‘Human hand grenade’ Liz Truss at loggerheads with Rishi Sunak on China as she warns of Beijing threat
Liz Truss is at loggerheads with Rishi Sunak over China policy after he snubbed her calls to let Taiwan join the Pacific trade bloc.
As the Prime Minister travelled to Japan for the G7 summit, his predecessor was in Taiwan urging the West to take a more aggressive line towards Beijing and provide stronger support for the embattled island nation, which it wants to take over.
Her punchy stance towards China has drawn a backlash from Communist Party officials there, who accused her of being on a “sinister” mission which would only make war more likely. But experts told i the intervention would end up being no more than an “annoyance” to Mr Sunak – and would not seriously trouble the Chinese government.
Speaking in Taipei in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Ms Truss hit out at “a fatalism in the free world that somehow a Chinese takeover of Taiwan is inevitable”. She added that it was “completely irresponsible” of European leaders such as Emmanuel Macron to suggest that they did not have a direct interest in the outcome of any struggle over Taiwan.
She claimed the Treasury – run by Mr Sunak for much of the time that she was trade secretary and then foreign secretary – had blocked ministers from taking a “tough line on China” because they were worried about losing access to the Chinese market.
Addressing the current Prime Minister’s policies directly, Ms Truss called for him to shut down Confucius Institutes which provide Chinese language teaching in the UK and officially classify Beijing as a “threat”.
Taiwan should join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – a trade group that recently admitted Britain as a member, she added: “I want the UK to champion the fast-tracking of Taiwan’s accession in collaboration with key members of the CPTPP.”
On board the plane to Tokyo, a Mr Sunak, asked about his predecessor’s comments, said he had not seen the speech but defended the policy of moving in sync with other allies rather than trying to push them into a harder line.
He said: “Our approach to Taiwan is longstanding and it hasn’t changed. And it’s an approach that is completely aligned in substance and in language with all our allies.”
Insisting that Britain was ready to help the island defend its independence, he added: “We have a strong interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific. We do not believe in any change in the status quo by force or coercion.”
Asked whether he would back Taiwan joining CPTPP, Mr Sunak said: “I think that we have a very strong, unofficial relationship with Taiwan as our allies do. I think that our position is united and aligned with our allies, and will continue.” He is understood to be concerned that admitting Taiwan to the trade bloc would undermine that “unofficial” status by suggesting that the UK recognises it as a sovereign state, a move that would enrage Beijing.
Ms Truss’s proposed policies have been dismissed by Government insiders on the ground they would risk fracturing the unity of the West’s approach. “We’re aligning our policy with other countries, that’s what Liz doesn’t understand,” a source said. Those who worked with her when she was in the Government say she did not push for a significantly tougher policy on the issue at the time.
The Chinese embassy in London responded with fury to her intervention, saying in a statement: “British politician Liz Truss’s recent visit to Taiwan is a dangerous political show which will do nothing but harm to the UK. This provocative move has caused strong indignation among the Chinese people and will be firmly rejected by people with conscience from all walks of life.”
Dismissing her as a “failed politician”, it added: “By playing the ‘Taiwan card’ and engaging in political shows, Truss and the like are colluding with the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces to provoke confrontation and escalate tensions across the Taiwan Strait.”
However, Sophia Gaston, head of foreign policy at think tank Policy Exchange, suggested the anger was more cosmetic than actual. She said: “Beijing tends to focus on the Government of the day, and I doubt will be taking the interventions of a former prime minister particularly seriously. In this respect, these comments will probably be more of an annoyance rather than a disruption to Sunak’s plans.”
Ministers face “legitimate questions” over “whether we have truly addressed all our weaknesses towards China”, Ms Gaston said. However, she added: “Like our allies, the UK has come to the conclusion that dialling down public rhetoric is necessary not only to avoid mutually destructive conflict, but to ensure we can strike the right balance in toughening our security while continuing to engage on priority areas like climate change and investment.”
How Western allies can deal with the rise of China is likely to be a main focus of this week’s G7 summit in Hiroshima, with a draft version of its conclusions reportedly criticising the “economic coercion” wielded by Beijing against countries which oppose it on the geopolitical stage. At the same time, 10 members of the US Congress are visiting Britain to urge the UK Government and businesses to harden their line against China.
Speaking on his journey to Japan, Mr Sunak suggested he would consider imposing curbs on British firms that want to invest in China’s economy, in line with rules being proposed by Joe Biden.
The Prime Minister said: “I don’t think we can expect the US to have at this summit a fully formed view, they’re still in the process of developing it. In broad terms absolutely that will be something we’ll be talking about. That’s the thing about the G7 – we’re values-aligned, so we want to approach these things in a similar fashion.”
He is still under pressure from other senior MPs to go further, however. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said Mr Sunak’s refusal to close the Confucius Institutes reminded him of “scriptwriters from Yes Minister”, adding: “I have to say to the Government, and Rishi Sunak… you are fundamentally wrong on China.”