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How Will Britain’s Foreign Policy Be Shaped After Johnson?

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Following the resignation of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a five-round vote to determine the leader of the Conservative Party and the country’s new prime minister left two candidates, former Finance Minister Rishi Sunak and former Foreign Minister Liz Truss. The winner of the election race, which will last until September 5, 2022, will lead the party and become the prime minister of the country.

Sunak, who was at the top of every round of the election race, was seen as the closest person to the party leadership and the prime ministership.[1] However, in the latest polls, it is stated that Truss has taken the lead.  Both were in Johnson’s cabinet before resigning. For this reason, it is thought that the new prime minister will not depart from the basic lines that Johnson has drawn before in foreign policy, but the tone of the messages given and the severity of the policies may change. It is claimed that neither candidate will be as successful as Johnson in terms of their relations with world leaders.[2]

The most curious issue is what kind of policy the new prime minister will follow against Russia and China. Differences in toning in the approach to these countries can make a big difference, even if they may seem like a subtle nuance. For example, the most striking aspect of Sunak is that it approaches relations with China more moderately. Truss, on the other hand, adopts a very hard-confrontational stance in relations with China. In order to win votes, the candidates for the prime minister are expected to develop concrete arguments in foreign policy, especially in terms of relations with Russia and China.

Relations with Russia

Although both the Sunak and Truss openly take a stand against the Kremlin, as does the British public, Truss’s attitude is more aggressive. For example, Sunak appealed to British companies due to the occupation of Ukraine and urged them to stop investing in Russia, but it was claimed that he profited from companies that continued to do business in Russia.[3] It has even been suggested that the company in which his wife is a partner does business in Russia. Rejecting the allegation, Sunak said, “I don’t really think that’s the case. We have imposed significant sanctions on all the companies we are responsible for. In this way, we are sending very strong messages against the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin… I have nothing to do with that company.”[4]

Truss, on the other hand, is taking a more hawkish stance toward Russia. Truss, who advocated for the government to confiscate frozen Russian assets in the country and redistribute them to the victims of the war in Ukraine, also said that they would take more steps to remove Russia from all Ukrainian territory.[5]

Relations with China

Sunak’s approach to China will likely be a continuation of the policies he pursued under the Johnson Government. In this context, it will focus on ever-growing economic ties.[6] Sunak, who advocated “cautious and balanced” relations with Beijing, said that previous discussions that economic relations with China did not bring benefits were unfounded. In other words, he defended the steps of the London administration to start the “Golden Age” by developing economic relations with China. Sunak, who has been criticized for taking a conciliatory stance against China, has vowed to “act tougher” on the issue, calling Beijing “the number one threat to global security.”[7]

Sunak is thought to have made the statement because he was lagging behind Truss in the electoral race. Truss is known for his harsh policies against China. He allegedly told his deputies that if he became Prime Minister, he would use the term “genocide” in relation to the Xinjiang-Uyghur issue.[8]

In addition, Truss, who made a statement during the G7 Summit, stated that lessons should be learned from Ukraine and suggested that Britain send weapons to help Taiwan, which is under threat of Chinese invasion.[9] In this context, Truss is an advocate for NATO to protect Taiwan.

Relations with EU

One of the debates among the candidates revolves around relations with the European Union (EU) in the context of Brexit security and the removal of EU laws from legislation. Sunak said that if elected Prime Minister, they would review all EU rules within British law. Truss has announced that it will remove the current laws from legislation by 2023.

Truss, however, supported Britain’s stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum; however, when the Brexit decision came out, he developed different discourses. For this reason, “If we are going to keep the promise of Brexit, then we will need someone who really understands Brexit, believes in Brexit and votes for Brexit… I am the only candidate who can keep Brexit safe.” said Sunak. [10]

What Sunak wants to do here is shoot Truss from the point where he thinks he is weak. So he’s trying to remind that Truss has opposed Brexit before. To close this gap, Truss is now trying to appear to be a staunch Brexit advocate. Accordingly, it promises to abolish EU laws completely. In other words, similar to Sunak’s harsh remarks on the China issue, Truss is doing it on Brexit.

On the other hand, there is a point where Truss’s hand is strong. That is foreign policy. Truss accuses Sunak of lacking the experience needed to defend British interests on the world stage.[11] In other words, Truss criticizes Sunak for not being able to protect the country’s global interests if he becomes prime minister. However, it can be said that Sunak has a stronger hand on Brexit. On the other hand, it is obvious that Truss is at the forefront of the point of relations with Russia and China.

Transatlantic Relations

Britain’s relations with the United States in the post-Johnson era will be shaped by the attitude of the prime ministerial candidates, Sunak and Truss, in foreign policy, and especially in relations with Russia and China. Above all, Truss is a staunch supporter of the United States. So much so, during Truss’s tenure as Foreign Secretary, London began to closely follow Washington’s interests in world politics, provided it adhered to the ideal of “Global Britain.”

As a reminder, Truss said that NATO should defend Taiwan. In other words, he advocated support for the US-led anti-China axis and for Britain to be more interested in the Asia-Pacific. This suggests that if Truss becomes prime minister, Britain will strengthen its transatlantic ties.

