Visiting Taiwan, ex-UK PM Liz Truss calls for tough line on China

Visiting Taiwan, Truss argues democracies need to take hard line on Beijing and make clear there are consequences for aggression.

Liz Truss takes a group photo in Taipei. She is waving and smiling. The backdrop behind reads 'Special Speech of the Former UK Prime Minister' with her photo to one side. The words are also written in Chinese.
China condemned Truss's visit as a 'political show' [Ann Wang/Reuters]

Taipei, Taiwan – Democratic countries must make clear to Beijing that it would face sanctions and other repercussions if it attacked Taiwan, former British Prime Minister Liz Truss has said.

“It’s absolutely clear that President Xi has the ambition to take Taiwan,” she told reporters during a press conference in Taipei on Wednesday.

“Now, we don’t know exactly when that could take place, we also don’t know how, and it’s my view that the preference of President Xi (Jinping) and the Chinese Communist Party would be to do it in a way that doesn’t involve using force, but I certainly think they would be prepared to use force if necessary.

“All we can do, those of us who believe in freedom and democracy, is make sure that Taiwan is as protected as possible and the Chinese government would understand there are severe consequences if they tried to take Taiwan by force,” she said.

Truss, Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday for a five-day visit, and is the first former British leader to visit Taiwan since Margaret Thatcher in 1996.

She was greeted by Foreign Minister Joseph Wu on her arrival at the airport and is expected to meet Taiwanese officials while she is on the island. Truss will also reportedly meet President Tsai Ing-wen, according to Radio Taiwan International, although government media has not confirmed the meeting.

Wednesday’s press conference followed a closed-door speech at Taipei’s Grand Hyatt Hotel hosted by the Prospect Foundation, a government-funded think tank that focuses on cross-strait relations.

Truss also told reporters that the Asia Pacific needs a more formal NATO-style security alliance than current pacts like AUKUS and the Quad to ensure regional security, and she also called on the Group of Seven nations and the European Union to work together to apply more “coordinated” economic pressure on Beijing to “change the way China behaves” so that it cannot “bully and coerce other countries”.

“China is very reliant currently on exports to those nations and at present there isn’t a coordinating mechanism for those countries to exert pressure on China. That is what I am advocating before it is too late and China is more dominant in the world economy,” she said. “I don’t think this is something the UK can do alone, it’s a question for coordinating with our allies around the world, like the United States, Japan.”

Analysts said while economic cooperation in relation to China was something that Japan appeared to be gently pushing at the G7, Truss’s comments were unlikely to give the proposal any momentum given her own political baggage and the way she had packaged her argument.

“Liz Truss is a former prime minister with a reputation, the wrong kind of reputation,” Steve Tsang, the director of the SOAS China Institute at SOAS in London, told Al Jazeera by email. “It means that what she advocates does not get taken seriously in the UK, the EU and the US.  The messenger here lacks credibility and persuasiveness.  The message itself is also unrealistic, so much so that it will be seen largely as rhetorical.  An Asian NATO has no taker in the Indo-Pacific, and even the USA does not see it as a realistic option.”

‘Instagram diplomacy’

Truss lasted just 44 days as prime minister, after her economic policies sent the pound plunging and interest rates soaring. She has remained a member of parliament for the ruling Conservatives but the former foreign minister has become an increasingly vocal China hawk.

At the Copenhagen Democracy Summit this week, she described China as the “largest threat that we face to the free world” as she responded to criticism of her trip from other UK politicians.

Truss’s trip to Taiwan was called “the worst kind of Instagram diplomacy” by a fellow Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, who is also chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Kearns reportedly warned the trip could anger Beijing, much like that by US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August last year.

Following Pelosi’s trip, Beijing staged several days of unprecedented live-fire military exercises and test-fired missiles over Taiwan.

China’s London embassy described the visit as a “dangerous political show”, and accused Truss of “colluding” with those in Taiwan who want independence.

“We urge the relevant British politician to correct her wrongdoing, stop making political shows with the Taiwanquestion, and stop conniving at and supporting “Taiwan independence” secessionist forces,” it said in a statement on its website on Wednesday.

The embassy also suggested that the visit could have repercussions for the government of current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. His foreign minister, James Cleverly, laid out his views on the China relationship in a major speech just three weeks ago – stressing that countries had to work with Beijing to make progress on some of the biggest challenges facing the world.

“Taiwan may on balance appreciate such an unequivocal statement of support from Liz Truss but the comments also highlight how Taipei’s efforts to circumvent its international isolation by Beijing has limits,” said Mark Harrison, a senior lecturer in a Chinese Studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia.

“Statements by foreign politicians on “private” visits, unlike official statements by national governments, are too readily seen through the lens of their domestic politics. This undercuts their message and can reduce the future of Taiwan to a partisan domestic political issue rather than a critical issue of international security.”

Addressing the controversy around the visit, Truss told reporters that she had been invited by Taiwan’s government and that China should not dictate “who visits any country in the world”.

“I think it is a very dangerous idea that we should allow a totalitarian regime to dictate who goes where in the world,” Truss said when asked whether her trip would endanger Taiwan’s security by angering Beijing.

She also said suggested such a media narrative only furthered Beijing’s goals.

“What the Chinese Communist Party are trying to do is they are trying to make it unacceptable for people to visit and talk to Taiwan,” she also said. “We should think about what their aims and ambitions are in trying to do that.”

Source: Al Jazeera