An Instagram comeback tour or a sincere bid to strengthen democracy in East Asia? Liz Truss’s Taiwan visit exposes growing Conservative Party tensions over China, but either way, Taiwan still wins.

Written by Max Dixon.

Image credit: 外交部 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROC(Taiwan)/ Facebook.

Liz Truss, MP for South West Norfolk and British Prime Minister for 44 days, visited Taiwan last week, between May 16th and May 20th, meeting with senior officials, including William Lai, the frontrunner to replace current President Tsai Ing-wen, and giving a keynote speech to the Prospect Foundation that called for a more stringent British approach to China. Ostensibly the visit of a former Prime Minister has been heralded as a coup for Taipei in emboldening the position of Taiwan in the global imagination amidst growing Chinese assertiveness; indeed, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has welcomed Truss’ visit.

However, Liz Truss is not Nancy Pelosi. Indeed, it is important to contextualise the role of Liz Truss in British politics, as an examination of Britain’s shortest-serving Prime Minister invites serious questions about the rationale and advisability of her visit. Following the resignation of Boris Johnson in July 2022, Truss defeated her future successor Rishi Sunak in a Conservative Party leadership contest before overseeing a disastrous ‘mini budget’ of tax cuts that sparked an economic crisis and led to her resignation. The scale and speed of the collapse of Truss’s government led to ridicule, including British Tabloid the Daily Star infamously live-streaming the gradual spoiling of a supermarket lettuce in a race to outlast Liz Truss, a race the lettuce won.

A long-standing advocate for Taiwan

However, after reflection, Truss sought to resurrect her reputation as a prominent foreign policy campaigner within British politics, which developed during her roles as Secretary of State for International Trade and Foreign Secretary during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, Truss’s position on Taiwan is not ephemeral; Truss implored NATO to extend its protection to Taiwan following Russia’s invasion, was vocal in her support for Taiwan during the fallout of Pelosi’s visit and championed links between British industry and Taiwan’s renewable energy sector as International Trade secretary. Moreover, Truss has long advocated for greater clarity in the UK’s ambiguous position on China, adding credence to her championing of Taiwan and Taiwanese democracy in her speech. As such, it would be incorrect to label Truss’s visit to Taiwan as a consequence of fleeting interest in an eminent foreign policy issue. An obvious comparison to Boris Johnson’s continual advocacy for Ukraine and friendship with Volodymyr Zelenskyy is apt; [MMU1] there is substance to Truss’s support for Taiwan, even if the reputational rehabilitation invites questions of authenticity.

Conservative Party Tumult

Enter Alicia Kearns MP, a rising foreign policy voice in the Conservative Party and elected Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Following the announcement of Truss’s visit, Kearns denounced the move as ‘the worst kind of example of Instagram diplomacy’ in reference to Truss’s penchant for imitating former Conservative Prime Minister Margret Thatcher on foreign policy trips. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Thatcher was the last major British politician to visit Taiwan. Kearns argued that Truss’s trip would escalate Cross-Strait tensions and was, in its motivations, entirely performative and, crucially, equated to a ‘petty political attack’ on Rishi Sunak. This final rebuke is evocative of the Conservative Party melodrama that has defined British politics in recent years and offers clear grounds for questioning the motivations of Truss’s trip to Taiwan. Finally, a spokesperson for Truss issued a stinging rebuke to Kearns, likely emerging perhaps from Kearns’s role in the ‘Pork Pie Plot’, named after a delicacy from Kearns’s Rutland constituency, to oust Truss’s close political ally Boris Johnson in early 2022. Truss rejected the accusation that her trip amounted to little more than a bid to remain relevant, arguing that her invitation from the Taiwanese Government trumped the reservations of an MP from Rutland.

However, Truss’s visit has drawn attention to the increasing insufficiency of Rishi Sunak’s government’s ambiguity on China, and specifically Taiwan, inviting a range of discussions in the mainstream British media, ranging from support of Taiwan being tantamount to Sinophobia to the recognition that the UK needs to have a ‘serious conversation’ about Cross-Strait relations. It is equivalent to a revival of the foreign policy debates, often won by Truss, that defined the Conservative leadership race of 2022. It is a Conservative party squabbling writ large on the international stage, yet it has evidently further animated Taiwan in British perceptions.

An unadvisable visit?

