On a controversial trip to Taiwan, Liz Truss, Britain’s prime minister for 44 tempestuous days, met President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday and called for an “economic NATO” to counter Chinese coercion.
Ms. Truss’s visit has been denounced by Beijing, which claims the self-governed island as its territory. China opposes visits to Taiwan by foreign politicians, even fallen ones like Ms. Truss, who resigned last year after the shortest tenure of any British prime minister. And even some members of Ms. Truss’s own Conservative Party suggested her trip was unnecessarily provocative — “the worst kind of Instagram diplomacy,” said one.
Taiwan’s government has nonetheless treated Ms. Truss’s five-day visit as a small but welcome gesture of support in the face of Beijing’s tightening political isolation of the island democracy. Taiwan now has only 13 formal diplomatic partners — most states have shifted recognition to Beijing — and Taiwan has increasingly reached out to foreign lawmakers, think tanks and organizations to promote its global standing.
“Taiwan and the United Kingdom are like-minded partners,” Ms. Tsai told Ms. Truss when they met at Taiwan’s presidential office. “Together we are working to advance freedom and democracy around the world.”
As she had earlier on her trip, Ms. Truss said in her meeting with Ms. Tsai that countries should band together and form an “economic NATO”: a bloc united against coercion by China and other authoritarian governments. China has often resorted to economic retaliation in diplomatic disputes with other countries, imposing punishing tariffs and informal embargoes on Australia, Norway, South Korea and other countries. (Beijing also faces trade and technology restrictions imposed by the United States and its allies.)
“What has been achieved here in Taiwan must be protected, and the international community and international free democracies must support you in your endeavors,” Ms. Truss told Ms. Tsai.
The Chinese Embassy in Britain, in a statement on Wednesday called Ms. Truss’s visit “a dangerous political show.” While the full measure of China’s reaction to the trip, which ends Saturday, remained to be seen, it seemed unlikely to go beyond angry words.
Last year, China launched large-scale military exercises near Taiwan after Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, visited Taipei. But Britain is far less consequential than the United States in supporting Taiwan. As House speaker, Ms. Pelosi held a powerful role in policymaking in Washington; by contrast, Ms. Truss was unceremoniously pushed from power.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has also been focused this year on improving relations with European countries, including Britain, as he tries to thwart the Biden administration’s efforts to build an international coalition against Beijing.
The last former British prime minister to visit Taiwan was Ms. Truss’s political idol, Margaret Thatcher, in 1992. Taiwan was willing to look past contention in Britain over Ms. Truss, said Chen Fang-yu, an assistant politics professor at Soochow University in Taipei.
“Taiwan really needs more of this kind of attention from every country, because only if more people visit Taiwan and more speak up for Taiwan, will the Chinese Communist Party realize that many people are paying attention to Taiwan, and so they should not act rashly,” he said in an interview.
This week, Taiwan also launched a push for international support to rejoin the World Health Organization and attend the World Health Assembly that opens on Sunday. Taiwan was an observer in the organization from 2009 to 2016, but China blocked its participation after Ms. Tsai was elected president.
And on Thursday, the Biden administration emphasized U.S. support for Taiwan by announcing that it had concluded its first agreement under a trade initiative begun last year. The agreement will reduce red tape for firms shipping goods between the two sides and promote trade by small businesses.
Ms. Truss’s trip has also come as Taiwan is preparing to hold a presidential election in January, when voters will choose a successor for Ms. Tsai, who must step down.
On Thursday, Ms. Truss met Lai Ching-te, the vice president of Taiwan, who is the presidential candidate of Ms. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party. That party favors asserting Taiwan’s separateness from China, and its formal platform calls for establishing Taiwan “as a sovereign, independent and autonomous nation,” a goal that is anathema to Beijing. Mr. Lai used his meeting with Ms. Truss on Thursday to amplify that message of standing tall against Chinese pressure.
But Alexander C. Huang, a professor at Tamkang University in Taipei who advises Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party, said that the Nationalists would also welcome visitors like Ms. Truss. The Nationalists maintain that they can create more stable relations with China, while keeping Taiwan close to the United States and its allies. The Nationalists anointed their candidate for the presidency, Hou Yu-ih, this week.
“Taiwan has no influence over the domestic issues of a friendly country,” Mr. Huang said, referring to Britain. “We just want to have more international attention and visibility.”
John Liu contributed reporting from Seoul.