Liz Truss, the United Kingdom’s new prime minister, loves the Indo-Pacific. That’s what her many visits, photo-ops, and speeches within the region would suggest. Having served as the U.K.’s foreign secretary from September 2021 until last week, and previously international trade secretary, Truss arrives at Downing Street with an international resumé. Now that she is in the driver’s seat, Truss will need to show she can provide more than visits and slogans to make the U.K. a worthy partner in the Indo-Pacific.
However, bold promises made during her election campaign, combined with serious domestic challenges, may hamper Truss’ ability to build the U.K.’s footprint in the region.
Who Is Liz Truss?
It is essential to note that Liz Truss was not elected in a country-wide election. Truss was elected as leader of the governing Conservative Party after the resignation of her predecessor, Boris Johnson. She is therefore prime minister by virtue of her leadership of the governing party, not from a public mandate brought by a national election. She was elected by more than 160,000 Conservative Party members – or 0.3 percent of the U.K.’s voting public – so her recent rhetoric has been geared toward convincing a small subset of the U.K. population that she was leadership material. As prime minister, she has to convince the entire U.K. public that she is doing a good job.
It should be expected that Truss’ positions on the Indo-Pacific and core foreign policy issues like China will sound different during her tenure as head of government, as the hard work of delivering on bold promises becomes a reality. Truss’ previous roles and actions offer insight into how she plans to do this. In the early days of the leadership race during her tenure as trade minister, Truss put great stock into her work to secure many of the U.K.’s post-Brexit trade deals with nations in the Indo-Pacific, including Australia and Japan.
She is clearly a figure who sees the Indo-Pacific as an integral part of the U.K.’s future, and the U.K. as a real player in the region. However, Truss is frequently criticized for depending on optics and headline-grabbing stances over substantial, reasoned policy. It is one thing to make bold promises on China and the Indo-Pacific during a leadership contest, but another thing entirely to actually deliver on them once in power.
A Hard Line on China
Truss has been loud in her extensive criticism of China. In return, Truss is intensely disliked by China’s leadership. China-U.K. relations have swung between poles over the past decade, from the “Golden Era” of the mid-2010s to the increasingly bitter and combative engagement of recent years, notably through the sanctions tennis of early 2021, during which the U.K. and China sanctioned one another’s officials. Relations will likely deteriorate further under Truss.
Throughout the leadership campaign, both Liz Truss and her opponent Rishi Sunak went to great lengths to flaunt their tough stances on China. While Sunak pledged to ban Confucius Institutes from the U.K., Truss said that she would declare the atrocities in Xinjiang to be a genocide. It is possible that Truss may soften on this promise once in office. Declaring genocide in Xinjiang will put the U.K. in a complicated position, given states’ obligations to not only prevent but also punish genocide when it is committed.
As foreign secretary, Truss allegedly made the decision to gut funding for the Great Britain China Centre, one of the U.K.’s major sources of China expertise. Truss has spoken at length about the need for democratic nations to rally against authoritarianism. In a speech at the Lowy Institute, Truss spoke about the need for democracies to build a “Network of Liberty” – a thinly-veiled call for liberal actors to band against Russia and China.
This may run the risk of alienating less clearly aligned countries such as India. David Lawrence, a research fellow at Chatham House, said in an interview that building coalitions through overt use of liberal values “puts a lot of countries in a difficult position,” as they seek to balance their alignment between different poles of global power. “Framing networks in terms of more specific infrastructure and economic projects would make the U.K. more likely to find helpful partnerships,” Lawrence added.
Apparently, greater liberal coalition building should also involve NATO defending Taiwan against invasion by China, with Truss rejecting Euro-Atlantic security as NATO’s sole purpose and instead calling for a “global NATO.” Truss has even gone as far as pledging to declare China an official threat to U.K. interests and security. Such hawkishness tells us that Truss’ premiership will see increased U.K. efforts to balance China in the Indo-Pacific, with a greater focus on strategic competition in the region over the cooling of tensions.
The U.K. will likely ramp up its condemnation of China’s human rights record through fora like the U.N. Human Rights Council. An emphasis on building more Anglophone coalitions like AUKUS, and efforts to strengthen regional groupings like the Five Power Defense Arrangements, should also be expected. While this will help pile the pressure on China over important issues like its growing military provocativeness and Xinjiang, it may also drag the U.K. further into the orbit of China-U.S. strategic competition, which would not necessarily be helpful for any party in the Indo-Pacific.
Truss appears keen to build the U.K.’s credibility among ASEAN member states. In November 2021, then-Foreign Secretary Truss visited Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, calling for the U.K.’s relationships with these countries to be “turbo-charged.” In July, ASEAN and the U.K. recommitted to strengthening cooperation in existing areas and building cooperation in new areas, including counterterrorism and cybersecurity.
This is promising, but maintaining focus and willpower on engagement with ASEAN will be needed. Truss will need to build on policies like U.K.-ASEAN engagement and the U.K.’s new Dialogue Partnership in order to ensure that sufficient governmental capacity is allocated toward building strong engagement with an organization as complex and pluralistic as ASEAN. She will need to make full use of the U.K.’s particular role to play in mediating the ongoing violence in Myanmar, strengthen regional knowledge and capacity within the U.K.’s diplomatic service, and place due focus on strengthening bilateral relations with member states rather than simply treating ASEAN as a monolith.
However, embracing the full potential and navigating the complexities of engagement with ASEAN may prove challenging, given issues closer to home.
Truss’ time in office may well be short. Her election has not reset the U.K.’s electoral clock, and the next general election will take place no later than January 2025. Truss inherits the leadership of a Conservative Party that is currently polling poorly with the wider British public, wracked by sleaze scandals and a skyrocketing cost of living in the U.K. An increasing focus on domestic issues should be expected as Truss tries to broaden her appeal beyond her own party, as well as resuscitate the Conservative Party’s moribund popularity.
These factors will likely divert the Truss ministry’s attention away from considered and productive foreign policymaking, instead leading to a preference for quick wins in the region that can be held up as easy, vote-winning successes. Truss may continue to highlight existing gains in the Indo-Pacific – such as the U.K.’s impending membership in the CPTPP – for quick political capital back home. Issues where nuance of statecraft is needed, as with China and Myanmar, for example, may fall victim to rash hawkishness in the case of the former and neglect with the latter.
With a tight time limit on office, an increasingly challenging environment in the Indo-Pacific, and myriad domestic troubles, it will be a difficult time for Truss to develop substance over style.