Written by Ben Seal.
Image credit: Conservatives/ Facebook.
The demise of UK-China relations has been snowballing since 2019. When a country’s relationship with China deteriorates, the door for closer ties with Taiwan opens. Consider Lithuania over the last two years after it became the first country to leave China’s 17+1 group in eastern and central Europe in May 2021.
In March 2019, the UK expressed concern over the situation in Xinjiang and the following month, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee mentioned that Hong Kong is moving towards one country, one-and-a-half systems. In July of 2019, the UK ambassador and 21 UN ambassadors signed a letter addressed to the UN Human Rights Council about China’s detention centres and other actions targeting the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Civil unrest and China’s treatment in Hong Kong during the protests in 2019-20 seemed to have begun the war of words between London and Beijing in earnest. On the other side of the Eurasia continent, China’s treatment of the protesters in Hong Kong and Beijing’s imposition of a national security law strengthened Taiwanese sentiment against their giant neighbour and increased Taiwanese identity. The tide has been turning over the last three years. Still, as recent as September 2020, the House of Commons Library mentioned that “the UK has consistently taken a low key approach (to Taiwan). Doing so has been a precondition for increased cooperation and engagement with Communist China”. As the UK finds its voice in speaking out against China, potential relations with Taiwan are increasing. How do the ideas of Liz Truss ideas in relation to the island nation differ from Rishi Sunak?
In the previous general election, which took place in December 2019, just over forty million voters gave Boris Johnson a majority of eighty seats. This summer, after the resignation of Johnson, around 180,000 Conservative Party members are choosing who will be the UK’s next Prime Minister. Will they select Sunak or Truss? As the voting goes into the final days, polls suggest that Truss will be the most likely victor, but my piece attempts to examine how both contenders would affect the UK’s relationship with Taiwan.
If anything, 2022 has shown the UK voters that there is a reason for Britain’s foreign policy to make a greater swing towards global security and defence. Certainly, many would try and encourage this focus with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia as well as China’s aggression towards Taiwan. After Brexit, there have been many examples of the UK moving its scope further east. In March 2021, the UK government set out its twenty-year security, defence, development, and foreign policy plan. In October of the same year, it released an integrated review entitled The Defence Tilt to the Indo-Pacific. In addition, on 15th September 2021, the creation of AUKUS was announced by the leaders of Australia, the UK and the US.
This tilt is not just from a defence point of view. The UK application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) could be fulfilled as early as the end of this year. With present members having a firm say in which new countries are allowed to join, the United Kingdom’s accession could strongly affect the next two applications in line for consideration: China and Taiwan. Judging by the increasingly anti-Chinese rhetoric from the UK and other Western politicians, the UK’s support of China’s ascension over Taiwan would certainly be used against the Conservative party by the opposition in the next UK general election in just over two years.
With the pivot putting more British resources (both from a financial and a defence perspective) towards the Indo-Pacific region, the next leader of the UK could have a greater impact on Taiwan than ever before. Taiwan-UK relations are changing. At the start of August, shortly after Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip to Taipei was announced, The Guardian reported that Britain’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is putting plans in place for a trip to the self-governed island to be potentially headed by Tom Tugendhat. With the MP openly showing his support for Truss to become the next Prime Minister, some see him as a potential for a cabinet-minister job this month, which could have even higher implications for UK-Taiwan (and UK-China) relations were the trip to go ahead.
Rishi Sunak seems to be playing catch-up regarding his comments on China and lack thereof on Taiwan. In his Mansion House speech in July 2021, Sunak talked about the importance of UK-China’s economic ties: “The truth is, China is both one of the most important economies in the world”, but goes on to concede that it is also, “a state with fundamentally different values to ours.” China is one of the UK’s biggest trading partners, which may have affected the strength of the ex-Chief Secretary to the Treasury and ex-Chancellor’s stance towards the economic powerhouse over the last few years. More recently, however, he has mentioned China’s bullying of Taiwan and, in a Tweet on 25th July 2022, he noted that “China and the CCP represent the largest threat to Britain” and that he would “close all 30 of China’s Confucius Institutes in the UK.” (although he wasn’t the first Tory MP to suggest this). Most of his comments in the region seem to be against China rather than for Taiwan.
