What Can the UK Petition System Do For Taiwan?A recent petition urging the British government to formally recognize Taiwan has brought unexpected attention to the island-nation’s political status
Taiwan has been losing diplomatic allies for decades as countries are lured by China’s newfound riches and prestige. At present, only 22 countries have full diplomatic ties with Taiwan. This seemingly random collection of countries includes The Holy See, as well as Tuvalu, Panama, Paraguay, and Saint Vincent & the Grenadines; generally small, impoverished countries with minimal influence in shaping global affairs. Beijing’s unmovable position on the “one China” principle makes it impossible for countries to formally recognize Taiwan as an independent country. Instead, most countries use intermediary bodies under the euphemistic title of “trade office” or “cultural office” to put some kind of representative body in Taipei, eager not to offend Beijing.
The U.K. is no exception in sticking firmly to “one China.” Unable to open an embassy in the Taiwanese capital, it established the British Trade and Cultural Office in Taipei in 1993, which in May 2005 changed its name to the British Office Taipei. While the U.K. and Taiwan share mutually beneficial bilateral ties (one example is the U.K. granting Taiwanese citizens favorable visa treatment), London’s cozy relationship with China makes it almost impossible to envisage the U.K. formally recognizing Taiwan as an independent sovereign state.
However, a petition submitted to the British Parliament a few days after Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) decisive electoral victory on Jan. 16 calling for Taiwan to be recognized as a country has already garnered more than 20,000 signatures online, bringing Taiwan’s political situation to the frontbenches of one of the world’s oldest and most established democracies.
Started on Jan. 18, the petition was first submitted to the U.K.’s Parliamentary Petitions web page by a British citizen named Lee Chapman. In the petition, Lee calls on the British Government to recognize Taiwan as a country, making the point that Taiwan already has a diplomatic presence in both Edinburgh and London. He further notes that the fact the U.K. Government doesn’t recognise the Republic of China (ROC), and that all diplomatic relations take place only on an unofficial basis, is “ridiculous, and must change.”
Chapman is not alone in believing this; at the time of writing, 20,816 signatures had been collected, meaning that under the conditions of the U.K.’s petition system, the Government is required to issue a response. Furthermore, the petition has piqued the interest of Taiwanese back home, as well as among Taiwanese communities around the world, most notably in the U.S. where a similar petition has surfaced in recent weeks.
Since the E-Petition platform was launched in Britain in 2011, 106 petitions have passed the 10,000-signature mark required to draw an official response from the government. Issues petitioned have ranged from halting airstrikes in Syria to defending Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) from crippling budget cuts. If a petition passes the 100,000-signatures mark, the issue will be considered for debate by Members of Parliament in the Houses of Parliament, the U.K.’s legislative house. One such example is a recent petition calling for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to be banned from the U.K., which gathered more than 570,000 signatures. The number of signatures far exceeded the 100,000 needed, prompting MPs to hold a hearing in parliament on the issue. While the fate of a tiny island nation 6,000 miles away is far from the conscience of the average British citizen, it should be noted that the Taiwan petition is currently the only foreign policy-based petition not concerning the Middle East to pass 10,000 signatures.
With Taiwanese media outlets once more concentrating on the face of the story rather than the substance behind it, some Taiwanese netizens have assumed that the petition is spearheaded by MPs and will result in the British government holding a national referendum on the issue of Taiwanese independence. Of course, such a prospect is beyond conceivable, especially in light of how relations between London and Beijing have strengthened in the past few years. On a five-day tour of China last September, British Chancellor George Osborne pledged that the U.K. would become China’s best partner in the West, vowing to “make sure that the British-China relationship is second-to-none.” Osborne’s enthusiasm was reciprocated by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) visit to the U.K. barely a month later. A dinner reception with the Queen was held, and London’s main streets were awash with party-slogan banners. Britain had made a “visionary” choice to become China’s best friend, Xi told reporters on the eve of his departure.
The U.K.’s relationship with Taiwan, while remaining unofficial, has continued to thrive alongside London and Beijing’s burgeoning relationship. Taiwanese are eligible for working holiday visas in the country, and can now apply to receive fast-track entry privileges at a number of U.K. airports. Britain also remains an attractive market for Taiwanese university students choosing to study abroad, with almost 30% of those going overseas selecting the U.K. as their destination of study.
While a radical change in direction of official government policy toward Taiwan is unlikely, such a petition nevertheless helps Taiwan in a number of ways. For instance, it raises awareness of Taiwan’s unique political situation among policymakers and MPs, as well as the general public. Furthermore, it forces the U.K., a UN Security Council member, and a country of significant global importance, to officially and publically recognize Taiwan’s democratic achievements, even if it still complies with Beijing’s stance on “one China.”
Even if the U.K. government’s response, when it is finally issued, only dishes out the standard, repetitive, “one China” rhetoric so often used in official engagements with the Chinese, the petition has already served a purpose in helping showcase Taiwan as a peaceful, democratic nation worthy of consideration. Such attention should not be underestimated in its significance, especially to a country striving so hard to rightfully gain recognition in the global political arena.
David Prentice is a Master’s student on the IMAS program at National Chengchi University in Taipei. His research interests include Taiwanese culture and Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.