June 21. 2024. 6:57

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Erstwhile China advocate Liz Truss now singing from a different hymn sheet

The first time many people heard of Liz Truss was in 2014 when, as the UK’s environment secretary, she boasted of selling tea to China. She wore a very different rhetorical mask on Friday as the warned of the need to face down the world’s fastest-growing military and economic power.

Truss might have been marginally more explicit had she stood on the deck on an aircraft carrier in a flak jacket, waving a smoking cigar. The international community, she said, should agree on a package of “co-ordinated defence, economic and political measures” to support Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province.

Safeguarding Taiwan

She said the UK and its allies must “first and foremost” protect the interests of the people of Taiwan and signal to the Chinese government that military aggression against the island “would be a strategic mistake”. This had to be done in the interests of democracy and free trade “before it is too late”.

She urged the world’s most powerful nations to ensure what she called “friendshoring” — shutting China out of supply chains for critical industries such as telecoms and chips, and work together to ensure they have trustworthy suppliers. “We cannot have a situation where Beijing has the power to turn off the lights,” she warned.

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At several points she invoked Ukraine, saying Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “appalling war” served as a stark reminder of why the world must stand up to threats by authoritarian regimes early — and regretting her own failure to do so. “When it comes to China, a failure to act now could cost us dearly in the long run,” she said.

For good measure, Truss cited a warning by Chinese philosopher Confucius about the need to learn the lessons of the past. “We encouraged China to embrace economic freedom, in the hope that this would give its citizens political freedom,” she concluded. “But the opposite has happened.”

Pound-shop Churchill

Her attempt to pose as a pound-shop Churchill will strike many as cynical, given her rock-bottom reputation in the UK. A columnist in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post dismissed it as an attempt to distract her target audience back home in Britain from the collapsing economy she helped trigger.

Yet, the Tokyo conference is a sign that lines are hardening. Truss, after all, was once part of a group of conservatives who supported engagement with Beijing. Many of today’s speakers might be classed as hawks or conservatives but others, such as Sarah Champion, a British Labour politician, cited human rights abuses.

Speakers from Hong Kong lamented the suppression of democracy and civil society there. Japanese politicians discussed military tactics in ways that would have been anathema just a few years ago.

Truss’s successor, British prime minister Rishi Sunak, has called for what he referred to as “robust pragmatism” with China but is under pressure from the right in the Conservative party to classify Beijing as a “threat” rather than a “systemic competitor”. The impact of Friday’s speech remains to be seen but China must surely see the warning signs.