In her position heading the Foreign Office, however, Liz Truss has developed her stance against China’s human rights abuses, particularly in the Uighur area and Hong Kong. Not only that, but another area in which she differs from her contender is that Truss is explicitly mentioning Taiwan on a more regular basis, especially in the last two months. Speaking at the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid on 29th June, she commented that ‘…it’s so important that the free world work together to help ensure that Taiwan can defend itself…’ and ‘What we’re doing is making sure that Taiwan has meaningful participation in international organisations but also working to strengthen our economic ties with Taiwan…’. On 10th August, Foreign Secretary Truss summoned the Chinese Ambassador to Britain, Zheng Zeguang, “over Beijing’s aggressive escalation against Taiwan.” By mentioning Taiwan directly in her comments against Beijing, she is putting the country’s name in the ears of the British public and showing her clearer knowledge of and strategy against China’s aggression in the area.
This leadership battle has led many to state that it is speeding up the deterioration of UK-China relationships. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian noted at a press conference on 26th July that “certain British politicians (meaning, but not mentioning Truss and Sunak)… are hyping up the so-called “China threat””. This summer, the UK government confirmed the present threat from China. Truss’ words for Taiwan are certainly stronger and more frequent than Sunak’s, despite her directly rejecting a visit to the island in a Sky News interview on 4th August.
From the previous two months, it seems that Taiwan would be higher up Truss’ plan than it would Sunak’s. Assuming the China issue for world security does not disappear in the near future, Truss’ favourable rhetoric towards Taiwan will need to be followed through with actions between now and the next general election. Without these actions, Labour and other party leaders will have the strong anti-Tory line they have been looking for since the start of the Brexit debate. To keep their voters after the UK has left the EU, a future Tory leader may have to show solidarity with Taiwan to prove their strength against China and Russia. If Truss continues with her present direction, I foretell increasing UK military presence in the area (which would also strengthen relations with the US as they would welcome more allies’ military presence in the area). Sunak’s comments over the last three months do not behold him to any concrete action over Taiwan were he to enter Number 10. With the announcement of formal bilateral trade talks between the US and Taiwan last month, the UK could follow this path paved by the US if it wants to be a strong player in the area. Neither Sunak nor Truss has mentioned UK-Taiwan trade talks over the summer, but trade with Taiwan is increasing and could be the next step of Taiwanese cooperation with the UK.
What does deteriorating relations with China mean for the UK and other country’s relations with Taiwan? There is a risk that politicians show solidarity with Taiwan for their own gain at the potential expense of Taipei. Donald Trump often mentioned Taiwan when it suited his US-China relations strategy; John F Cooper, in the American Journal of Chinese Studies, tracks the ex-president’s shift from hot (favourable to Taiwan) to cold (hurtful to Taiwan) regarding US-Taiwan relations. My hope is that governments worldwide, be it London, Washington, Tokyo, Canberra, Brussels or even New Delhi, treat Taipei respectfully and not just use it as a pawn to anger Beijing. It is paramount to Taiwanese peace and democracy that Taipei is kept in the loop concerning other nations’ political, military or economic actions around the Taiwan Strait. As Taiwan’s Minster of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Wu, has stated in numerous interviews and on the MOFA website: “the future of Taiwan must be decided following the will of the Taiwanese people”. I hope a future British Prime Minister will heed Wu’s words for the good of Taiwan and the good of a more British-involved Indo-Pacific region.
Ben Seal completed both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at The University of Nottingham. He has taught in Taiwan, Indonesia, China, Belgium and Germany and is presently a primary school teacher in Bath, UK. He returns to Taiwan every year with his family.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Sunak or Truss: who stands stronger for Taiwan?.