Taiwan president signals support for UK base in South China Sea


Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on Saturday said she would welcome a British military base in the South China Sea as she called for increased international support to defend the self-ruled island from renewed threats from Beijing.

Ms Tsai’s comments came days after Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, warned that Beijing reserves the right to use force to bring the Taiwanese under its control but will first strive to achieve peaceful “reunification”.

“We hope that the international community takes it seriously and can voice support and help us,” Ms Tsai told a news conference in Taipei. If it did not support a democratic country that was under threat, “we might have to ask which country might be next?” she added.

Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy of 23 million and a key US ally in the Indo-Pacific region, is claimed by China and considered to be Beijing’s most sensitive issue. It also borders the disputed waters of the South China Sea, another major flashpoint for potential future conflict between US and Chinese forces.

China’s President Xi Jinping
China’s President Xi Jinping CREDIT: MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AFP
The sea carries an estimated one third of global shipping – including oil and gas to Japan and South Korea – and it faces maritime disputes between Brunei, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Beijing, which claims the sea in its entirety, has alarmed the international community with a build-up of military fortifications in its waters.

The UK is making post-Brexit plans to beef up its presence in the tinderbox region, with Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, revealing to The Sunday Telegraph last week that Britain would open up a new military base in South East Asia.

A source close to Mr Williamson added that the base could be sited in Singapore or Brunei in the South China Sea.

Asked by the Sunday Telegraph if she would support a British presence there, President Tsai signalled that Taiwan would welcome “any actions that will be helpful towards maintaining peace in the South China Sea, as well as maintaining freedom of passage.”

She added: “If it is helpful towards these end goals then we adopt an open attitude towards that and we hope that all countries can work together fully in the South China Sea on all these issues and respect one another’s positions.”

Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, plans to open up a UK military base in Southeast Asia
Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, plans to open up a UK military base in Southeast Asia CREDIT: JULIAN SIMMONDS
The defence secretary has forged a hard line against Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea over the past year, deploying British warships – HMS Sutherland, HMS Albion and HMS Argyll – to the Asia-Pacific to send the “strongest of signals” to China on the importance of freedom of navigation.

Taiwan, which operates with its own government, currency, military and foreign policy is not formally recognised by most nations, including the UK, but it is often considered by the West to be a democratic ally in a volatile region.

President Tsai on Saturday issued a strong rebuttal to President Xi’s efforts to win over the Taiwanese public in his speech earlier this week by offering them a “one country, two systems” political arrangement.

“As the democratically elected president of this country, I have no more important duty to than to defend our democracy, freedom and way of life,” she said, urging Beijing to have a “correct understanding” of Taiwanese thinking.

“The people of Taiwan cannot accept the ‘one country two systems’. The lack of democracy in China is what most concerns Taiwan,” she said.

“Secondly, China has a very poor human rights record and it does worry people if there is not a good human rights protection mechanism in place.

Thirdly, China has never renounced using force to unify Taiwan, so because of these three factors we do have a lot of work to do to be able to build up trust between the two sides.”