What Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss think about key global issues

Last week, Conservative members of parliament selected Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss as the final two candidates for members of the Conservative Party to select by ballot as their next leader. The victor will become the United Kingdom’s (UK) next prime minister. Their perspective on key global issues is important not only for the direction of Britain, but also, due to the UK’s instruments of power and international reach, the wider world.

A previous article[↗] in Britain’s World detailed the stance of the then five candidates on Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine; Britain’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC); defence spending; and resources allocated to international development. This article will take a deeper look into the stance of Sunak and Truss on these issues as well as environmental and energy security; supply-chain resilience; critical infrastructure; critical minerals and border security – all issues of growing geopolitical importance and topicality.

Rishi Sunak

Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine: When launching[↗] his leadership campaign, Sunak praised Boris Johnson’s efforts in Ukraine and criticised European indecision on the issue. He has since highlighted[↗] the severity of British sanctions placed on Russia, and how Her Majesty’s (HM) Government needs to ‘put Ukraine in the strongest position’ to defeat Russia.

British relations with the PRC: Just over a year ago, Sunak described[↗] Britain’s debate around the PRC as one that ‘lacks nuance’. On 14th July 2022, The Global Times – a tabloid newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – described[↗] Sunak as having a ‘pragmatic view of developing balanced ties with China’. More recently, Sunak announced[↗] four policies aimed at countering CCP actions that threaten ‘the world’s security and prosperity’: 1. The closure of all 30 of Britain’s Confucius Institutes; 2. The formation of a ‘NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation]-style intelligence alliance’; 3. New powers for the Security Service (MI5) to better counter the PRC’s industrial espionage; and 4. Increased scrutiny into the Chinese acquisition of British assets. He now believes that the PRC and CCP pose the ‘largest threat’ to the UK.

Defence spending: Sunak has stated[↗] his opposition to ‘arbitrary’ defence spending targets and instead plans to adhere to a ‘threats based’ approach. He has nonetheless pledged to maintain defence spending at current levels and views the NATO target of spending 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) ‘as a floor, not a ceiling’.

International development spending: Sunak oversaw the controversial cut in international development spending from 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) to 0.5% as chancellor in November 2020. Late last year, he promised[↗] to reverse these cuts in 2024-2025.

Environmental and energy security: Sunak is committed to the 2050 Net-Zero target. He has signed the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) pledge card[↗], which looks to boost the production of renewable energy sources to enhance Britain’s energy security by lessening dependence on energy imports. Sunak wants to make[↗] the UK ‘energy independent’ by 2045 by building more offshore (and no more onshore) wind farms and nuclear power plants. He also wants[↗] to reinstate a separate Department of Energy, and plans to create a Energy Security Committee which will be tasked with reforming the market to cut energy bills in the future.

Supply-chain resilience: Sunak previously posited[↗] that the current issues with British supply-chains could ‘improve productivity’ within affected companies. 

Critical minerals: Sunak has not made any statements on the matter.

Critical infrastructure: Sunak has claimed[↗] credit for the passing of the National Security and Investment Act, which gives HM Government more power to scrutinise foreign investment in 17 sensitive areas. This is currently being used to investigate the purchase of Newport Wafer Fab – the biggest semiconductor producer in the UK – by Nexperia, a Chinese company.

Border security: Sunak believes[↗] the current border system is ‘broken’ and has generated a ten-point plan to secure Britain’s borders. He has pledged to continue to push for irregular migrant arrivals to be processed offshore.

Liz Truss

Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine: Truss was heavily involved in developing Britain’s policy towards Russia and Ukraine as foreign secretary. If victorious, she claims[↗] she will be ‘Ukraine’s greatest friend’, just as she has repeatedly stated[↗] that it is her desire to see Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, fail in his renewed offensive against Ukraine. She has previously advocated[↗] for Britain to be a leader in Ukraine’s reconstruction.

