High-stakes Taiwan standoff is a major threat to Australia

Published about 2 months ago

The Australian. Paul Kelly. 16 October 2021

A US-made E2K Early Warning Aircraft takes off from a motorway in Pingtung, southern Taiwan, during the annual Han Kuang drill. Given Chinese President Xi Jinping’s intimidation of Taiwan to affirm reunification with its alleged breakaway province, Taiwan now parades itself as the frontline in the growing global struggle over freedom and democracy – an escalation of deep consequence for Australia.

Australia does not have a leading role to play over Taiwan. It has a direct interest in Taiwan as a thriving democracy, but Australia’s primary interest, above all, is prevention of any major military conflict over Taiwan.

That would be a cataclysm for Taiwan, a catastrophe for the region, and a far-reaching strategic shock for Australia that could change our outlook as a country. With Beijing’s recent dispatch of military jets into Taiwan’s air defence zone, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned Beijing that it would be an “enormous mistake” to underestimate the US by translating the Afghanistan experience to Taiwan.

“Trying to say that coming out of Afghanistan somehow tells any country anything about the depth and level of commitment the US has elsewhere is a grave mistake,” Sullivan said.

He must say this. He needs to say it. There are two questions: Do you believe it? And will Beijing believe it? Joe Biden talks up the return of American diplomacy but the bigger question remains: is Biden credible in convincing China he would use force to defend Taiwan?

Xi is now waging a campaign of military and psychological intimidation against Taiwan. Time seems to be on China’s side. As Xi seeks to shatter Taiwan’s nerves, Beijing’s aim is to achieve military ascendancy in the Taiwan Strait such that US military chiefs must advise their President it is unlikely the US would prevail in any conflict over Taiwan. If America faces defeat, would it fight?

Xi operates from an assumed strength: on Taiwan he has America and its allies guessing, while on climate change he rebuffs Biden and his envoy, John Kerry; won’t attend the Glasgow conference; keeps playing a double game on emissions; and exposes the myopia in Australia’s debate over whether Scott Morrison will attend.

Xi’s message? China makes its own way and its own rules. Don’t expect China to adhere to US norms. Remember the Anchorage meeting earlier this year when the director of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi lectured Secretary of State Anthony Blinken about the superiority of China’s system and the flaws in American democracy.

Yet China’s “diplomacy from strength” cannot conceal its ultimate dilemma: how does it achieve reunification with a Taiwan whose resolve grows along with its capacity to inflict serious damage on any Chinese forces attempting an invasion?

If Taiwan won’t submit, Beijing has two options: a high-risk military invasion, or a “step-by-step” coercion of Taiwan “by all means short of war”, as Linda Jakobson from the China Matters think tank outlined earlier this year, the purpose being to ensure no single step along the path would be enough to justify US military intervention until it was too late.

This brand of coercion sounds far more like Xi. This is how he outsmarted former president Barack Obama on the South China Sea. Selective cyber warfare, attacks on finance, telecommunication and power are “grey zone” tactics where China has expertise and avoids the damage it would incur from an invasion.

Australia’s alliance with the US and its deeper integration from AUKUS means Australia would be involved as a US partner in any Taiwan conflict – but Australia must also factor into its thinking the “all means short of war” scenario and how that plays out.

Taiwan, meanwhile, is embarked on a campaign to turn China’s intrusions into its air defence identification zone into a propaganda instrument against Beijing. The President of Taiwan, Tsai ing-wen, is internationalising its threats from China in her speeches and in her current article for Foreign Affairs.

“Taiwan’s refusal to give up, its persistent embrace of democracy, and its commitment to act as a responsible stakeholder are now spurring the rest of the world to reassess its value as a ­liberal democracy on the frontlines of a new clash of ideologies,” Tsai said.

She makes a direct appeal to other countries: “They should remember that if Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system. It would signal that in today’s global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy.

“The people of Taiwan have made clear to the entire world that democracy is non-negotiable. Our position on cross-strait relations remains constant: Taiwan will not bend to pressure, but nor will it turn adventurist.”

Tsai’s message? This is not just about denying China. She says in today’s world, Taiwan is the frontline test of whether ­aggressive dictators will smash democratic entities. It goes to the global struggle between authoritarianism and democracy.

This makes the stakes greater for all sides, and that increases the dangers.

In the September 2021 AUSMIN statement, authorised by US and Australian ministers, there was an upgraded reference to Taiwan: “Both sides stated their intent to strengthen ties with Taiwan, which is a leading democracy and a critical partner for both countries.”

