Written by John Burn.
Image credit: Liz Truss/ Facebook.
It was already clear from her recent speech to conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation in Washington DC that Liz Truss – the UK’s shortest-serving Prime Minister of all time – is trying to develop her image beyond the country’s shores. Being responsible for one of the most disastrous economic policy outlines in the UK’s history in her mini-budget upon coming to office, she lost public confidence and the confidence of the Conservative Party in very short order, resulting in her dismissal after 44 days in office.
However, one of the few areas of her political outlook recognised positively amongst many MPs was her policy towards China and cross-strait issues. A well-known ‘hawkish’ voice in the House of Commons, Truss is one of several British politicians who have been particularly vocal in supporting a more confrontative attitude in dealings with China. These include the many critics of Rishi Sunak’s recent refusal to unequivocally regard China as a ‘systemic threat’.
It was, therefore, natural that she should look to this avenue to regain some credibility by accepting an invitation from the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to visit Taiwan, with meetings scheduled with members of both the Legislative and Executive Yuan. She also attended the Prospect Foundation think tank in Taipei to deliver a speech declaring Taiwan the ‘frontline of democracy’. Providing high-profile opposition to China is her most obvious route to regaining political credibility. However, the crucial question in evaluating this trip is whether it will constructively contribute towards raising towards strengthening UK-Taiwan relations or whether it is primarily an exercise in self-aggrandisement.
Interactions between high-level political figures in Taiwan and those of Western powers have become increasingly frequent recently. Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August 2022 and Tsai Ing-Wen’s tour of the USA in April 2023 are the most noteworthy examples. These visits have been controversial in some quarters for the escalations in cross-strait tensions they have provoked. Regarding the Pelosi visit, there was a degree of opposition in Taiwan, reflecting the significant increase in Chinese military exercises in the strait that followed soon after her arrival.
Yet visits like Pelosi’s have also been defended as offering enough benefits to strengthen Taiwan’s foreign relations to offset any detriment from rising tensions. It has been suggested that Taiwan’s hosting of foreign visitors does have real benefits, with the Taiwanese experiencing a significant gain in confidence in their alliance with the US through Pelosi’s visit, for example. Failing that, visits will likely draw attention to the home country’s relations with Taiwan among legislators and government members. The positives of such trips certainly have the potential to outweigh the negatives.
For Truss’ visit to be appraised positively, it too must meet this criterion. Her status as a former Prime Minister carries far less weight than Pelosi’s as a serving Speaker of the House of Representatives. Yet, her visit still makes her technically the highest-ranking British official to visit Taiwan officially since Margaret Thatcher. Her visit is not, therefore, inconsequential. However, the UK government have pointed out that Truss, as a backbench MP, does not represent them, nor is she obliged to maintain the government’s line on China or Taiwan, despite any interpretations to the contrary on China’s part. So her visit is strictly in a private capacity, surely reducing the efficacy of its confidence-building amongst Taiwanese.
Liz Truss’ visit has been criticised by the Chinese side, of course (the Chinese embassy to the UK called it a ‘dangerous political stunt’), but also by political figures within the UK. Alicia Kearns MP, the Chair of the foreign affairs select committee, blasted it as ‘the worst example of Instagram diplomacy’, and Tobias Ellwood, Chair of the Commons defence committee, called it ‘selfish and disloyal’. Truss has defended her visit by pointing out that she was invited by the Taiwanese government and by asserting that Chinese ‘bullying’ must be stood up to. This is unobjectionable. Nonetheless, public support for her trip has been limited in domestic quarters, and so its ability to foster constructive dialogue about Taiwan in the UK will be affected.
In her speech to the Prospect Foundation, Truss mentioned certain prescriptions for G7 and other democratic countries to take a tougher stance on China, suggesting an ‘economic NATO’ emerging as a highlight. However, as with her speech to The Heritage Foundation, Truss took the opportunity to launch some criticism of other policy approaches to China. The comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron in an interview with Politico magazine in mid-April and those of UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverley at the Mansion House speech later in the month were the specific targets of her speech.
Regarding Macron’s interview, she declared European governments as ‘irresponsible’ for trying to distance themselves from cross-strait issues. As for Cleverley’s statement, Truss echoed the call of sympathetically minded ‘China hawks’ by rebuking the nuance the Foreign Secretary promoted. She further admonished the UK government by restating her calls upon Rishi Sunak to publicly recognise China as a ‘threat’ and close down the UK’s Confucius Institute centres.
Alicia Kearns, one of the critics of Truss’ trip, conducted the last high-profile visit to Taiwan in November 2022 as part of a Foreign Affairs select committee delegation. During this visit, her most prominent interactions involved advocating for Taiwan’s membership in the World Health Organisation and meeting with President Tsai and Premier Su Tseng-Chang on cross-strait security. Contrasting this to the agenda of Truss’ visit speaks to how these sorts of visits may be more or less constructive. While Truss’ speech was clearly directed at other Western powers and might be effectively summarised as a call to confrontation with China, Kearns’ focussed far more on creating a constructive dialogue with the Taiwanese government.
Ultimately, as displayed by a speech to the Heritage Foundation in America, Liz Truss is delusional about her past legacy and future role. In that speech, she spoke at length about how her premiership was sabotaged by conspiracy. In both that speech and the one she made in Taiwan, it seems that establishing her image is more important than taking positive, well-informed steps towards creating stronger UK-Taiwan relations.
Yet there may be some positive upshot from the high-profile nature of this trip. Simply by making it, Truss is going some way towards normalising such visits from UK politicians, and it may be hoped that not only those who support her geopolitical view but politicians of any persuasion might be more likely to participate in such exchanges. In this sense, the content of a visit does not matter so much as that the visit is made and that more precedents are set for future trips. However, such trips would be more beneficial if they eschew personal opportunism and focus on embracing the advocacy for and maybe even creating new bridges between the UK and Taiwan.
Her supporters might construe Truss’ visit to Taiwan as an effort to re-assert Taiwan’s diplomatic autonomy and national integrity. Moreover, as the most senior British visitor in a long time, it might be considered an important step in developing relations between the two countries by focusing British political attention on cross-strait stability. However, her lack of governmental status will limit the reassuring effects of her visit to Taiwan, and her reputation in the UK and the obvious need for her to regain credibility somehow make the visit seem far more like a mission of personal gain than anything else.
John Burn is a postgraduate student reading for an MA in Taiwan Studies at SOAS, University of London. He is researching factors affecting electoral trends in Jinmen and Mazu.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Liz Truss’ visit to Taiwan‘.