rather anomalous, unique situation in international affairs, which I shall try to touch on in my remarks.

There has been no official contact between the authorities in Taiwan and the Chinese Government since last year’s elections in Taiwan. However, both China and Taiwan’s leaders have recently noted that cross-strait relations have thickened substantially in the past decade; President Xi Jinping said so as recently as the 19th party conference, which comes to an end today. Economic ties have grown and continue to grow, and there has been more interaction between the people of China and Taiwan.

Turning to the relationship between Taiwan and the wider international community—something close to the heart of many hon. Members who have spoken today —the British Government believe that the people of Taiwan have a valuable contribution to make towards international co-operation on global issues such as aviation ​safety, climate change and organised crime. Their involvement would, in my view, reduce co-operation black spots, which pose a risk to the international community, including the United Kingdom and our own people.

However, I also accept that Taiwan’s ability to play the fullest possible role in addressing global challenges is restricted and has been under increased pressure over the past 18 months. As a number of Members have observed, Taiwan’s observer status in international organisations has come under closer scrutiny, and it was not permitted to observe the World Health Assembly as recently as May this year. The UK Government continue to support, and will continue to speak up for, Taiwan’s participation in international organisations where there is precedent for its involvement, where it can contribute to the global good, and where there is no prerequisite of nationhood for participation. We will uphold that nationhood issue and the one nation policy.

Helen Goodman

Will the Minister explain what he means by “where there is precedent”? For example, the climate change body is new, so there cannot be a precedent because we have only just set it up.

Mark Field

I appreciate that. It has been set up for quite some time, actually. Climate change has been a major global issue for 30 years, and I guess that Taiwan has had some involvement in international organisations of that ilk. It plays a useful and active role in, for example, the World Trade Organisation and the OECD, and I would like it to have the role that hon. Members referred to in Interpol and the International Civil Aviation Organisation. We meet Taiwanese delegations at the margins of such international meetings, and we will continue to do so. I accept the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, and I will do my best to raise that issue. Many of the issues to which hon. Members referred, including aviation safety, international terrorism and climate change, are global and clearly apply as much to the 24 million people of Taiwan as to the other 7 billion inhabitants of the world.

The subject of this debate is the UK’s relations with Taiwan. Taiwan is a thriving economy, which enjoys the same democratic norms and values as the UK, including a free media and a vocal and active civil society. The UK and Taiwan enjoy strong, albeit unofficial, relations, which deliver significant benefits to us all. Taiwan continues to behave as a de facto state, but the UK does not recognise it as an independent state. Therefore, with great respect to all of my hon. Friends who referred to the ambassador, the truth is that the gentleman concerned, who is in the Public Gallery, is the unofficial representative to this country, not an ambassador in any official way. That is obviously a position we maintain, with our policy on China. That is an issue not just for this Government but for successive Governments over many decades. The relationship between us is strong and delivers significant benefits. That collaboration is built upon dynamic commercial, educational and cultural ties, facilitated by the Taipei Representative Office in London and the British Office in Taipei.

Taiwan and the UK are both open to foreign investment. We share a belief—much diminished, I fear, in international affairs today—that free trade and open markets are the very best ways to grow our economies and enhance our ​prosperity. That means that trade is the cornerstone of the relationship between Taiwan and the UK. Taiwan is the UK’s sixth-largest trading partner in the Asia-Pacific region and our 33rd-largest globally. I suspect we will move up in those rankings rapidly in the years to come. Bilateral trade reached £5.3 billion in 2015. Although business and financial services were our largest export sector, two thirds of the UK’s exports to Taiwan were goods—notably vehicles and state-of-the-art pharmaceuticals. Taiwan is also our fourth-largest export market, as was pointed out, for Scotch whisky, taking in £175 million-worth of it in 2016—they obviously enjoy it. Of course, our trade flows both ways. The UK is Taiwan’s third-largest investment destination in Europe, ahead of France and Germany, and Taiwanese investment in this country totalled some $115 million in 2016.

A number of Members discussed Brexit. As we prepare to leave the EU, the British Government are working closely with all our major partners and investors in the Asia-Pacific region, including Taiwan, to grow those economic links.

Jim Shannon

The Minister will be well aware of the importance of the agri-food sector to Northern Ireland. We have been trying to increase our exports of pork products to Taiwan and China, and we have been somewhat successful. Will the Minister indicate what more can be done to help the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland develop those exports even more?

Mark Field

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I will have to get back to him on some of the specifics. More broadly, the UK and Taiwan are committed to continuing to take practical steps to enhance trade and investment between us and within the region. As has been mentioned, we have identified that live poultry and Scotch whisky are potential growth areas. We have also made great progress with our application to export pork products, paving the way for a Taiwanese delegation to conclude an inspection of UK facilities just last week. We hope that will lead to markets opening to UK exports very soon.

We want significantly to increase trade between the UK and Taiwan by improving reciprocal market access and helping our companies to do business on a level playing field. There are genuinely great opportunities for UK industries in sectors such as renewable energy, railways and transport infrastructure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) rightly pointed out, nuclear decommissioning is very important, not just in Taiwan but in the region as a whole.

The digital economy continues to offer opportunities for British companies. Taiwan is already looking to adapt UK standards to regulate its own digital economy, its fintech industry and driverless vehicles. We are keen to engage with the Taiwanese authorities on broad economic reforms to improve the business environment, which I hope will lead to greater returns on investment and increased trade in both directions.

Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP)

Will the Minister join me in praising the work of Taiwan NI—an organisation set up by, among others, a colleague of mine in the ​Northern Ireland Assembly, William Humphrey? It does great work among Taiwanese students and citizens living in Northern Ireland to promote Taiwan-Northern Ireland relations. That kind of interaction between students who come from Taiwan to places such as Queen’s University and Ulster University advances tremendously the understanding between Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

Mark Field

I am very glad the right hon. Gentleman pointed that out. It is greatly to the credit of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and it advances the relationship between the UK and Taiwan. I would not want the focus of this debate to be just on trade and investment co-operation—important though that is. We need co-operation to tackle crime and to promote educational connections and judicial and cultural exchanges, and those links will only be strengthened when direct China Airlines flights between London and Taipei resume in December.

I want to touch on a few issues that were brought up during the debate. On the issue of naval visits to Taiwan, I must stress that the UK’s policy is non-recognition, which means that Ministry of Defence Ministers, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers and military assets cannot visit Taiwan. Doing so would imply recognition of Taiwan, which is not Government policy. However, we continue to develop strong links with Taiwan on Government priorities such as prosperity and the low-carbon agenda.

The UK’s position on the South China sea is long-standing and has not changed. We have very deep concerns about tensions and are committed to maintaining a peaceful maritime order under international law. We do not take sides, but we urge all parties in the region to settle disputes peacefully—ideally diplomatically but, if necessary, through arbitration. The UK Government remain committed to freedom of navigation and overflight.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) asked about President Trump’s now-notorious call to the Taiwanese Head of State. Our position on Taiwan has not changed since the call to President Tsai. The UK’s long-standing policy on the status of Taiwan has not changed at all. We enjoy strong but unofficial commercial and cultural ties. The long-standing policy is that the status of Taiwan has to be settled by the people on both sides of the Taiwanese straits. We call on all sides to continue to engage in constructive dialogue. There has been no change, either from within or as a result of external causes.

I will conclude in a moment or two. We have a bit more time—do not worry, I am not going to delay the House for too long, Mr Paisley—so I will let everyone into a little secret. Like a lot of MPs, I have connections with Taiwan and although I have not visited myself, I was about to do so when the election was called.

In the previous Parliament, I was vice-chairman for international affairs for the Conservative party, and like my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), I took the view that, as well as being a friend of China—Chinatown is in my constituency, and I have long-standing connections with the People’s Republic of China as a result—I should visit Taiwan. I was due to visit in September, but the election was called and I was thrust into a different office. I have had the chance in the past to meet the representative of the Taipei office ​in London and his team, and I have a great deal of respect for them. They also recognise that, unfortunately, our acquaintance has to go into cold storage for as long as I am a Minister—

Helen Goodman

Don’t worry, it won’t be long.

Mark Field

Yes, it may not be very long at all—honestly, it is nice to get support on a cross-party basis on such important matters, isn’t it?

There is a lot of support here and—to be fair it is worth pointing out for the record—I have spoken with a couple of Labour MPs who wanted to come to the debate but had other engagements. They had been in Taiwan in the past. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) made a robust point, but I think it is fair to say that there are friends across the House, and having that cross-party connection in place is a positive state of affairs for the relationship between the Taiwan and the UK.

Chris Davies

Earlier, I omitted to say that a little earlier in the year, before the election, I visited Taiwan—it has been declared appropriately in the register—so may I recommend a visit to the Minister? It is one of the most fabulous countries to go to and my eyes were certainly opened. Conservative Members and perhaps all other Members hope that he will one day be able to visit officially as a Minister.

Mark Field

It is kind of my hon. Friend to tempt me in that direction. I could of course argue that I have already been to the country to which he refers—we recognise the People’s Republic of China—but perhaps that would be a bit mischievous.

In conclusion, Taiwan has—as has been pointed out—a thriving democratic system and a healthy economy. Its authorities are eager to play a responsible role in continuing to tackle global challenges. I hope that within the context of our restricting but certain policy we will be able to play our part to ensure that Taiwan’s voice is heard, in particular in those global bodies where its co-operation is important, transcending many of the other international disputes. The British Government ​will continue to strengthen our already close ties with the people of Taiwan, because so doing will best serve the interests of the United Kingdom.

Ian Paisley (in the Chair)

I call Bob Blackman to wind up but, before I do, I remind him that I will want to put the Question, rather than letting the debate just peter out. If you could bear that in mind, Mr Blackman, you have a few minutes.

Bob Blackman

Thank you, Mr Paisley, and I thank the Minister for his constructive remarks in response to the debate. I welcome the views of the official Opposition and the Scottish National party, and I welcome my hon. colleagues from across the House putting the case for strengthening relations economically, commercially and on security between the UK and Taiwan.

The reality is that Asia faces a challenge over the next few years, and has done so on security, economic and cultural interaction. With China assertive and looking outward far more, the future of all countries in Asia is paramount. Today we have rightly concentrated on our relations with Taiwan. We have had an excellent debate on how to strengthen our relations in future and on how to assist our friends in Taiwan to fulfil their place in the world, whether in the United Nations or through other roles.

There is clearly very strong support from across the House, in all parties, for strengthening relations between the UK and Taiwan, which means that, regardless of who is in government, we will see our friendship and our commercial relationship growing ever stronger. That is very important. We may have differences of opinion about our views on defence and other things, or indeed about our recognition of Taiwan as a country, but what we can build on is the shared values—and shared progress—not only across parties but between the UK and Taiwan.

I therefore invite you, Mr Paisley, to put the Question. We can look forward to further development of excellent relations between the UK and Taiwan in the future.

Question put and agreed to.