Fifty years ago, the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China agreed to upgrade their bilateral relationship to full ambassadorial ties, on 13 March 1972.
The timing was prompted by Nixon’s visit to China, though unlike Washington, London had recognised the PRC early in January 1950 and Chargés d’Affaires were exchanged four years later (a level below ambassadors). The March 1972 move built on that foundation.
In agreeing to full normalisation, the UK addressed the issue of Taiwan, which had been a point of contention between London and Beijing over the previous two decades. In the 13 March 1972 communique, London ‘acknowledged the position of the Chinese government that Taiwan is a province of the PRC’, agreed to ‘remove their official representation in Taiwan’ on the date of signature, and ‘recognise[d] the Government of the PRC as the sole legal Government of China’.
Speaking on the same day in the House of Commons, the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, added that ‘We held the view both at Cairo  and at Potsdam  that Taiwan should be restored to China. That view has not changed. We think that the Taiwan question is China’s internal affair to be settled by the Chinese people themselves’.
Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had been concerned during the negotiations that their British counterparts were not fully committed to this position, and that Taiwan would be a ‘tail’ left behind after agreement was reached. Zhou pointed to the 1955 statement by British ministers that the status of Taiwan was ‘undetermined’ (made after the 1954 cross-straits crisis). As Chi-kwan Mark shows in his excellent history of the negotiations (The Everyday Cold War, Bloomsbury Press, 2017), negotiations over this point resulted in an agreement that the British would make a private written assurance to Beijing not to promote the position that Taiwan’s status was ‘undetermined’ (something Kissinger and Nixon had already stated to their Chinese interlocutors – Nixon actually went further by stating to Zhou Enlai that Taiwan was ‘part of China’).
Fifty years on, Taiwan has been transformed from the 1970s, as has mainland China. But the Taiwan issue is again high on the agenda. Washington has gradually been shifting away from its own long-standing position, and there is some political pressure on the UK to follow suit.
In practice, London’s approach has already evolved. Ministers say that the ‘long-standing policy is that the issue of Taiwan should be settled by the people on both sides of the Taiwan strait’, a subtle but important difference in language from that agreed in 1972. The other elements of the original policy commitments are rarely repeated.
The government has also taken to saying that ‘it has no plans to recognise Taiwan as a state’. Had that language been used in the negotiations of late 1971 and early 1972, full normalisation would probably have been derailed. But it seems that government ministers are responding to political pressure, evident in media coverage, some of the parliamentary questions and debates over recent years, to ‘salami slice’ the UK’s position on Taiwan in the direction of official relations with the island.
Whatever the political optics, that would clearly be contrary to what was agreed and set out in the early 1970s by London (as well as by Washington). The current tendency in the US to move policy in that direction is one of the reasons for heightened tensions between the US and China, and Taiwan is the one issue over which actual US-China conflict is possible (however unlikely).
In London, parliamentarians from both government and opposition parties have taken a more active interest in Taiwan over the last few years – this is not a party-political issue, and as with China more generally, the Labour party seems aligned with those in the ruling Conservative party who call for a more hawkish approach towards Beijing.
However, the contributions to the latest debate, in February 2022, suggest that the history of the issue and the positions agreed by London in the early 1970s are not widely known today, or the sensitivity of the issue fully understood.
Before politicians are tempted into following Washington on Taiwan, they should first appraise themselves of the commitments made in the agreements with the PRC that form the foundation for the current bilateral relationship between the UK and China and for the status quo across the Taiwan strait. To do otherwise, would be to risk a major confrontation with China, something that would not be in the interests of anyone involved.