Britain greenlighted a sharp increase in exports of submarine parts and technology last year to Taiwan, who is upgrading its naval forces in a move that could undermine British-Chinese ties.
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The value of licenses granted by the British government to companies for the export of submarine-related components and technology to Taiwan totaled a record GBP 167 million (USD 201.29 million) during the first nine months of last year, according to UK government export licensing data. According to a Reuters analysis of the data, that makes for more than the previous six years combined.
While the data is publicly accessible, the most recent Taiwan-related figures hadn’t previously been reported.
Under its flagship “One-China policy” Beijing lays claims to Taiwanese territory, and strongly objects to any perceived foreign interference with the island. Beijing sees Western backing for Taiwan as fodder for the desire of the island’s authorities to gain recognition for Taiwan as an independent country.
When presented with the figures by Reuters, China’s foreign ministry put out in a statement: “If this is true, it is a serious violation of the one-China principle, undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests, and undermines peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
“China is highly concerned about this and firmly opposes it,” said the written statement, which urged Britain to “refrain from providing military support to the Taiwan authorities.”
Britain may not recognize Taiwan nor have formal diplomatic relations with the island, yet it maintains its economic and trade ties via a de facto British embassy in Taipei.
A British government spokesperson said in a statement that the UK has a long record of “granting licenses for exports of controlled goods to Taiwan, on a case-by-case basis, where those applications are consistent with the rules that regulate the exports of arms and dual-use products.”
“We consider the Taiwan issue one to be settled peacefully by the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait through constructive dialogue, without the threat or use of force or coercion,” the statement added.
What the increase in the licenses granted spells is greater demand from Taiwan, two government officials said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Two lawmakers with knowledge of the exports and two former officials said the approvals reflected Britain’s increased willingness to support Taiwan. One of the lawmakers, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said authorizing the export licenses amounted to giving a “green light” to better equip Taiwan.
The data stems from the Export Control Organisation whose responsibility as part of the UK Department for International Trade is to issue export licenses. It demonstrated that the government authorized 25 export licenses to Taiwan during the first nine months of 2022 under the categories “components for submarines” and “technology for submarines.”
The data doesn’t disclose which companies received the authorization or detail what specific equipment it covers.
One license type, called ML9, covers “vessels of war, special naval equipment, accessories, components, and other surface vessels,” according to Britain’s list of strategic military items that require export authorization. Another license type, ML22, includes technology that is required for the development, production, operation, installation, maintenance, repair, goods or software.
The British government on Monday announced an injection to defense spending as it unveiled an update to its defense, security, and foreign policy priorities, delineating how it plans to “tackle new threats” from China and Russia.
The PM has announced that the UK will ramp up investment in defence to meet the challenges of an increasingly volatile & complex world.
This £5bn investment will bolster ammunitions, modernise the UK’s nuclear enterprise & fund the next phase of the AUKUS submarine programme. pic.twitter.com/hrkbFdcBBm
— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) March 13, 2023
In a foreword to the policy document, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak specifically identified China’s more aggressive stance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait as among issues “threatening to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division – and an international order more favorable to authoritarianism.”
Current relations between Beijing and Taipei are perhaps the most tattered in decades. Located some 100 miles southeast of the Chinese coast, Taiwan has said it is building a fleet of submarines to bolster its naval defenses. In the past, submarine exporters feared selling the vessels to Taiwan could provoke Beijing’s ire but lately this fear seemed to decline.
Taiwan’s democratically-elected government rejects, in the strongest of ways, China’s sovereignty claims, stressing only the island’s people can decide their future.
In line with Reuters’ previous reports, a number of foreign submarine-technology vendors, with the approval of their governments, have been aiding the program.
In response to a request for comment about the submarine-related exports from Britain, Taiwan’s defense ministry said in a statement that its ship-building program was “a major national policy, and the navy has promoted various projects in a pragmatic way under it.”
“We hope that all walks of life will continue to give their support, to jointly maintain the security and peace of the Taiwan Strait,” the ministry said.
Testing of the island nation’s first prototype is scheduled for September. Deliveries of the first eight units are planned by 2025.
Britain’s granting of submarine-related licenses began to tick up after Taiwan announced it planned to build the submarine fleet in 2017.
It was in 2020 that Britain approved the export of GBP 87 million worth of submarine components and technology to Taiwan, according to the licensing data. The value of such licenses approved in 2021 dipped to just under GPB 9 million.
The UK gazing towards the Indo-Pacific
Britain’s Integrated Review, a document laying out the country’s defense, security, and foreign policy priorities that were published in March 2021, specified a “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific but didn’t mention Taiwan.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year has raised questions in Britain and elsewhere in the West about other possible future flashpoints around the world.
Britain’s defense minister, Ben Wallace, told Reuters last month that the West’s actions in support of Kyiv were a signal to other countries that grabbing land does not pay off. “This conflict is important because the world is watching whether the West will stand up for its values of freedom, democracy, liberal societies, and the rule of law,” he said.
Western lawmakers and other officials have been stepping up their visits to Taiwan, despite Beijing’s objections. That included one in November by Britain’s then minister of state for trade, Greg Hands. “We urge the British side to stop any form of official exchanges with Taiwan and stop sending wrong signals to separatist forces for Taiwan independence,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at the time.
Tobias Ellwood, head of the UK parliament’s defense committee and a member in Britain’s governing Conservative Party who visited Taiwan in December, told Reuters the British government had to be careful about what detail it publicly provides about the equipment covered by the export licenses.
“An announcement of the specific nature of these exports risks revealing sensitive information on Taiwan’s defensive capabilities and some of the UK government’s caution in discussing these exports is valid,” Ellwood said.
One of the former British officials said: “Every decision around Taiwan is made very deliberately and usually cautiously.” Asked about the decision to approve the increase in export licenses, the official said: “You just don’t do something like this without thinking through the implications very carefully.”