Truss or Sunak? The next British prime minister and policy toward Taiwan

Written by Michael Reilly.

Image credit: Conservatives/ Facebook.

It is almost a truism to say that the UK’s policy on Taiwan is dictated by, and subordinate to, its policy towards China. All too frequently, ‘support’ for Taiwan is little more than a reaction to Chinese behaviour or actions, and it is rarely based on the intrinsic merits of engaging with Taiwan for the benefits that doing so will bring. So, Taiwan ought to feel pleased by recent opinion polls, which confidently predict Liz Truss becoming the next British prime minister on 5th September. Among her backers within the Conservative party are some prominent ‘China hawks,’ notably former party leader Sir Iain Duncan-Smith and chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Tom Tugendhat.

Support for Taiwan within British politics must be seen in the context of growing antipathy towards China, starting with revelations about the persecution of Uighurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang, gathering pace with reactions to the early Chinese secretiveness about the coronavirus pandemic and reinforced by the imposition of the national security law and clampdown in Hong Kong. Ironically, it was the pandemic that highlighted for the first time the vital role that Taiwanese companies play in global supply chains and the country’s critical importance to the world economy.

The second truism of British foreign policy is the overarching importance of the bilateral relationship with the United States. Whoever becomes the next prime minister, one of their first calls will be with US President Joe Biden, and eventually, they will utter a cliché about the ‘special relationship.’ Yet, for all that, the two countries have often differed in their China policies. Still, since the handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the British government has rarely felt sufficiently confident (or perhaps foolish) enough to go directly against American wishes in this respect. The most prominent exception was the decision of the Cameron government, under the influence of then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, to ignore American objections in its desire to become the first western country to sign up to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). More typical was how the Johnson government fell into line and banned the use of Huawei  equipment in new 5G telecommunications, reportedly after Johnson received an expletive-filled tirade from President Donald Trump.

Whoever the next prime minister is, they are going to have to deal with some immediate and major challenges: the cost-of-living crisis, exacerbated by soaring energy prices, an economic recession, and war in Ukraine, the first two made worse by the government’s own decisions over its handling of Brexit. It is hardly a time to pick a quarrel with the US, so not a time to expect any significant change in policy towards China. On the other hand, British policy on Taiwan is a zero-sum game with China’s policy, so that should be good news for Taiwan.

Being ‘tough on China’ does not translate automatically into deepening engagement with Taiwan. Here, the lack of informed knowledge about Taiwan within the government, especially in parliament, is likely to prove a constraint. In the absence of knowledgeable ministers or parliamentarians, the next prime minister will rely on Whitehall officials, from the FCDO especially, for advice on engaging with Taiwan.

While this is logical, it is by no means obvious that Whitehall will be able to provide this. It is almost axiomatic that officials tend to be risk averse, and few foreign policy issues are likely to be riskier than China-Taiwan relations. It is also noteworthy that the last major difference between the USA over China policy arose not through differences among the respective foreign policy experts but from an initiative of the chancellor. This was not the first time that the Treasury and Foreign Office have clashed over China policy (an earlier instance was over former President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to London in 2000, the fallout from which included the cancellation by China of a visit by a British Treasury minister) and given the importance of China to the global financial system, it is possible that if Sunak is the next PM he will look to his former advisers in the Treasury for advice on policy rather than FCDO officials.

The Lee Teng -hui visit was part of a wider, relatively radical change in British policy towards Taiwan following the handover of Hong Kong, which also saw the signing of the first bilateral agreements, an upgrading of the official British presence in Taipei and even the opening of an office in Kaohsiung. Over the last decade or so, however, caution appears to have become the watchword. Ministerial visits to Taiwan have slowed to a trickle, while the default approach of the FCDO seems to be to appoint a Mandarin Chinese-speaking official to head the British Office in Taipei. The logic of this may seem impeccable sat behind a desk in London, but it displays a depressing lack of knowledge about modern Taiwan within the senior levels of the FCDO. This is a country whose current and previous presidents and foreign ministers speak better English than British officials can talk to Chinese and a country with the aim of making English an official language within the next few years. More to the point, by definition, a Mandarin-speaking officer will have spent time representing the UK in China and, after some years of dealing with Chinese officials, is likely to be ultra-cautious in proposing or considering greater engagement with Taiwan. An officer who had served in Tokyo or Washington, and appreciated the importance of Taiwan to those capitals, would surely be more appropriate.

Since the turn of the century, the UK and Taiwan have successfully negotiated a series of bilateral agreements, covering issues ranging from double taxation, through air services, to prisoner transfers, working holidaymakers and more. These may lack the immediate media-grabbing headlines that prominent political visits can attract. Still, they have all been agreed with little or no protest from China, while their impact on ordinary people in Taiwan is immeasurably greater. There is plenty of scope for more such agreements. A good start would be a ‘bilateral investment agreement’ that would circumvent potential Chinese objections to signing a free trade agreement but would have a similar impact. But officials must be willing to argue and press for them. Otherwise, the risk must be that while trying to deal with crises on several fronts, the next PM will be happy to be distracted by grand gestures – a high-level visit, for example, which might generate media headlines in the short term but at the cost of simply adding to tension and mistrust in the medium term.

Michael Reilly has been a Senior Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham since 2015. A former British diplomat, his final position was as the British representative in Taiwan from 2005 – to 2009. He has also held a senior position as the chief representative in China for one of the UK’s largest manufacturing companies and was a Visiting Fellow in the Institute for European and American Studies at Academia Sinica in Taipei in 2016 and 2019. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Global Taiwan Institute. His most recent book, The Great Free Trade Myth: British Foreign Policy and East Asia since 1980, was published in 2020. 

This article was published as part of a special issue on Sunak or Truss: who stands stronger for Taiwan?.

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