May 17, 2023 - 7:00am

Tainan, Taiwan

At around 6pm local time last night, Liz Truss stepped off the plane in Taipei, headed to her hotel and – according to her press officer – practiced the speech she then gave this morning in the Grand Ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Taipei. She talked about Taiwan as a beacon for democracy and freedom, and the need for the UK to “get real about military and defence co-operation”.

Unsurprisingly, there has been much ridicule of Truss since this trip was announced last week, both from the Chinese, who warned on LBC that it could inflict “mortal wounds” on UK-China relations, and from her friends at home. Alicia Kearns, Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chair, accused her of “Instagram diplomacy”, while the Government noted that policy towards Taiwan had remained “unchanged” since her time in the Foreign Office.

The only ones not mocking Truss are the Taiwanese, who find, as Chung-kwang Tien, Taiwan’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs said to me, that “every little counts”. “We like her a lot,” said I-Chung Lai, President of Prospect, the think tank that invited Truss, when I questioned the benefit to Taiwan of hosting a disgraced British politician. 

Of course, Taiwan needs all the friends it can get. Existing allies are an odd bunch: it is recognised by just 13 polities, including the Vatican, Paraguay and Eswatini. It says repeatedly that it knows it must fend for itself, not rely on others, and certainly not expect others to come to its rescue in the event of invasion if it hasn’t done enough to prepare. 

Yet, militarily, the picture looks unpromising. Conscription is just one year (up from four months), and only mandatory for men. Taiwan spends only 2.4% of its GDP on the military, compared with 3% in the US. And there is absolutely no sense of a will to fight, or war hunger, at all. The young people I spoke to — including a potter, a luxury hotel PR, a train ticket office agent and a teenager eating oyster omelette in a night market — all said they don’t think about the threat of Chinese invasion. The ticket salesman said that “we live our lives, they live theirs”. 

This is part and parcel of what makes Taiwan a lovely place to visit. There is no suspicion of strangers or tourists. Instead there is a sweetness, a tranquillity — and a general high moral standard. Numerous times I have been surprised by proactive, effortful attempts from strangers to help me. An old lady with no English tried to help me find my guesthouse in Tainan, Taiwan’s oldest city, colonised by the Dutch and Japanese, and failed. After 10 minutes she led me to another man, who wedged my suitcase on the front of his scooter, handed me a helmet and motored me to the correct front door. This sort of thing has happened half a dozen times in as many days. 

Taiwan needs military strength — or it certainly will if and when the time comes. At the moment, its strengths are real but they lie elsewhere — in the highly particularised edifice of semiconductor design and manufacturing, now responsible for the bulk of the world’s supply, and in the orderly and pleasant way that their society runs. As Truss will find, Taiwanese friendship is not only good to give: it’s nice to have.

Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy in modern Britain and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her latest book is Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury)