A UK trade visit to Taiwan has sparked a furious backlash from Beijing in a sign of the difficulty Rishi Sunak will have in forging a relationship with China.
With the West already engaged in what is almost a proxy war with Russia, it would be a bold move to start deliberately picking a fight with China as well.
But many in the Government – as well as the UK’s allies in Europe and North America – believe that ignoring China’s aggressive foreign policy and anti-democratic ideology would prove to be a terrible mistake, as it was when Western leaders coddled Vladimir Putin.
Trade minister Greg Hands is in Taiwan this week to meet his Taiwanese counterpart about how to boost economic links with the country.
There are no formal diplomatic ties between the UK and Taiwan, because of the “one China” policy which forces countries to choose between Taipei and Beijing.
But Mr Hands said on Monday: “I first visited Taiwan 31 years ago in 1991 and it’s been fantastic to see the growth of this dynamic, vibrant economy. I’m thrilled to be the first trade minister here post-pandemic and to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of trade talks.
“Boosting trade with this vital partner is part of the UK’s post-Brexit tilt towards the Indo-Pacific and closer collaboration will help us future-proof our economy in the decades to come.”
China’s response was rapid. Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for its foreign ministry, demanded that the UK “earnestly respect China’s sovereignty, uphold the one-China principle, stop any forms of official contacts with Taiwan and stop sending wrong signals to Taiwan independence separatist forces”.
For now, Beijing is unlikely to take it further – a contrast to August, when China’s forces launched military exercises around Taiwan in retribution for a visit to the island by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives.
But Mr Sunak faces tricky decisions ahead as he works out how to keep on good terms with China while upholding democratic values. He was seen as less aggressive towards Beijing than Liz Truss but will be under intense pressure from his own MPs to continue holding Xi Jinping to account.
There is little the UK can do on its own to curb China’s global adventurism. So perhaps the key question for British policy towards Beijing will be settled in America: if Donald Trump is re-elected as president, Western cooperation will surely become much harder and Westminster’s tough posturing will all be in vain.
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