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  • Writer's pictureMilo Hsieh

Progress or Not? An Assessment of the Significance of Liz Truss' Taipei Visit

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

By Milo Hsieh and Wei Azim Hung

Significance of Truss’ Taiwan Visit

At a time when Downing Street seeks to recalibrate its relationship with Beijing, Liz Truss’ Taipei trip has raised eyebrows and controversy in London as well as provoked strong condemnation from Beijing. For Taiwan, the trip shows that yet another former official sees Taiwan as an important part of their agenda as world leaders increasingly make Taiwan a priority destination.

Though Taiwan, throughout the past year, was only able to try its luck with the foreign dignitaries that it can attract, it appears that this time around, Taipei hit a key goal with an invitation to Liz Truss. As one of the highest-ranking former and current national holders of elected offices to visit Taiwan, this warrants a closer look at how the visits bring benefits and drawbacks for Taipei, as well as how such visits contribute to its foreign policy strategy.

Visit by Truss Bolsters Tsai Administration’s Narratives

Taiwan’s presidential office spokesperson portrayed Truss’ visit as a testament to the active contributions of both Taiwan and the United Kingdom in strengthening global democracy. Despite Truss visiting in an unofficial capacity, the presidential office is actively attempting to amplify the meaning of the visit.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) emphasised Truss’s remarks regarding the importance of ensuring the self-defence capabilities of Taiwan and other democratic nations. In Taipei’s view, even if Truss no longer represents the UK nor the Conservative Party nor is held positively in her home country, her statements are to be emphasised as significant.

The intensity of Truss’ rhetoric aligns with the position taken by other ‘staunch friends’ of Taiwan, including former US National Security Advisor John Bolton and former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who called Washington to recognise Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

Truss joins a list of people whose remarks were delivered only after they departed from government, drawing questions as to whether their newfound, publicly expressed sentiments reflect upon a longstanding, principled opinion or one hastily put together to advance the next stage of one’s political careers.

For Truss, in particular, it can be hard to say. Her remarks have become even more emboldened and audacious since her exit from the premiership. In Taiwan, she is now urging the UK to classify China as a ‘security threat’; bolster military assistance to the island, propose the establishment of an “Economic NATO” to counter China, and vehemently assert that “you can’t believe a word they [China] say.”

Ambitious Ideas

These proposals are partially concerning since it does not exactly earn Truss’s proposals much credibility if she, in light of negative publicity in the UK, attempts to pitch these far-reaching ideas to a foreign audience in Taiwan. The narrative also advocates for stronger relations with Taiwan only as a way to leverage against China rather than elaborating on how Taiwan can uniquely fit into a new strategy to deal with a rising China. Her stance could quickly become unviable as the global attitude towards China shifts.

Truss’ “Economic NATO” idea at first sounded internally contradictory given the existence of the European Union and its economic functions, but her reference to a potential revival of the Cold War Co-ordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCOM) shows that the thought did not come up without consideration of tools available to the West.

Truss, speaking to a Taiwanese audience at Prospect Foundation, a quasi-governmental think tank, seemed to be pushing for an idea much like the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) combined with the specific focus of the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the US and the CCP.

Later, during an interview with Taiwan+, Taiwan’s government-funded English language news service, she fleshes out this idea further. According to Truss, China uses disinformation, misinformation, and economic coercion on countries like Lithuania to achieve its goals and retaliate. Therefore, she advocated the rest of the world must coordinate in the case of economic coercion, which an “Economic NATO” would address.

Advocating that countries in the world “need to take action before it’s too late,” Truss modelled the Chinese threat as analogous to the Cold War USSR Threat. Truss spoke on how, as an “insider,” she saw that failure to act early and cut Russia off from technology partially led to the invasion of Ukraine. She said this serves as an example of why the world must act on China early.

Although these ideas appear ambitious and far-reaching, some of these newly raised concepts do not differ too much from the standard practice in Taiwan, even echoing existing policies pushed by arising recognitions of China’s threats in places like the United States, such as the portions of Taiwan Policy Act, partially incorporated and passed into law as a part of the 2023 US National Defense Authorization Act.

Symbol or Substance?

All in all, Truss’ presence lends considerable attention to the Tsai administration and its pragmatic approach towards China. Her arrival makes her the first former Prime Minister to visit Taiwan in almost three decades since Margaret Thatcher. She is a Conservative MP conspicuous in criticising China, befitting Taipei’s China-skeptic stance. Her handshake with Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, pushes Taipei’s photo-ops diplomacy to yet another height.

Alicia Kearns, the British foreign affairs select committee chair, may be right that Truss no longer holds any influence in the government and has performed the ‘worst kind of Instagram diplomacy’ that could potentially trigger another show of force from China. But it would be a mistake to marginalise what Truss is trying to say in the long view of rising strategic competition between China and the West.

Even symbolic visits are important for Taiwan as they bring Taiwan to the forefront of discussion. This is particularly crucial following China’s active attempts at suppressing Taiwan’s international presence and its strong intent to silence Taiwan’s version of the narrative. Truss’ visit also shows that, even if one is to refer to Taiwan without taking a stance on its political status by using the term “Taiwan authorities,” one can clearly support Taiwan’s democracy and against China’s authoritarianism.

While symbolic gestures are sometimes all Taipei can get, these symbols are key in that it shows that, at the very least, there exists a valid school of thought, affirmed by the words of public officials, even if they are no longer in office, that shines a light on Taiwan’s role in Asia.

Without a doubt, Truss’s visit raises Taiwan’s profile while raising at least nominal protests from China. Both domestically and abroad, the real value of these visits will continue to be controversial over whether symbolic gains are worth the protests. However, as Europe takes more time to consider its stance on China and whether it will reach a consensus in the future, politicians would likely explore alternatives to merely “maintaining the status quo.” Perhaps the Taiwan narrative will then shift from entertaining the more radical to taking the mainstream.

Though this one single visit by a short-lived UK prime minister may not on its own contribute to much substantive progress for Taiwan’s bid for international recognition and cooperation, it would be a key element of a long-term trend showing that Taiwan’s narratives and strategic importance are increasingly befitting of in a world threatened by China’s rise.

As visits to Taiwan become normalised and, hopefully, bipartisan in nature, as it has slowly become for the American congressional delegations and many Central European partners, visits such as this one should become less and less controversial.

This article was previously published on Taiwan Insight on May 29, 2023.


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