Just a month ago, the United Kingdom’s relationship with Taiwan seemed to be moving steadily in the right direction. On September 25, then-Prime Minister Liz Truss—elected less than three weeks earlier—stated during an interview with CNN that the UK would work with allies “to make sure Taiwan is able to defend itself.” While hardly a full-throated endorsement of Taiwan, the statement nevertheless represented a remarkable shift for the UK, which had only recently exited a so-called “golden era” of relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Perhaps unsurprisingly, these remarks were met with strong approval from the Taiwan government, which welcomed the opportunity “to deepen cooperation with the UK and other like-minded nations.”
Over the last several weeks, however, this growing UK-Taiwan bonhomie seems to have faded once more into the backdrop. Following a cascading series of political and economic crises, Truss was forced to resign her post as prime minister on October 20, clearing the way for Rishi Sunak to take the reins. While this turmoil on Downing Street could certainly inject uncertainty into the UK’s approach to Taiwan and China, recent trends suggest that current policies will persist.
Deteriorating UK-China Ties
While Truss’ comments on Taiwan were certainly newsworthy, they were by no means sui generis. In fact, as GTI Executive Director Russell Hsiao outlined in the Global Taiwan Brief earlier this year, the United Kingdom has been steadily shifting its approach to China over the past several years. Given London’s previous position on the PRC, the evolution towards a friendlier posture vis-à-vis Taiwan has been particularly notable.
As recently as 2015, the United Kingdom appeared to be emerging as one of China’s most reliable partners. In October of that year, PRC Paramount Leader Xi Jinping (習近平) visited the country, where he met with Queen Elizabeth and hailed the beginning of a new era of Sino-British cooperation. In the years that have followed, however, this “golden era” has largely unraveled. Concerned by Beijing’s aggressive foreign policy and highly visible human rights abuses, the UK government has grown far bolder in criticizing the PRC. This shift has been accompanied by a steady stream of polls showing that the British public has grown increasingly wary of China and its role in the world, a sentiment that has only grown since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the last two years, this evolution in British thinking towards China has increasingly manifested in UK government policy. In 2020, London took the controversial step of banning Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s (華為) 5G equipment from UK networks, designating the company a “high-risk vendor.” Building on this decision, the UK has gone on to enact several other policies reflecting its growing distrust of Beijing, including suspending its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and sanctioning Chinese individuals involved in atrocities in Xinjiang. While each of these policies might appear relatively minor in a vacuum, they nevertheless suggest a significant shift in the aggregate. Once a steadfast supporter of the PRC, the UK has clearly undertaken a major evolution in its approach to Beijing. For Taiwan, this turn of events has presented unprecedented opportunities, particularly as seen during the short-lived Truss Administration.
Growing Support for Taiwan Under Truss
While the UK’s falling-out with China has unfolded quite visibly in recent years, its burgeoning relationship with Taiwan has developed quietly and with considerable care. Ultimately, this delicate approach has been in line with London’s long-term policy towards China and Taiwan. As a 2020 House of Commons report on the UK-China relationship plainly stated, “the UK has consistently taken a low-key approach to [Taiwan]” as a “precondition for increased cooperation and engagement with Communist China.”
Despite this preference for restraint, the UK nevertheless significantly expanded its involvement in the Taiwan Strait during the latter half of the Boris Johnson Administration (2019-2022). As Hsiao noted in his analysis, this policy shift included Royal Navy transits of the strait, increased engagement with partners in the region, and the 2021 decision to permanently station two warships in the region. Ostensibly undertaken as part of the so-called “Indo-Pacific Tilt”—a term coined in the UK’s 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy—these moves reflected a bolder, more proactive British approach to the region. However, the effectiveness of such measures was often dulled by the personal leanings of Johnson, a politician who once described himself as “fervently Sinophile.” Fearful of alienating a powerful trading partner, Johnson routinely sought to balance rising security concerns with economic pragmatism—a stance demonstrated by his decision to allow a Chinese subsidiary to purchase a Welsh microchip manufacturer, despite numerous warnings regarding the danger of doing so.
In contrast to her predecessor, Liz Truss has long proven to be a strong critic of the PRC, as well as a vocal supporter of Taiwan. In the years leading up to her election as prime minister, Truss repeatedly questioned the wisdom of building ties with Beijing, framing China as a serious challenge to the Western-led, rules-based international order. During her time as foreign secretary (2021-22), she worked to solidify her status as a China skeptic—to include steps to limit Chinese influence in the UK, with a particular emphasis on Chinese purchases of British companies. This criticism of China’s behavior only grew following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when Truss emerged as one of the leading figures linking the situation in Ukraine with a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan. Building on this approach, she went so far as to summon China’s ambassador to the UK in the wake of China’s August exercises in the Taiwan Strait, which she described as an “aggressive and wide-ranging escalation.”
