Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss warns of China threats during Taiwan visit

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Former Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss delivers a speech on the second day of her five-day visit in Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (AP Photo/ Chiang Ying-ying)

TAIPEI – Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss warned of economic and political threats to the West posed by China during a visit Wednesday to Beijing's democratic rival Taiwan.

Truss is the first former British prime minister since Margaret Thatcher in the 1990s to visit the self-governing island republic that China claims as its own territory, to be conquered by force if necessary.

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Still a sitting member of the House of Commons, Truss follows a growing list of elected representatives and former officials from the U.S., EU and elsewhere who have visited Taiwan to show their defiance of China’s threats and attempts to cut off the island and its high-tech economy from the international community.

“There are those who say they don’t want another Cold War. But this is not a choice we are in a position to make. Because China has already embarked on a self-reliance drive, whether we want to decouple from their economy or not," Truss said in an address to the Prospect Foundation in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.

“China is growing its navy at an alarming rate and is undertaking the biggest military build-up in peacetime history,” she said.

"They have already formed alliances with other nations that want to see the free world in decline. They have already made a choice about their strategy. The only choice we have is whether we appease and accommodate — or we take action to prevent conflict,” Truss said.

Elsewhere, Truss praised her successor, Rishi Sunak, for describing China as “the biggest long-term threat to Britain” in comments last summer and for earlier urging the closure of Chinese government-run, mainly university-based overseas cultural centers known as Confucius Institutes which have been criticized as outlets for Communist Party propaganda. Such services could instead be provided by people from Taiwan and Hong Kong who come to the United Kingdom of their own volition, Truss said.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Sunak backtracked on the prime minister's campaign pledge to shut down the U.K.’s 30 Confucius Institutes, saying it ""would be disproportionate to ban them" at present.

“Like any international body operating in the U.K., Confucius Institutes need to operate transparently and within the law, and with a full commitment to our values of openness and freedom of expression,” the spokesperson said.

In Beijing, a spokesperson for the Cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office, Mao Xiaoguang, accused Taiwan's governing Democratic Progressive Party of "spending the tax money of the Taiwanese people to bribe some anti-China politicians who have stepped down from office to stage a farce of seeking external support for independence in Taiwan."

Ma also renewed China's military threats against Taiwan, a day after the Chinese Defense Ministry condemned U.S. military assistance to the island.

“If they continue to challenge and force us, we will have to take decisive measures to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Ma told reporters at a biweekly news conference. “No one should underestimate our strong determination, unwavering will and strong ability.”

Next year is seen by some as a crucial period for tense relations between the sides, with U.S. and Taiwanese voters going to the polls. Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen has served the maximum two terms and Vice President Lai Ching-te, a strong independence supporter, will be running for the DPP.

Meanwhile, the main opposition Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, on Wednesday nominated local politician Hou Yu-ih as its candidate in the January election. Hou rose to prominence as a top police official but has relatively little experience dealing with China and Taiwan's international partners.

Taiwan will also elect a new legislature, which is currently controlled by the ruling party.

China's relations with Britain and most other Western democracies have been in steep decline in recent years, largely as a result of disputes over human rights, trade technology and China's aggressive moves toward Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

Beijing's relations with London have been especially bitter over China's sweeping crackdown on free speech, democracy and other civil liberties in Hong Kong, a former British colony that was promised it would retain its freedoms after the handover to Chinese rule in 1997.

China has said a key previous bilateral agreement on Hong Kong no longer applies and has rejected British expressions of concern as interference in China's domestic political affairs. China has also been angered by a joint Australian-U.S.-British agreement known as AUKUS that would provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines in part to counter the perceived rising threat from China.

Truss, who served an ill-fated seven weeks as prime minister last year, also said China could not be trusted to follow through on its commitments in areas from trade to protection of the environment.

And she praised Taiwan as “an enduring rebuke to totalitarianism” whose fate was a "core interest" to Europe.

“A blockade or invasion of Taiwan would undermine freedom and democracy in Europe. Just as a Russian victory in Ukraine would undermine freedom and democracy in the Pacific," Truss said.

"We in the United Kingdom and the free world must do all we can to back you,” she said.

Truss' remarks also stood in stark contrast to published comments from French President Emmanuel Macron last month that elicited doubts about whether Macron’s views were in line with other European countries on Taiwan’s status.

“The question we need to answer, as Europeans, is the following: Is it in our interest to accelerate (a crisis) on Taiwan? No,” Macron was quoted as saying in the interview. “The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction.”

Shortly afterward, Macron denied any change on France's views toward Taiwan, saying, “We are for the status quo, and this policy is constant.”

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