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What is Liz Truss doing in Taiwan?

The former British prime minister is the wrong messenger, but a serious conversation is needed about the UK’s China policy.

By Katie Stallard

The main thing most people outside the UK know about the former British prime minister Liz Truss is that her tenure failed to outlast a lettuce. After six chaotic weeks at the helm in the autumn of 2022, defined by a disastrous economic plan that tanked the pound, she departed office as a political punchline and as the answer to a trivia question: who is the shortest-serving prime minister in British history?

Now Truss has brought her distinctive talents to Taiwan.

That expectations ahead of the trip to the self-ruling democracy, which is claimed by Beijing, were low wasn’t unreasonable given Truss’s past form: posing in a tank in an apparent attempt to channel Margaret Thatcher, and striding around the deck of an aircraft carrier in a helmet when foreign secretary. Her past statements demonstrate little understanding of the nuance and complexities involved in grappling with one of the world’s most dangerous regions.

So it was unsurprising that her speech in Taipei earlier today (17 May) was laden with banal sloganeering about the “frontier of freedom” and the coming clash between the “free world” and “totalitarian regimes”. There were some truly bewildering passages, such as when she insisted that there could be no further co-operation with China on “issues like climate change” because all other concerns must be sublimated to the battle against “Chinese global dominance” and the fight for the “future of freedom and democracy”.

“We know what happens to the environment or to world health under totalitarian regimes that don’t tell the truth,” Truss opined. “You can’t believe a word they say. Look at what’s happening in terms of carbon production.” OK, but the United States, that famed, if troubled, beacon of democracy is the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon. Even a cursory google would have shown that this logic doesn’t hold.

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Truss also appeared to suggest that the West has no choice about whether to embark on a new Cold War. “China has already embarked on a self-reliance drive, whether we want to decouple from the economy or not,” she explained. “China is growing its navy at an alarming rate. It is undertaking the biggest military build-up in peacetime history.” This is all true, but it doesn’t mean that another Cold War is inevitable or that Western leaders have no agency in what happens next and should just throw up their hands in despair.

Remarkably, Truss’s trip achieved the rare feat of uniting Alicia Kearns, the Conservative chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee and a clear-eyed critic of China’s human rights abuses, and the Chinese Communist Party-controlled tabloid Global Times, who both agreed on the nature of the visit. Kearns called it “performative, not substantive” and the “worst kind of Instagram diplomacy” while the Global Times, which quoted Kearns, went with the headline: “UK’s shortest-serving PM Liz Truss kicks off political stunt trip to Taiwan.”

[See also: US policymakers sound the alarm on possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan]

Indeed, it would be easy to dismiss the whole endeavour as the self-serving publicity stunt that it so clearly was, but much as it might pain some of us to admit it, Truss did also make some valid points.

She stressed the link between maintaining Western support of Ukraine and deterring China from an attack on Taiwan, which officials in Taipei have emphasised since the start of the conflict. She highlighted Beijing’s use of economic coercion against Lithuania for its support of Taiwan and called for an “economic Nato”. This is an idea that has gained traction among serious diplomats and is worth further discussion. (Although it is a little rich coming from a Brexit convert.)

She also pointed to Rishi Sunak’s description of China during last year’s Conservative Party leadership contest as the “biggest long-term threat” that Britain faced and urged him to class China as a threat to UK security. Sunak prefers the softer “epoch-defining challenge” instead.

We should be under no illusions about why Truss is doing this. She is settling domestic political scores and trying to rebrand herself from failed politician to valiant freedom fighter. She also delivered the “Margaret Thatcher Freedom Lecture” at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington DC, last month. She is clearly trying to create a public role for herself and forge a legacy that is not defined by a wilting lettuce.

There are real questions for Sunak’s government to answer about its China strategy, or lack thereof. Mentioning Taiwan for the first time in the “Integrated Review Refresh” – the government’s review of national security and international policy – earlier this year was a start, but it is not a clear policy. As Truss has repeatedly pointed out, Taiwan’s government invited her to come. She is not there against the wishes of Tsai Ing-wen’s administration. If this visit focuses attention in the UK on the challenges facing Taiwan, and a real discussion of where British interests lie, then that is a good thing.

Of course, the danger is that it won’t because Liz Truss is… well, she’s Liz Truss.

[See also: The diplomatic battle for Taiwan]

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