Liz Truss has won the contest for the Conservative leadership in part thanks to a clear-cut, tough stance on China. But the reality of Britain’s relationship with the PRC is such that a dramatic shift remains unlikely within the coming years. Nonetheless, a hawkish rhetoric and a diplomatic-military posture that will be more responsive to demands coming from across the pond, could make interactions between London and Beijing less cordial.
Between 2016, when David Cameron was head of the British government, and 2021, when the Integrated Review defined China as a “systemic competitor”, UK-China relations have gone from a “golden era” to a partial freeze. Under Boris Johnson, the economic relationship remained, fundamentally, on a “business as usual” mode but, militarily and diplomatically, Johnson took steps that signalled continuing acceptance of the US-led order.
This is the context in which Truss will operate, and she is likely to stick to it. In other words, can she unravel the strategic ambiguity of her predecessor by bringing the UK into an explicitly pro-US posture on all fronts?
Possible to be pro-free market and anti-China?
An American newspaper correctly noted that Truss is an “unabashed free marketeer”, “a strong Atlanticist, a “hardliner on Russia and China”. Yet, one wonders whether in a Janus-faced Liberal International Order (LIO), with its inner tension between economic interest and security concerns, it is possible to be at the same time pro-free market and anti-China. The UK recently scrapped a custom-free trade relationship with its main partner, the EU; it is experiencing a dangerous inflation rate of about 9%; and it is dealing with the backlash of Brexit, with a shortage of labour supply in crucial industries such as transport and agriculture.
... from an economic point of view, the bulk of the relationship will not change. Yet, from a diplomatic and military point of view, the UK will support US-led initiatives even more.
Amidst this scenario, the UK under Truss will not have the structural capacity to afford to break away from the PRC, in economic terms. As in the Johnson era — when Huawei was banned from installing its 5G kit in the country’s network — we are likely to see a continuation of Johnson’s strategic ambiguity but with a more hawkish flavour.
This means that from an economic point of view, the bulk of the relationship will not change. Yet, from a diplomatic and military point of view, the UK will support US-led initiatives even more. Therefore, in sensitive areas of the UK economy, we may see London responding to stimuli coming from Washington, DC — as in the semiconductor industry, among others — more promptly than Johnson’s slow Cabinet — as in the case of Newport Wafer Fab.
That there should not be a dramatic shift, however, also seems to be the indication coming from China. The Global Times wrote about Truss in the past weeks. While in an editorial it pointed — unsurprisingly — at her “imperial mentality”, in another opinion piece, it was stated that Truss’ confrontational approach towards China was an attempt “to undermine her rival Sunak’s leadership bid” by appeasing the most China-sceptic voters.
Meanwhile, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent King Charles III a message of condolence in which he wished for “sound and stable development of bilateral relations”. Vice-President Wang Qishan also attended the Queen’s lying-in-state and state funeral, although a letter from the UK Parliament criticised the visit on the basis of China’s human rights record.
That said, looking at Liz Truss’ time as secretary of state, the Chinese cannot fail to see a menacing record of actions and statements.
A little more than business as usual
That said, looking at Liz Truss’ time as secretary of state, the Chinese cannot fail to see a menacing record of actions and statements. The AUKUS pact was launched on the day she was nominated, 15 September 2021. Meanwhile, during her mandate, the Reciprocal Access Agreement was signed with Japan to allow Japanese and British forces “to carry out training, joint exercises and disaster relief activities”. These moves one day might facilitate Britain’s participation in the Quad Plus format of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) — a framework that China sees as an “Asian NATO”.
On top of this, Truss delivered two unequivocal speeches. In April, she clearly stated that China “must play by the rules” and warned Beijing that G7 countries “have shown with Russia the kind of choices we’re prepared to make”. At the 2022 Madrid summit instead, she argued that NATO should “learn the lessons” of Ukraine and that it was important to ensure that Taiwan could defend itself. If anything, the lesson from recent China-Australia trade tensions is that Beijing will use its economic leverage against the UK in reaction to any hostile measure. And at bilateral chats lined up as world leaders visited London for the Queen’s state funeral, Five Eyes alliance countries were prioritised.
This new US-led feud seeks to hinder China from accessing the most sensitive supply chains of parts of the global economy.
All this is likely to gain Truss several friends in Washington, DC. Here, strategy makers are working on strengthening the US-led order at a time when the geopolitical balance of power is shifting from unipolarity to multipolarity, and from the West to the East. Because of this, the US is unhappy with some of the current arrangements of the post-WWII LIO, and it is seeking to decouple from China. It wants to construct a G7-centred LIO 2.0 that is a more exclusive club than the post-WWII LIO.
This new US-led feud seeks to hinder China from accessing the most sensitive supply chains of parts of the global economy. It requires adopting a strategy of “positive decoupling”, which means pursuing international coalitions to create an impermeable economic sphere of influence for like-minded democracies to trade with one another.
Working closer with the US
At such a crucial time, therefore, the premiership of Liz Truss very much aligns the British government with Washington, DC.
Her more ambiguous stance on Brexit compared to Johnson — with her “Brexit conversion” — and the new mandate may open a small window of opportunity.
When it comes to decoupling from China, Truss’ contribution to the “special relationship” with the US will lead her to advocate for a tougher China stance on the European continent. This can be evinced from her speech on “the return of geopolitics”.
First, Truss stated that while the UK provided Ukraine with weapons before the Russian invasion, “the world should have done more” — a reference to some European NATO members. Second, she wished for the development of a “global NATO” ready to stretch beyond its traditional area — an implicit reference to the Indo-Pacific. Third, she warned that China was “rapidly building a military capable of projecting power deep into areas of European strategic interest”.
Under Biden, the US administration has struggled to convince EU partners that they need to decouple from China, and until the war in Ukraine began, they preferred to see China both as a partner and as a challenge. Will Truss be able to support the US on this? Her more ambiguous stance on Brexit compared to Johnson — with her “Brexit conversion” — and the new mandate may open a small window of opportunity.
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