In light of these statements, many commentators were quick to frame Truss’ election as prime minister as a potential inflection point in the UK’s approach to China and Taiwan. Indeed, during her brief time in office, she did little to dissuade such assessments. Upon her arrival on Downing Street, she quickly assembled an array of China-skeptic, pro-Taiwan cabinet members. Perhaps most notably, she appointed Tom Tugendhat—an MP sanctioned by Beijing for his vocal support for Taiwan—as her minister of state for security. In addition to her aforementioned remarks on working with allies to “make sure Taiwan is able to defend itself,” Truss also stated her support for multilateral responses to Chinese pressure. Once again, she linked a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan with the war in Ukraine, arguing that the UK and its allies must move quickly to enhance deterrence in the Taiwan Strait. This Truss-led shift in British rhetoric toward China and Taiwan ultimately came to a head on October 11, when her government made the unexpected decision to frame the PRC as a “threat” in its reworking of Johnson’s foreign policy guidelines. Given these actions and statements, it seems clear that Truss was well on her way to fundamentally altering the British approach to China and Taiwan.
Uncertainty Under Sunak
While Truss’ aggressive approach to politics may have won her support from Taiwan, it ultimately proved to be her downfall domestically. Following a disastrous attempt to “radically reorient the government’s economic agenda” that caused the pound to fall to its lowest value in decades, Truss was forced to resign her position after less than 50 days in office. Out of the political chaos that ensued, Truss’ rival Rishi Sunak swiftly emerged. While Sunak is a political veteran with many known positions, his approach to China and Taiwan is considerably less clear.
Throughout the campaign to replace Johnson in September—during which Truss and Sunak were the clear frontrunners—Truss repeatedly sought to frame Sunak as soft on China. Citing Sunak’s support for Chinese investment during his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer, she argued that only she could stand up to Beijing. Despite these accusations, however, the campaign revealed that the two were largely in agreement regarding the threat posed by the PRC. Indeed, as Rana Mitter, a professor at Oxford University, has noted, Truss and Sunak “tried to do their best to look as hardline towards China as possible.”
Based on his remarks during both campaigns, Sunak appears to have left any previous trust he had in China behind. Much like Truss, he condemned the PRC as “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century.” Going further, he argued for the creation of an “international alliance of free nations to tackle Chinese cyberthreats,” a proposal that echoes US President Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy.” Perhaps most notably, he also pledged to close all of the UK’s Confucius Institutes, arguing that they present intolerable risks to British security. While these policies certainly strengthen Sunak’s anti-China credentials, commentators have noted that his turn against China has only come fairly recently. Indeed, as one observer points out, Sunak was touting the economic benefits of Chinese trade—albeit with caveats—as recently as 2021. Given this recent policy shift, it would seem that Sunak’s China policy is still developing, though all signs point to a continued adherence to Truss-like hawkishness.
By contrast, Sunak’s approach to Taiwan remains uncertain. During the campaign to replace Johnson, Sunak stated that he would not change the UK’s policy toward Taiwan if elected. In follow-up remarks, he outlined an approach not unlike that of Johnson: specifically, he called for a continued British naval presence in the Indo-Pacific, as well as enhanced multilateral cooperation in the region. Much like Truss, he linked the Taiwan Strait with the war in Ukraine, though he placed more emphasis on deterrence than on defending Taiwan. Beyond this, however, Sunak has thus far remained fairly silent on Taiwan. While it is likely that this reluctance to discuss Taiwan is primarily a result of Sunak’s focus on domestic issues, it nevertheless suggests that a return to a quieter, more cautious British approach to Taiwan could be in the offing.
Since GTI last published an article on the UK’s approach to China and Taiwan, Britain has seen its political system repeatedly beset by chaos and uncertainty. While these events are likely to have profound consequences for the country for years to come, it seems likely that London’s approach to China and Taiwan will remain relatively stable. Given shifting public opinion and harsh anti-China rhetoric from political figures, reversing course may prove increasingly difficult in the coming years. For Taiwan, this growing Sino-British rift could present opportunities for cooperation between the UK and Taiwan, particularly if Taipei is able to present itself as a viable alternative to Beijing.
The main point: While the chaos following the resignation of Liz Truss has profoundly altered the UK’s political environment, recent trends suggest that the British approach to China and Taiwan will remain fairly stable in the near-term.