Taiwan: Political, historical, and UK connections

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-controlled People’s Republic of China, based on mainland China, considers Taiwan a breakaway province that must return to the mainland’s control.

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

The People’s Republic of China’s ‘One China’ principle asserts that Taiwan is an integral part of China, and as part of this, that other countries must only maintain official diplomatic relations with itself. It also opposes Taiwan’s participation in international organisations.

The UK, like most other countries, does not recognise Taiwan as a state, nor does it maintain formal diplomatic relations with the island.

This briefing looks at Taiwan’s history and politics, membership of international organisations, and relationship with other states, including the UK.

Taiwan’s politics and approach to the mainland
Taiwan was a military dictatorship for several decades, and martial law was imposed between 1949 and 1987. From that period through the 1990s Taiwan transitioned to democracy, holding its first direct presidential elections in 1996.

The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office describes Taiwan as a “stable, vibrant democracy with a free press and independent judiciary”.

Taiwan’s current President is Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), her term ends in May 2024. Presidential and parliamentary elections were held in January 2024, and DPP candidate, current Vice President William Lai Ching-te, won the contest, a third consecutive victory for the DPP. The DPP did support declaring formal independence for Taiwan in the 1990s. But now, particularly under the leadership of Tsai Ing-wen, it supports the status-quo stating that Taiwan is already independent as the Republic of China (PDF). Lai is not expected to change this approach.

The other main political party, the Kuomintang (KMT), still formally supports the Republic of China’s sovereignty over the whole of China. When in power over the last few decades, it has generally sought to defuse tensions with the People’s Republic of China, however, and build economic and social ties with the mainland.

International recognition of Taiwan
Only 12 nations recognise Taiwan as a state and have formal diplomatic ties with it. The UK is part of the majority that do not. In recent years, the People’s Republic of China has been putting countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan under greater pressure to break ties.

Countries and international organisations will often refer to Taiwan officially by the name of its capital, Taipei, or sometimes Chinese Taipei.

UK-Taiwan relations
The UK Government says the dispute between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China 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’s diplomatic presence on the island is maintained through an outpost called the British Office Taipei.

Relations between the UK and Taiwan have strengthened over the last few years. Part of the reason is the UK’s foreign policy aim to “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” set out in the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

The UK has in recent years sent its warships on operations in the waters around Taiwan, which has angered China. The UK has, however, ruled out providing military assistance to Taiwan.

The issue on which the Taiwan and UK most regularly engage is trade, and the two sides have held annual ministerial trade talks since 1991. In July 2023, the UK Department for Business and Trade official talks on an Enhanced Trade Partnership would start “in due course”. This will not be a full free trade agreement but will instead be supported by political agreements called ‘memoranda of understanding’.