Truss Visits Taiwan: Worth or Trouble?

Written by Huynh Tam Sang and Phan Van Tim.

Image credit: Liz Truss/ Facebook.

Liz Truss’s journey is in the limelight as the first ex-British prime minister to set foot in Taiwan nearly thirty years after Margaret Thatcher’s visits in the 1990s. Nonetheless, the worth of Truss’s five-day sojourn is a contentious issue. From one perspective, Truss’s visit is deemed immensely significant, exemplifying the UK’s unwavering backing for Taiwan amidst escalating Chinese pressure, given her enduring advocacy for a democratic Taiwan. But, conversely, others argue that her visit merely inflamed the already high-strung tensions between China and Taiwan.

“A long-time friend of Taiwan”

The UK witnessed a rapid shift in its stance toward Taiwan while Truss, a well-known China hawk, was in government. In the first-ever joint statement on maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, Truss – while acting as British Foreign Secretary – joined hands with her G7 counterparts to denounce Beijing’s aggressive actions in response to then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s contentious visit to Taiwan last August. In October 2022, Truss summoned Zheng Zeguang, the Chinese ambassador to the UK, to protest “Beijing’s aggressive and wide-ranging escalation” against Taiwan. She also urged Japan, Australia, and other NATO allies to work together to “ensure that democracies like Taiwan can defend themselves.” When China persistently saw Taiwan as its “domestic matter,” a vantage point designed to isolate the island democracy, Truss’s outspoken support for Taiwan helped bring attention to Taiwan’s security.

Like her predecessor, Boris Johnson, Truss often connected the situation in the Taiwan Strait and Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine. She argued that Western countries should draw lessons from Ukraine’s blunders, where they failed to stop Moscow’s occupation of Kyiv and use those lessons to keep the Taiwan Strait peaceful and stable. Truss also urged that democratic nations act quickly to bolster Taiwan’s self-defence capabilities to thwart a Chinese invasion. The good news is that the British government heard her request for Taiwan’s military support. She was succeeded by Rishi Sunak, who refused to rule out supplying Taiwan with weapons in November 2022 and underscored that London “[stood] ready to support Taiwan, as we [did] in standing up to Chinese aggression.”

During the 2022 NATO summit, Truss insisted that the democratic allies strengthen their economic ties with Taiwan because the self-governed island’s security is crucial for economic and military reasons. Given Taiwan’s indispensable role in the global supply chain, particularly its dominance in semiconductor technology, the more economically and militarily integrated Western nations are with Taiwan, the more costly it will be for Beijing to attack the island. Truss also applauded the formation of an “economic NATO” in which the G7 democracies would cooperate closely with other like-minded partners like Australia and Taiwan to offset China’s influence.

Truss kept supporting Taiwan enthusiastically even after leaving her position as prime minister. She called Taiwan, which is at the forefront of the battle between democracies and authoritarian regimes, “a beacon of freedom, of democracy, of free enterprise, of a free society” as she spoke at the Taipei-based Prospect Foundation. Truss again reemphasised the urgent need for Taiwan to be protected with hard power, calling for building a NATO-style security alliance and strengthening security ties between Britain and Taiwan to push back against China’s growing authoritarianism. Nevertheless, forming an “economic NATO”, as suggested by Truss, is unlikely to appeal to leaders in Washington, London, and Brussels, given that the messaging is mostly rhetorical and lacks a realistic vision.

Truss’s visit was “warmly welcomed” by the Taiwanese government. Taiwan’s foreign ministry praised her as “a staunch friend of Taiwan” for her dogged efforts to encourage democracies to speak up for Taiwan. For Taiwan, any interactions with democratic nations and like-minded partners are crucial to its long-term desire for global support and extended diplomatic efforts under China’s pressure. The Taiwanese administration, therefore, sees Truss’s visit, as well as that of other foreign delegations, as a way to bolster international support.

A controversial trip?

In contrast to the warm reception extended by the Taiwanese government, Truss’s visit was met with intense disapproval within her Conservative party. Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, was the most scathing of Truss’s visit, calling it “the worst kind of Instagram diplomacy”. According to Kearns, the Taiwan Strait situation has already escalated due to China’s unprecedented military actions following Pelosi’s visit last year. Because of this, Kearns claimed that Truss’s visit would not benefit the Taiwanese people but rather served to further undermine the security and stability of the Taiwan Strait.

Yet, Truss’s trip is unlikely to result in China’s forceful response, as it did in the case of Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, despite initial worries about her visit and Beijing’s response afterwards. The Chinese embassy in London issued a statement after Truss arrived in Taipei, calling her visit a “dangerous political show that will do nothing but harm to the UK” and urging London to “stop making political shows with the Taiwan question.” In response to Truss’s visit, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated that it was “all about serving selfish political interests.” On her tour thus far, China has been rather quiet and has not taken any severe military actions near Taiwan.

In the meantime, Truss’s speech would probably be viewed primarily through the lens of Westminster politics. Several commentators even condemned Truss’s visit to Taiwan for perhaps giving the Sunak administration a headache in its efforts to dial down tensions with Beijing while pursuing economic re-engagement with the world’s second-largest economy. Others were concerned that Truss’s campaigning tour would risk blowback from Beijing and exacerbate the situation in the Taiwan Strait.

These evaluations appeared to be hypothetical, though, as the UK’s policy toward Taiwan and China was essentially outlined in its Integrated Review Refresh 2023, a formal blueprint for Britain’s foreign and security policies within the next ten years. The statement stressed the necessity for direct engagement with China in areas that benefited the UK and China, even while it saw China as “an epoch-defining and systemic challenge” to the rule-based international order. The UK also expressed support for stability in the Taiwan Strait and opposition to any unilateral attempts to alter the status quo. As a result, rather than altering, the UK’s policy toward China and Taiwan looks to be holding steady.

Fostering UK-Taiwan ties

Truss visited Taiwan largely when relations between London and Taipei were thriving. The UK has been a staunch supporter of Taiwan’s accession to the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, in the past two years. On the economic front, the UK is well-positioned to play a “bridging role” to facilitate Taiwan’s accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), especially when Britain reached an agreement in principle to join the Indo-Pacific free trade pact in March this year.

Should Taiwan’s advantages in the semiconductor manufacturing field can be linked with the offshore wind power and clean energy fields that the UK is good at, it can also play the synergy of the industrial division of labour under the CPTPP’s economic framework. Moreover, in line with the concept of “friendly shore outsourcing”, the US, the UK and Taiwan could join hands to establish a shared value supply chain to strengthen their economic security in the face of China’s so-called “red supply chain”, a rapidly expanding network of mainland companies that are eroding market share from Taiwanese competitors thanks to substantial financial support from the Chinese government. In his April 2023 Mansion House speech, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly stated that Taiwan is “a crucial link in global supply chains, particularly for advanced semiconductors,” suggesting that trilateral cooperation is within reach.

In short, Truss has embraced her visit to reassure Taiwan about the UK’s continued support for the democratic island at a time when Beijing has been attempting to restrict foreign politicians’ official trips to Taiwan, diminish the significance of such visits, and silence individuals who are pro-Taiwan. Moreover, given her sustained position in UK politics and her history of unwavering support for Taiwan, Truss’s advocacy helped to elevate the significance of Taiwan’s security from a regional to a global level.

Huynh Tam Sang is a Lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations, Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Young Leaders Program member of the Pacific Forum, and a Research Fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation.

Phan Van Tim is a Research Assistant at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities and a Collaborator for “World News Desk” at PLO, a Ho Chi Minh-based online newspaper.

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

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