UK-Japan Relations, Taiwan Troubles, and the Truss Tokyo Speech

By | February 22, 2023 | No Comments

Former Prime Minister Liz Truss made an intervention in the UK foreign policy discourse with a speech on China, delivered this past Friday in Tokyo. The full text of her speech, along with those by Australian and Belgian former Prime Ministers Morrison and Hofstadler, respectively, is available here.

There has been plenty of discussion of this speech in the UK, but virtually none of that commentary has provided the least detail about the Japanese context, actual links to Taiwan, or the Chinese response. This essay fills those gaps.

In the UK political context, deposed leaders tend not to jump immediately back into the public eye with dissents or policy advice for their successors, although Boris Johnson himself has toyed with upending this orthodoxy. So the timing and depth of the Truss speech was certainly unusual. By the same token, the idea of a former Prime Minister causing discomfort to her successor on China-related issues is hardly unprecedented. Recall the pithy but forceful challenge to Boris Johnson in the House of Commons by former Prime Minister Theresa May in September 2021, asking if the new AUKUS pact obligated the UK to assist in defending Taiwan.

However, May’s challenge took the form of a single parliamentary question (with no PR buildup whatsoever) and occurred some 27 months after her premiership had ended, whereas Truss has gone about things differently.

It might bear recalling an earlier baseline on some of the ongoing tensions between security, commercial, and personal imperatives in the Conservative Party’s stance toward China. Amid the political gales over the summer, I completely missed the apparently close relationship between Stanley Johnson, the then-Prime Minister’s father, and the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, and the elder Johnson’s advocacy for the softest of lines on human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Among former Conservative cabinet heavyweights, Philip Hammond’s remarks at a recent gathering of commercial types sponsored by the Chinese Embassy in London, are another case in point.

Curtailing Chinese involvement in UK-based nuclear plants, microchip manufacture, or other sensitive areas like surveillance equipment is one thing, but there are multiple other levers where members of both of the main parliamentary parties and the UK government writ large are eager to continue avenues of cooperation. In short, the actual policy of the Truss cabinet toward China was hardly entirely hawkish. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s speech this past week at the Munich Security Conference was fully oriented toward the Ukraine crisis, only nodding toward China through the formulation that a vigorous defense of Ukraine would send a message globally. There does not seem to have been much visible motion since the autumn on discussions of UK taking a more visible or forward role in arming Taiwan for its defense.

As the UK prepares for a “refresh” (i.e., an update) of its Integrated Review, military ties to Japan have expanded:

On 11 January 2023 the Prime Ministers of the UK and Japan signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement in London. The UK Government said it will:

  • Allow the UK and Japan to deploy forces in one another’s countries
  • Rapidly accelerate defence and security cooperation
  • Cement the UK’s commitment to Indo-Pacific security
  • Allow both forces to plan and deliver larger scale, more complex military exercises and deployments.

The treaty is expected to be laid before Parliament shortly.

The PRC Foreign Ministry did make a brief comment on the Truss speech in Tokyo in respose to a question from the BBC’s man on the scene, Stephan McDonnell. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson said he had paid little attention to the speech, and that the CCP had a soaring high domestic approval rating.

The Foreign Ministry’s tone, in other words, was far less vehement than its embassy’s verbal brushback of MP Tobias Ellwood’s trip to Taiwan in December 2022, perhaps because Elwood is the chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Sub-Commitee and had the gall to go to Taiwan:

The one-China principle is a red line, and it is also the political foundation and prerequisite for the establishment and development of diplomatic relations between China and the UK. We urge British politicians not to underestimate the high sensitivity of the Taiwan question, stop stirring up troubles and making provocations, stop undermining the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs. Any troublemaker who dares to provoke the Chinese people is doomed to fail and will come to no good end.

The conference which Truss attended in Tokyo inevitably had a Taiwan connection; she appeared alongside Freddy Lim (林昶佐), a former member of the New Power Party (時代力量) and a now-independent and progressive member of the Legislative Yuan with ties to the Sunflower Movement. Lim and Truss are contemporaries, both having been born in 1975-76, but Lim has a background in heavy metal music and leading Amnesty International in Taiwan in the early 2010s. More relevant to the conference is his stance on Taiwan independence.

