Given the turmoil that surrounded Liz Truss’s short spell as prime minister, it is easy to overlook that, during the time she previously served as foreign secretary in Boris Johnson’s government, she acquitted herself well when tackling major global issues. While her predilection for photo-ops, such as posing in a tank, Margaret Thatcher-style, during a trip to Estonia in 2021, could cause toe-curling embarrassment, more often than not she had the right instincts on the big foreign policy calls she made on her watch.
She was robust in defending Ukrainian sovereignty in the wake of Russia’s invasion, and won plaudits for rallying support among European allies for imposing sanctions on Moscow. She also took a tough line on Britain’s feud with the EU over post-Brexit trading arrangements, so much so that at one point she topped the poll of Conservative voters’ favourite politician.
China, and the long-term challenge Beijing poses to Britain’s wellbeing, was another issue that was a central feature of Truss’s global outlook. Utterly refuting the Cameron/Osborne vision of establishing a new “golden era” in relations with Beijing, she wanted to make a declaration to the effect that China constituted a “threat” to Britain’s national security. She maintained this stance after becoming prime minister, even going so far as to call for the formation of an “economic Nato” to counter Beijing’s financial might.
Truss’s arrival in Taiwan this week, where she declared that the West must avoid appeasing China and should show unwavering support for Taipei’s democratically elected government, is therefore consistent with her hardline stance against China’s communist rulers.
Warning that China aims to use its global economic clout to “gain dominance” while undertaking “the biggest military build-up in peacetime history”, she called on the Western alliance “to do all we can to support free democracies like Taiwan in the face of aggression from a Chinese regime whose record we already know” – a reference to Beijing’s brutal suppression of democracy in Hong Kong. And she laid down a challenge to Rishi Sunak, who is visiting Japan for a G7 summit, to follow her lead in denouncing China as a threat to British security.
Beijing does not take kindly to prominent Western politicians making high-profile visits to Taiwan: it responded to then US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan last year by blockading the island and firing ballistic missiles into the surrounding sea. Its response to Truss’s visit has been more muted, not least because she is no longer a minister. A Chinese foreign ministry official simply denounced her trip as a “dangerous political stunt”.
But while critics will argue that her visit has been deliberately timed to upstage Sunak’s presence in the region, her assessment of the threat Beijing poses to both Taiwan’s future independence, as well as the wider world, deserves serious consideration.
In fairness to Sunak, Downing Street has grasped the importance of building new capabilities and alliances to counter the Chinese threat. Sunak has embraced the new Aukus pact between Australia, Britain and the US to build a new fleet of nuclear submarines, so much so that the lion’s share of the extra £11 billion he has pledged in defence spending will go towards boosting our nuclear submarine programme.
Even so, there are concerns that the pace of submarine construction, with the UK on average building only one nuclear submarine every five years, means it will be decades before the new fleet is ready to tackle Beijing’s military might. China, by contrast, builds between five and seven submarines each year. With US intelligence claiming the Chinese military will be ready to annex Taiwan by 2027, the new Aukus alliance has a lot of catching up to do if it is to pose a credible counter-balance to China’s military expansion. Certainly, there can be little question that Beijing is preparing itself for a major conflict – perhaps even against the West.
Whitehall’s ambivalence about countering the Chinese threat head-on is also evident in the cautious approach adopted by ministers towards Beijing. After Sunak indicated he preferred to describe China as a “systematic challenge”, rather than a “threat”, James Cleverly, Truss’s successor at King Charles Street, warned against “pulling the shutters” down on China, instead preferring to “engage closely and regularly” with its communist leaders.
The problem with this approach, as was seen with Hong Kong, is that Beijing interprets this kind of equivocation as indicating the West has no real intention of confronting China over its intimidatory conduct, whether it is crushing democracy in Hong Kong or ending Taiwan’s independence.
One good way for Britain to show it is serious about holding Beijing to account would be to use its forthcoming membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) to block China from obtaining membership, and propose that Taiwan joins the trade pact instead. That would send a clear signal to Beijing that the West is not going to tolerate any attempt by China to meddle with Taiwan’s sovereignty.