Sunak, on the other hand, is very pragmatic about China. At a time when the Western World is raising its voice against Russia and China, Sunak’s approach weakens his hand. More specifically, Sunak’s premiership could deal a major blow to the Anglo-Saxon front and transatlantic relations. In his previous statements on China, Sunak said, “Instead of being emotional, we should approach more humanely.”[12] At a time when the Western World is taking a more confrontational stance towards China, Sunak’s cautious-optimistic attitude leads Truss, who adopts a more hawkish attitude, to take the lead as the favorite in the race for prime minister.

As a result, the foreign policy to be implemented during the Altar or Truss period will be like the continuation of the Johnson era with minor nuances. Because the messages used by both candidates against Russia and China are similar in nature. But their tonings are different from each other. But soft or harsh discourses, while may seem like a subtle nuance difference; can make a big difference when viewed from a broad perspective. Remaining soft on China, for example, would weaken its transatlantic relations. This will also have a negative impact on European-Chinese relations. The US’s struggle with China in the Asia-Pacific, which does not receive enough support from the UK, will also suffer. On the other hand, adopting a more confrontational attitude towards China will mean the strengthening of the US-UK unity in the international system and the subsequent increase in the polarization between the West and East axis.

[1] “Liz Truss Now Leading Rishi Sunak by 24 Points in Race for No 10, Polling of Tory Members Finds”, Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/liz-truss-rishi-sunak-tory-leadership-poll-b2128498.html, (Date of Accession: 25.07.2022).

[2] “The Big Putin and China Question for Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt”, ITV, https://www.itv.com/news/2022-07-18/the-big-putin-and-china-question-for-sunak-truss-and-mordaunt, (Date of Accession: 25.07.2022).

[3] “Liz Truss vs Rishi Sunak: Taxes, Russia, and the Northern Ireland Protocol”, The Quint, https://www.thequint.com/news/world/liz-truss-vs-rishi-sunak-taxes-russia-and-the-northern-ireland-protocol#read-more, (Date of Accession: 25.07.2022).

[4] “Ukraine War: Indian Tech Firm Infosys That Rishi Sunak’s Wife Owns Shares in Set to Close Office in Russia”, Sky, https://news.sky.com/story/indian-tech-firm-in-which-sunaks-wife-owns-shares-closing-office-in-russia-12579798, (Date of Accession: 25.07.2022).

[5] “Liz Truss vs Rishi Sunak: Taxes, Russia, and the Northern Ireland Protocol”, The Quint, https://www.thequint.com/news/world/liz-truss-vs-rishi-sunak-taxes-russia-and-the-northern-ireland-protocol#read-more, (Date of Accession: 25.07.2022).

[6] “Where Does Each Potential Prime Minister stand on China?”, Beijing Britain, https://beijingtobritain.substack.com/p/where-does-each-potential-prime-minister, (Erişim Tarihi: 25.07.2022).

[7] ““I’ll Change This On Day 1 As PM”: Rishi Sunak Talks Tough On China”, NDTV, https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/enough-is-enough-rishi-sunak-pledges-to-get-tough-on-china-if-elected-3189999, (Date of Accession: 25.07.2022).

[8] “Where Does Each Potential Prime Minister Stand on China?”, Beijing Britain, https://beijingtobritain.substack.com/p/where-does-each-potential-prime-minister, (Date of Accession: 25.07.2022).

[9] “Now Liz Truss Says Britain Should Send Weapons to Help Taiwan Amid Fears of an Invasion by China”, Dailymail, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10963343/Now-Liz-Truss-says-Britain-send-weapons-help-Taiwan-amid-fears-invasion-China.html, (Date of Accession: 25.07.2022).

[10] “İngiltere’nin Başbakan Adayı Sunak’tan Brexit ve Göç Çıkışı”, Habertürk, https://www.haberturk.com/ingiltere-nin-basbakan-adayi-sunak-tan-brexit-ve-goc-cikisi-3479651, (Date of Accession: 25.07.2022).

[11] “Rishi and Liz go to war over China”, DailyMail, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11044367/Rishi-Sunak-attacks-Liz-Truss-Beijing-camp-hits-accusing-soft-China.html, (Date of Accession: 25.07.2022).

[12] “Rishi Sunak is “Best Described as Realpolitik.”, Twitter, https://twitter.com/melissakchan/status/1547854306384105472?s=20&t=B-bDnz9LxwY0YMNPJpM6BQ, (Date of Accession: 20.07.2022).

Dr. Cenk TAMER
Dr. Cenk TAMER
Dr. Cenk Tamer graduated from Sakarya University, Department of International Relations in 2014. In the same year, he started his master's degree at Gazi University, Department of Middle Eastern and African Studies. In 2016, Tamer completed his master's degree with his thesis titled "Iran's Iraq Policy after 1990", started working as a Research Assistant at ANKASAM in 2017 and was accepted to Gazi University International Relations PhD Program in the same year. Tamer, whose areas of specialization are Iran, Sects, Sufism, Mahdism, Identity Politics and Asia-Pacific and who speaks English fluently, completed his PhD education at Gazi University in 2022 with his thesis titled "Identity Construction Process and Mahdism in the Islamic Republic of Iran within the Framework of Social Constructionism Theory and Securitization Approach". He is currently working as an Asia-Pacific Specialist at ANKASAM.