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Former UK PM Liz Truss’s secret lobbying for defence exports to China raises security concerns

Former U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss is reported to have secretly lobbied the British government to expedite the sale of defense equipment to China. This revelation comes from documents released to POLITICO. The equipment in question, primarily designed for landmine disposal, was produced by Richmond Defence Systems, a company based in Truss’ Norfolk constituency. U.K. security officials had initially blocked this export to China, citing concerns over its potential military applications, particularly in the context of tensions between China and Taiwan.

Truss’s private letter to Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, dated August 15, 2023, urged the expedited approval of the export license. This request was made despite Truss’s publicly known tough stance against China, which she maintained during her tenure as U.K. foreign secretary and prime minister, and later as a backbench MP.

In her letter, Truss expressed concern that blocking the sale would result in significant financial losses for the British firm and suggested that China could reverse-engineer the technology if denied access. Liz Truss wrote in her letter to Kemi Badenoch: “I am writing on behalf of my constituent, whose application for a licence to supply goods to China was first submitted 03/01/2023 … I would be grateful can you [sic] expedite [the] licence”​​.

The issue has raised concerns among some experts and senior Tory MPs, who argue that Truss’ intervention could have endangered both Taiwan and the U.K.’s national interests. Conservative MP Alicia Kearns criticised Truss’ actions, stating that the export of such dual-use technology to a Chinese business under coercion from the Chinese Communist Party is against national and allied interests.

Kearns, chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, remarked: “It is against our national interests, and most certainly those of our ally Taiwan, to actively lobby for the export of a dual-use technology to a Chinese business subject to Chinese Communist Party coercion”​​.

Truss’ spokesperson defended her actions, stating that she was fulfilling her responsibilities as an MP by addressing the concerns of her constituents. However, this perspective is not universally shared, as the act of lobbying for the export of potentially sensitive technology to China is seen by some as conflicting with national security interests.

Andrew Yeh, executive director of the China Strategic Risks Institute, emphasised to POLITICO the broader context: “It would be naive for any U.K. government official not to consider the risk that the equipment which ends up in China then ends up being used in an invasion scenario over Taiwan”​

The government ultimately rejected Richmond Defence Systems’ export license application in April 2023, and the case is still under review following Truss’ letter. The decision to block the sale was partly based on concerns that the technology could be sold to or utilized by the Chinese government, posing a security risk.

Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence, said of the report: “This situation raises serious questions about the intersection of political influence and arms trade regulation. It’s vital that the U.K. government adheres to stringent ethical standards when it comes to exporting defense technology, especially to nations where the use of such technology could escalate regional tensions or be repurposed for military objectives. The case of Richmond Defence Systems’ attempted sale to China, and the political lobbying involved, underscores the need for transparency and rigorous oversight in defense exports to ensure that national and international security interests are not compromised.”