Going for Low-Hanging Fruit, Deliberate Strategy, or Path Dependency?: Liz Truss’ Visit to Taiwan

Written by Brian Hioe.

Image credit: Liz Truss/ Facebook.

Former UK prime minister Liz Truss arrived in Taiwan on May 16th for a five-day visit. Truss’ main purpose in visiting was to give a speech at the invitation of the Prospect Foundation, a think tank close to the Tsai administration. In addition, Truss met with President Tsai Ing-wen, Vice President William Lai, and other high-ranking officials.

However, the Truss visit has raised eyebrows given Truss’ checkered political reputation. Known as a would-be arch-conservative in the mould of Thatcher, the views of Truss are tempered not only by her right-wing political stances but the widespread perception of her as politically incompetent. Indeed, Truss resigned after a mere seven weeks in office, making her the shortest-serving UK prime minister in history. This occurred after Truss quickly lost support from her own party, and her policies shook the UK economy. Moreover, because of a viral video, Truss was particularly mocked for not lasting longing in office than the shelf-life of an iceberg lettuce, which was put on livestream as it wilted during her brief tenure.

Ironically, if not for her reputation, Truss’ visit to Taiwan would have otherwise set a new precedent as a visit to Taiwan by a former UK prime minister. If framed in such terms, not only would the visit have been seen as another sign of strengthening diplomatic ties between Taiwan and the international world, but it would have likely led to strong reactions from the Chinese government. China has called Truss’ visit “a dangerous political stunt” but has not otherwise reacted beyond that.

However, Truss’ visit has not been framed as setting a new precedent, given her polarising international reputation. Instead, Truss’ trip has been perceived as an act of Taiwan seeking long-hanging fruit in terms of visits from international politicians, at best.

Given Truss’ quick and inglorious ouster from office, she may seek to cling to relevancy through a Taiwan visit. Indeed, Truss has been accused of “Instagram diplomacy” throughout the trip. However, Truss is no longer prime minister, and there will be no substantive outcomes for Taiwan out of the visit. And while the visit could be symbolic, this is dampened by Truss’ reputation.

One notes the pattern of Taiwan seeing visits from conservative politicians with checkered political reputations as of late, including former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, who served under the Trump administration.

Both Pompeo and Bolton had plans to run for president in 2024, and their Taiwan visits may have been aimed at building momentum for campaigning. Pompeo’s trip was largely interpreted in this light, though he later stated that he would not run after an abortive campaign.

Nevertheless, that Taiwan has seen visits by Truss, Pompeo, and Bolton–in a manner aimed at keeping in the international limelight–may highlight the significant role that Taiwan plays in global political discourse at present, that political figures scrambling to maintain political relevance would visit Taiwan. Pompeo and Bolton, too, were feted during their trips, with Bolton recently making an appearance with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen at the 40th-anniversary banquet of US-based Taiwanese lobbying organization FAPA in Taipei, and Taipei 101 lighting up for Pompeo during his trip to Taiwan.

By contrast, it is to be questioned what Taiwan gains from such visits. For example, western politicians’ utility of visits to Taiwan has been increasingly questioned after the then-US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, came to Taiwan in August of last year as the first US Speaker of the House to visit Taiwan in a quarter-century. Nevertheless, after the Pelosi visit, China responded with military drills on a scale unseen since the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis, and the visit is largely seen as having significantly contributed to the ramping up of tensions in the Indo-Pacific in the past year. Consequently, there is increasingly a debate between advocates of substantive support for Taiwan–who call for arms sale agreements, trade deals, and other concrete means of support for Taiwan while avoiding actions that may be symbolic but provoke China–and those that believe symbolic means of support for Taiwan calls China’s bluffs and serves to raise Taiwan’s international profile.

Nonetheless, visits by Truss, Pompeo, and Bolton are at a remove from this debate, seeing as they are not influential policymakers. In the case of Pompeo and Bolton, Taiwan may be seeking to hedge its bets in case they do end up somewhere politically influential in the future. At the same time, Truss likely does not have much in the way of a political career ahead of her. But to this extent, Taiwan risks becoming associated with especially controversial conservatives and not being a bipartisan issue if it associates too strongly with right-wing politicians such as Truss, Pompeo, and Bolton.

For its part, as also took place with Pompeo and Bolton, there was not a particularly strong domestic political reaction to Truss’ visit. Namely, the Taiwanese public may not perceive Pompeo, Bolton, or Truss’s international reputation or how they differ from traditional conservatives that back Taiwan.

Though Truss was invited by the Prospect Foundation, as was Pompeo before her, it is to be questioned whether Taiwanese political actors feel that they are in a position to turn down visits from such political figures, perhaps out of a view that Taiwan needs whatever international friends it can get. Some reports around the time of the Pelosi visit suggested that the Tsai administration had originally sought to decline the visit, for fear of Chinese retaliation but was overruled. Either way, a later meeting between current US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and Tsai took place in California, rather than Taiwan, after Taiwan shared intelligence with McCarthy about how it thought China would react to a McCarthy visit. China conducted military exercises around Taiwan after the visit anyway.

Or, if there are strategic aims for Taiwan continually accepting right-wing visitors such as Truss, Bolton, and Pompeo, this may be a tactic aimed at influencing international discourse. If this is a deliberate move aimed at influencing international discourse, one notes much of the framing around Truss’ comments at the Prospect Foundation was about the UK’s military support for Ukraine and its own naval presence in the Indo-Pacific, perhaps suggesting that the UK should step up support for Taiwan in this regard. Similarly, during the Pompeo visit, Pompeo largely echoed the Tsai administration’s talking points on cross-strait relations in a way that some interpreted as though his lines had been fed to him. Notably, Truss’ speech at the Prospect Foundation called for Taiwan to join the CPTPP and called for Taiwan to be made part of an “economic NATO,” in framing clearly influenced by the international discourse around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It is also possible that Taiwan hopes to aim for higher-profile, less disreputable guests and that allowing for such guests at present is aimed at putting pressure on individuals that currently hold power in the US or UK to step up support for Taiwan. After all, Truss, Bolton, and Pompeo have sought to attack those that came to power after them as not being tough enough on China, inclusive of not doing enough to step up support for Taiwan. So allowing for visitors who may be “low-hanging fruit” may be a way to pressure more significant international political actors. And, significantly, China is far less likely to respond with shows of military force to visits by such politicians because of their mixed reputation.

Nevertheless, the counter-argument against the Tsai administration or pan-Green-leaning groups such as Prospect Foundation having strategic aims to inviting individuals such as Truss, Bolton, and Pompeo is that the pan-Green camp has historically been accused of overreliance on conservative international support. This is true, particularly regarding Taiwan’s relation to the US Republican Party and Taiwan’s remaining Latin American diplomatic allies and other international political contexts. If so, perhaps it is merely path dependency that has resulted in Taiwan seeing a series of such visits at present.

Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance journalist, as well as a translator. A New York native and Taiwanese-American, he has an MA in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University and graduated from New York University with majors in History, East Asian Studies, and English Literature. He was Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy from 2017 to 2018 and is currently a non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Programme. 

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

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