US holds high-level talks with UK over China threat to Taiwan

The US has held top-level talks with the UK on how they can co-operate more closely to reduce the chances of war with China over Taiwan and to explore conflict contingency plans for the first time.

Kurt Campbell, the White House Indo-Pacific co-ordinator, and Laura Rosenberger, the top National Security Council China official, held a meeting on Taiwan with UK representatives in early March, according to people familiar with the situation. It occurred during a broader two-day meeting with their respective teams on Indo-Pacific strategy.

Three people familiar with the stepped-up engagement said the US wanted to boost co-operation with European allies, such as the UK, to raise awareness about what the administration regards as Beijing’s increasingly assertive attitude towards Taiwan, which it considers part of China.

The US is not engaging the UK because of an imminent threat. The Taiwan dialogue is intended to complement more advanced discussions that the US has been holding with Japan and Australia as Beijing has stepped up military activity around Taiwan. Over the past year, China has flown more and more fighter jets, bombers and other warplanes near the island.

Admiral John Aquilino, head of US Indo-Pacific command, last month told the Financial Times during a trip to Australia to support the alliance that the Ukraine war underscored the risk that China posed to Taiwan.

One of the people said the Taiwan meeting spanned everything from how the UK could do more diplomatically with Taipei to discussions about boosting deterrence in Asia. It also included talks about what role the UK would play if the US ended up in a war with China over Taiwan.

The person added that the Biden administration was providing some allies with intelligence on Taiwan that was previously classified as “NOFORN” — a designation that bars information sharing with any foreign officials.

One UK official said the restricted meeting was the “highest-level” and “most significant” discussion between the countries on Taiwan to date. He said it was part of a “deeper policy conversation” that started during the Biden administration.

“Naturally, crisis planning would be a hefty chunk of any such conversation about Taiwan,” the official added.

The White House did not comment on the Taiwan meeting. A UK government spokesperson said “we never comment on private meetings”.

Ryan Hass, a Taiwan expert at the Brookings Institution, said it was smart to increase consultations over Taiwan, both to cut the odds of war and prepare for possible conflict, particularly given the “backdrop of Ukraine”.

“It is prudent for American officials to consult quietly with partners on what more could be done to deter conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and should it ever become necessary, to respond resolutely to challenges to peace and stability there,” Hass said.

In a sign of the enhanced co-operation with the UK, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, a British aircraft carrier, last year spent more than six months deployed in the Indo-Pacific.

Heino Klinck, a former top Pentagon Asia official, welcomed the US-UK consultations on Taiwan. He said they came on the heels of European naval deployments in the Indo-Pacific that increased last year after the Trump administration had held discussions with European allies about boosting operations in the South China Sea.

“Deterring Chinese aggression against Taiwan is in everyone’s interest. It is not just an Indo-Pacific issue, it is a global issue,” said Klinck.

“US military planners are not counting on Germany or France sending warships, or Britain sending a carrier in the case of a conflict over Taiwan. But when those countries send ships to the South China Sea, or transit the Taiwan Strait, it sends a strong signal to China.”

A senior Taiwanese official said Taipei was aware of the US efforts to involve more allies in its Taiwan planning. “They’ve been doing it with Japan and Australia, and now they’re trying to do it with Britain,” he said.

Diplomats in three Indo-Pacific countries said the enhanced US-UK initiative took American engagement on Taiwan to an unprecedented level.

Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary, this week said Nato should play a role in Asia. “We need to pre-empt threats in the Indo-Pacific, working with allies like Japan and Australia to ensure that the Pacific is protected,” she said. “We must ensure that democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves.”

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