British relations with the PRC: As foreign secretary, Truss has a track record of being firm on CCP behaviour believed to be threatening the open international order. Corresponding with her idea of a ‘network of liberty[↗]’, Truss recently announced a Commonwealth Strategy[↗] to ‘strengthen economic ties across the Commonwealth’ to allow it, and the UK, to better resist ‘malign’ CCP activity. Truss thinks[↗] that the UK ‘should absolutely be cracking down on’ Chinese-owned technology companies, such as TikTok. She also believes[↗] there is a genocide occuring in Xinjiang, and that the Group of Seven (G7) should become[↗] an ‘economic NATO’ that will support partner economies being ‘targeted by an aggressive regime’.

Defence spending: Truss promised[↗] to raise defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2026 and 3% by 2030, meaning British expenditure on the armed forces would grow substantially. She has also pledged[↗] more investment in the cyber, intelligence and space domains of national security.

International development spending: Truss was previously critical[↗] of foreign aid cuts from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI, though she oversaw as foreign secretary the creation of the International Development Strategy[↗], which aims to better align British official development assistance spending with the nation’s interests.

Environmental and energy security: Truss is committed to the 2050 Net-Zero target. Like Sunak, she has also signed the CEN pledge card[↗]. When citing European dependence on Russia for energy imports, she detailed[↗] her desire for the UK to be ‘never dependent on regimes we can’t trust’. Consequently, she has stated[↗] that she would review the ban on fracking and has recently[↗] (and previously[↗]) advocated for more investment in nuclear energy. 

Supply-chain resilience: During her time as Secretary of State for International Trade, Truss worked and commented regularly on how to enhance the UK’s supply-chain resilience. She discussed the issue with her counterpart in the United States[↗] in July 2021, and with the British Chamber of Commerce in China[↗] in April 2020. She has also brought up the issue of supply-chain resilience and the inter-government work – through Project Defend – being done to enhance it multiple times in the House of Commons. Recently, she stated[↗] ‘we need to make sure that the UK has resilient supplies from countries that we can trust.’

Critical minerals: As Secretary of State for International Trade, Truss made clear[↗] her desire to ‘make sure we have resilient supply-chains of critical minerals and are not reliant on high-risk vendors.’ Her more recent comments[↗] reinforce this view.

Critical infrastructure: Similarly to Sunak, Truss has claimed[↗] credit for the passing of the National Security and Investment Act. Recent comments[↗] on dependence on China and Russia make clear she will scrutinise foreign investment in the UK from ‘malign’ actors.

Border security: Truss has pledged to continue support for the off-shore processing of irregular migrant arrivals. She has also stated[↗] she will ‘legislate in Britain to make sure the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights] can not overrule our policy to tackle illegal immigration.’

Summary

As the contest has progressed, Sunak and Truss have displayed a convergence in certain foreign and defence policy issues – perhaps unsurprising given that they both held senior roles in Johnson’s cabinet. 

They both acknowledge the threat emanating from Russia and the PRC and the need for a robust British approach to these nations in certain areas, such as foreign direct investment and upholding international law. Sunak’s stance on the PRC has changed significantly (albeit not being all that clear initially) in the past few weeks, reflecting changing geopolitical circumstances as much as the views of the British people and especially[↗] those who vote for the Conservative Party.

Both leadership hopefuls want to enhance British energy security, though they will take different approaches in this endeavour. Both are committed to achieving Net-Zero by 2050 and making it harder for people to enter the UK without due process.

Some divergence occurs in relation to foreign and defence spending. Both have pledged to maintain current levels but Truss wants to raise them. Truss has also presented clear targets, something Sunak has refused to do. It is unclear whether the two leadership hopefuls disagree on aid spending: although Truss appears to have disagreed with Sunak’s decision to cut official development assistance spending in 2021, she has been firmly committed to ensuring spending occurs in pursuit of the national interest.

In regard to critical minerals and supply-chain resilience (two sides of the same coin) there are clear differences. To be sure, Truss’ former positions have allowed her to work on and develop an understanding of these areas, giving her an advantage. These issues will not go away, however; they are also related to thornier questions relating to globalisation and free trade. These issues will require fleshing out whoever becomes prime minister in September.

James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy. Patrick Triglavcanin is a Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy.

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