Liz Truss’s visit has further bolstered understanding of the precarity of Taiwan’s position vis-à-vis China within British politics and amongst the British public. In part due to Truss’s swift equivalence to Ukraine, discussion of Taiwan has risen considerably in Parliament, whilst Britons are becoming increasingly wary of China in light of incursions into Hong Kong, the emergence of COVID-19 and the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

The visit of a former Prime Minister, breaking convention in British politics where it is expected a former leader won’t challenge existing British foreign policy, will instigate further debates on the United Kingdom’s approach to the ‘Taiwan Issue’. This raising profile is a clear success for Taiwan’s assiduous nation-building campaigns. Yet, the extent to which China will recognise Liz Truss’s authority to defer any form of pressure on Beijing’s Cross-Strait approach remains to be seen, with effective CCP spokesperson Vincent Gao offering only a perfunctory rebuke, whilst the Global Times centred its critique on the ‘washed-up political figure’ of Truss, arguing that it will have no impact on the Cross-Strait situation.

In contrast to the strident criticism levied at Nancy Pelosi, such rebukes appear to be considerably muted. Whilst China has continued its persistent aerial ‘sorties’, incursions in Taiwan’s airspace, there was no marked increase accompanying Truss’s visit to Taiwan, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Defence, which regularly documents incursions on its Twitter page. Judging by Beijing’s taunting reproach towards Truss, it is unlikely that any further PLAAF show of force comparable to that which accompanied Pelosi’s visit will follow the former Prime Minister’s trip.

Indeed, if the accusations of Alicia Kearns are correct, the most significant outcome of the visit will be to heap pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to take a harder line on China and to provide ‘hard power’ to Taiwan. This message is likely to resonate with China-sceptic Conservative MPs, even if Truss herself remains an object of derision, and would shift the Overton window of the UK’s China approach closer to the position held by key UK allies, the United States and Australia. Intriguingly Kearns, in a visit of her own to Taipei in 2022, discussed strengthening the UK’s defence cooperation with Taiwan, whilst Kearns has herself critiqued the ambiguity of Sunak’s approach to a ‘Taiwan Issue’. To this end, it appears that there is an affinity between both MPs’ positions on Taiwan, a key issue that British foreign policy in its current form cannot address. It is only due to the political machinations in the battle for the direction of the Conservative Party that the spat has emerged.

However, Truss and Kearns differ in how Taiwan is recognised, and an examination of this difference is crucial to understanding the emerging salience of Taiwan in British foreign policy. The former Prime Minister’s position appears to be fuelled by the geopolitical significance of Taiwan, where the ‘most dangerous place on Earth’ and its defence offers an evocative platform upon which to build a politically potent ‘strong line on China’. Conversely, Kearns’s analysis emphasises the twenty-three million people of Taiwan, who endure the consequences of such visits, arguing that they ‘overwhelmingly wish not to rock the boat, but to be left to live in a functionally autonomous, liberal democracy’. Such an approach, cognisant of the complexity inherent, for example, in the role of Taiwanese independence within Taiwan’s governing DPP party, provides a considerably more nuanced approach and, for Kearns, offers a potent attack on the perceived one-dimensional nature of Truss and her wing of the Conservative Party. However, either approach boosts Taiwan’s image in the United Kingdom.

Taiwan still wins

Truss’s visit can be considered a success for Taiwan; in light of her insignificance, it amounted to a low risk visit where the material ramifications deferred by China appear to have been relatively restrained. Yet, the visit of a former Prime Minister has drawn attention in the UK, however fleeting, to Cross-Strait relations and has already seen Taiwan grow in the British consciousness, carried by the perpetual drama of Conservative quarrels. Although this is undoubtedly beneficial for Taipei, it has instigated foreign policy debates in the British media and has elicited reactions within Sunak’s government and the Foreign Office, where officials were said to be ‘aghast’ by Truss’s visit. Moreover, given Liz Truss’s record on Taiwan, an optimist may view the visit as a further confirmation of her support for democracy as Foreign Secretary. However, even if Alicia Kearns is right, and Truss is indeed seeking to revive her career by using Taiwan as an intriguing Instagram backdrop, such is the nature of her tarnished reputation, she poses minimal risk to Cross-Strait relations, a talking point as opposed to a turning point. Either way, Taiwan wins, as by virtue of the very debate Truss inspires, more policymakers and voters in the United Kingdom have read and will continue to read about Taiwan over the coming days. With every column inch and podcast, growing demands that the UK further clarifies its position on Taiwan will emerge.   

Max Dixon is an ESRC-funded PhD student at the University of Portsmouth, researching British-Taiwan relations since the 1996 democratisation of Taiwan as part of the South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Liz Truss’ visit to Taiwan‘.

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