Written by Ian Inkster.
Image credit: Conservatives/ Facebook.
The most likely manner in which the choice of Tory candidates might be of interest in Taiwan would be through foreign or economic policy. Unfortunately, though these two areas of government are meant to complement each other in normal times, our days are increasingly abnormal, thus the array of rhetoric, the focus on personalities, the exaggeration of anomalies, and the fixation on trust, veracity, and the lack thereof. And that is just in one party. Look around to your left and see the mirror image. Look across the Channel and see confusion and a reluctance to debate all major socio-economic problems. Look across the greater sea to find headless leadership. Not a charming prospect.
On British foreign policy, who has control over change and what is choice? The last time choice over foreign policy seemed to be available was in the general election when Corbyn and the Labour left jolted complacency. Chatham House has recognised ‘liberal multilateralism’ as a coherent conceptual entity, but surely the jury remains far out and probably lost, if only because of the assumption that the UK was a global cornerstone of a liberal international order.? But if subsequent Johnsonian confusion and equivocation have threaded their dubious way through the ranks (if not the populace – yet), we must admit that whatever is said by each candidate as they both do their best to look different from each other is likely to come to nought as a genuinely leadership-inspired foreign policy.
So, the initial position is that it is difficult to guess the weight of foreign policy regardless of the winner. Secondly, what then could be the impact on Taiwan? The clearest claim one can now make is: Any seeming gap between the two candidates would almost certainly narrow towards zero under the commanding influence of the USA. Britain does indeed have a robust history of independent foreign policy regarding Taiwan. But as I have outlined previously in Taiwan Insight and elsewhere, this is a trend of the past, not the present.
What of economic and commercial policies? Who has ‘veracity’, and what are the standing claims? We must remember, of course, the simple facts. China is by a very long shot the greatest trader with Taiwan, doubling the importance of the USA as an importer of Taiwanese goods, far outreaching Japan, or the USA as the origin of Taiwanese imports. Does this appear as a voiced element in the Tory debates? Not that I know of. Whether behind the scenes, the advisors and researchers are beavering away to negligible effect, we can not tell. But information flow requires at least one listener who calmly understands.
Nevertheless, this might be promising, for at least the two candidates have recognisably different positions. Whatever the playground fights in the last few days, the two candidates differ little in fundamental economic belief, and they are, after all, pretty much hard-boiled Tories. Of the two, Sunak boasts experience as Chancellor and time and again claims how he can spend (thus huge borrowings for Covid) but is a classic conservative, so he must balance the budget, give away some tax rewards to voters, control interest rates and beckon to or at least seriously listen to the Treasury and the Bank of England. Truss does some of this but is clearly more expansionary, posing most of her statements in positive long-term rather than short-term normative forms – thus the possibility of longer-term debt funding, funding out of growth, keeping taxes down or lowered but with greater thought to relief. She has the advantage of never having been Chancellor, so it is difficult to blame her for stupidities during Covid (the hugeness of debt funding of Covid policies that were suspect, the contracting of supplies out to very dubious commercial agents and possible cronies, the failures in funding the NHS more generally etc.) but the disadvantage of being open to charges of naivety. On the grounds that a more innocent Tory might be a better creature for East Asia and Taiwan than a deeply embedded one, on economics, the Truss position would be the slightly better outcome for Taiwan.
However, it is much more difficult to judge on the specific grounds of trade and investment. Both are strictly Tory in their negative and public rhetoric on China and their shared party agreement that Chinese trade and commerce have been a good thing since 2008 and might continue. As I and so many others are arguing, recovery in the global system will be led in the Pacific rather than the Atlantic, with India and China as clear players, followed by the rest of East Asia, South Asia, and the anglophone systems of Australia and Canada, as long as the latter retain some common sense in trade agreements and go for a moratorium on rhetoric. But we might add that, at least here, it is possible for either candidate as a leader to forge or assist in a foreign economic and commercial policy that moves independently of that of the USA. If this is so, then the expansionism of Truss plus public debt spending (plenty of growing nations from now will be looking for high-status government borrowers, and the UK can command low-interest rates for historical and institutional reasons) make her prime ministership a possible better outcome for Taiwan. This is granting all my first argument that either candidate might be considered marginal.
Complete Indifference and the positive value of very weak ties.
We reach the more obvious conclusion. The breadth of Tory discourse is a non sequitur. Although much has been made of contrast, trustworthiness, veracity and so on in the pallid representations of the British media, differences between the candidates are not especially significant to the trajectory of British politics or the impact of such on the rest of the world, and especially is this so in East Asia. The two major elements have already been suggested – the convergent effect on British policy of wholesale American influence and – where necessary – bilateral or multilateral pressure, combined with the deep tendency towards rightward-shifting centralism now nested firmly at the core of British parliamentary politics. This latter point seems to stand regardless of the two main parties in power. Still, the Tories are far better at keeping inherent quarrels amongst themselves away from public discourse (they do this by upgrading personal animosity!).
In contrast, Labour lets it all hang out, not necessarily through good intentions. Having written this, I note that Keir Starmer has made interesting positive and partially costed statements on economic policy that might be of more consequence in the long run. Perhaps in time, Taiwan Insight will mount a special issue on the potential impact of Labour policy on Taiwan and Taiwan-UK relations once a date for a new general election has been announced?
In brief, we might glimmer a difference that Truss could make in economic policy, but with major caveats left lying prone all over the place. The reason that the ‘Truss economic effect’ might be greater than any ‘Sunak political impact’ rests on both the power of the USA, which inhibits any independent British foreign innovations and the slight possibility that the Truss national public spending strategy may belong more to an immediate global future.
Professor Ian Inkster is a global historian and political economist at the Center of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London, and a Senior Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham, UK. Previous work includes authorship of thirteen books on global dynamics and history, focusing on industrial and technological development, and the editorship of History of Technology since 2000. Forthcoming books are Distraction Capitalism: The World Since 1971 and Invasive Technology and Indigenous Frontiers. Case Studies of Accelerated Change in History with David Pretel. Contact: twitter@inksterian.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Sunak or Truss: who stands stronger for Taiwan?.