Freddy Lim, left, with Liz Truss in Tokyo, 17 February 2023. Image via Freddy Lim/Facebook.

What about Japan, the host of the conference? Were there any officials in attendence representing the Kishida cabinet or, failing that, hawkish voices in the Liberal Democratic Party?

The conference was co-sponsored by a group of Japanese elected officials, namely the “Non-Partisan Parliamentary Association for Reconsidering Human Rights Diplomacy” (or 人権外交を超党派で考える議員連盟, homepage here), a group which has been around for just a few years and for whom the IPAC joint event appears to have been their thirteenth public meeting.

Last year’s meeting featured Nathan Law, and presumably a greater focus on the tightening circle of liberties in Hong Kong.

At this year’s conference, one might have thought that there would be a fairly strong contingent of China-skeptical members of the Liberal Democratic Party in attendence, but the only one I have found thus far was Nagashima Akihisa (長島 昭久), seen in the image below standing next to former Australian Prime Minister Morrison.

Nagashima is a legislator with an impressive run of foreign policy and defense posts for the Democratic Party of Japan from his election in 2003 until he left the party in 2017. He does appear to have some revisionist views, as seen with prior affiliation with Nippon Kaigi and statements about the need for changes to Article IX in the Japanese constitution. More recently, he held Diet leadership posts on the committee on the North Korean abuduction issue (which is currently chaired by Yamatani Eriko, about whom more later) and national defense. He speaks English fluently as evidenced from more than a decade teaching and writing US in the 1990s and early 2000s as a scholar at Vanderbilt University, CFR, and SAIS.

The event was hardly a universal draw for China-skepics in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Indeed, some of them had competing committments. Take for example Yamatani Eriko; she was was chairing a different event that day focusing on Chinese human rights abuses, and then an assembly focused on Takeshima sovereignty. Her meeting drew parliamentarians focusing on abuses in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet, and featured remarks from Suzuki Eiji (鈴木英司), a Sino-Japanese youth exchange activist who recently returned from a six-year detention in the PRC in 2016, on the grounds that he had spied for Japan with respect to reports of Jang Song-thaek’s execution in 2013.

Also in attendance at the Truss speech and wearing her trademark green was Makiyama Hiroe (牧山ひろえ), who is another anglophone member of the Diet; a graduate of International Christian University in Tokyo with experience as a lawyer in New York City, and someone who has been in politics since 2005. She is now a member of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, currently the main opposition party to the LDP with about 20% of the seats in the House of Councillors.

If Nagashima represents the centre-right and Yamatani represents something like a revisionist right-wing view of China, Makiyama’s position seems more to be even more on human rights concerns. The concern extends domestically via her position near the top of the judiciary committee of the House of Councillors, as an October intervention makes clear.

One final photo-op from the event gives the involvement of yet one more minority party involved in the shaping of Japan’s China policy and its international connections. Otokita Shun (音喜多 駿) is a young legislator from Tokyo now affiliated with the Ishiin (previously Restoration, now Innovation) Party in the House of Councillors. He is active in Uighur issues, believes in revising Article 9 of the Constitution, and wants to strengthen security cooperation with the United States.

The speech in Tokyo came at a particularly interesting time for Taiwan issue, and current events in Northeast Asia, on a broader scale. As the Ukraine war continues, the question of armaments, deterrance, and the military balance of power in the region continue to beckon analysts. One of the most bracing of these discussion comes from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), who summarizes more than 25 iterations of a recent “war game” concerning Taiwan. Not incidentally, various runs of the exercise included differing levels of Japanese involvement. Further analysis of the potential for a Chinese blockade or naval invasion of Taiwan and its surrounding islands is contained in remarks by  Admiral Lee Hsi Min, retired since 2019, on naval defenses in Taiwan.

And while the Truss speech dwelled in generalities, analysts across the street from her former residence in 10 Downing Street — I am here referring to the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI — were pushing through the the salience of urban warfare in Taiwan, in which Taiwan and Yemen are compared. And as Liz Truss geared up for another day of meetings in Tokyo on 18 February, North Korea launched a missile which set off alarm bells in Hokkaido and across Japan. 

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