Ministers backed Taiwan’s participation in international ­organisations where statehood was not a perquisite.

The Biden administration, on several fronts, has strengthened its support for Taiwan. The risk for the US lies in rhetorical support for Taiwan if it fails to make the military commitment when needed in a crisis. Such a scenario would expose America, document its lack of resolution, shatter the region’s confidence in US power, and profoundly undermine the US alliance system from Tokyo to Canberra. There would be only one worse outcome: the US making the military commitment and being defeated by Beijing, with Taiwan subjugated by force.

This result would shatter the strategic foundations on which Australian foreign policy has rested for many decades – foundations only being deepened by the Morrison government in the AUKUS agreement governing nuclear submarines and defence technology.

As long as Taiwan remains separate, China sees itself as incomplete. In his speech last weekend, Xi said: “No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch determination, firm will and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The historical task of the complete reunification of the mother­land must be fulfilled and will definitely be fulfilled.”

Vowing to achieve “peaceful unification” with Taiwan, Xi did not mention military force. There was no need – he has previously justified any resort to force. In the first week of October, the People’s Liberation Army sent 150 planes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.

During that week, Taiwan’s Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said: “The current situation is really the most dangerous I have seen in my more than 40 years in the military. If they (China) want to attack now, they are already capable. But they have to calculate at what cost it would come and what results it would have. From 2025, they will already have lowered the cost and the losses to the lowest possible level.”

This echoes the recent warning from the then head of the US Indo-­Pacific command, Admiral Philip Davidson, that China might attack Taiwan within six years. “We are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo,” Davidson told the US Senate armed service committee. Yet other US military figures think this timeline was too complacent.

In this contest, miscalculations can lead to war. Is China’s arrogance and conviction about US decline a potential trigger for conflict? And this, in turn, creates a risk on the US side: in order to persuade China that the US is serious, might Washington overreact?

There are four future policy options. The first – and most vital – is keeping the status quo alive. That means the idea of “strategic ambiguity” by which the US has no treaty obligation to defend Taiwan thereby guaranteeing a war, but leaves open the credible impression that it would defend Taiwan thereby serving as a deterrent to China. The second, which is now being advanced by right-wing Americans, is a change in the ­decades-old US policy to a form of declared support or guarantee for Taiwan. Former US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz argued in The Wall Street Journal on October 14 that the “greater risk” now lay in continued ambiguity and that a credible red line should be drawn by the US.

This would be a dangerous step. There seems little sign the Biden administration is interested. It would constitute a significant provocation to Xi and an intensification of US-China rivalry surely to the point of a cold war of sorts.

As an ally, Australia should put to the US the ongoing case for the status quo. The Morrison government needs to be beware of the populist right, with its pathetic addiction to US politics, taking up the cry in this country of stronger formal support for Taiwan.

The third policy option is a retreat to US isolationism, perhaps under a new Trumpian president and a move away from Taiwan. That seems unlikely in current ­circumstances. The Democrat/Republican consensus in US politics is based on deepening rivalry with China, so any backsliding on Taiwan hardly fits that story.

The fourth option would involve exaggerated assertion by Taiwan – gestures or steps China could claim were pointing to independence, thereby justifying its military intervention.

Such mis-judgment would be an act of self-defeat by Taiwan. Beyond that unlikely folly, however, politics has changed in Taiwan – the younger generation see Taiwan’s future as separate from China and would surely revolt against even a peaceful negotiation over reunification.

There is no sign the Morrison government wants any significant shift in Australia’s policy on Taiwan. Calling Taiwan a “leading democracy” and “critical partner” is now official language. Opinion among senior ministers was divided on Tony Abbott’s recent private visit to Taiwan but some were unhappy with the optics. Abbott met Taiwan’s President and delivered a major speech. Morrison said he was acting as a private citizen and carried no message from the Australian government.

But Abbott’s expressed sentiment was of closer support for Taiwan. He warned “it’s quite possible that Beijing could lash out disastrously very soon”. Abbott said that “nowhere is the struggle between liberty and tyranny more stark than across the Taiwan Strait”, and added that “nothing is more pressing right now than solidarity with Taiwan”. That’s a very big statement.

“I don’t think America could stand by and watch Taiwan swallowed up,” Abbott said. “I don’t think Australia should be indifferent to the fate of a fellow democracy of almost 25 million people.”

Earlier this year, however, Kevin Rudd played down talk of any imminent crisis. “I don’t think the Chinese are ready for such a conflict at this stage, purely from a military calculus,” Rudd said. “It’s more probably that we’re going to face real difficulties in the Taiwan question towards the end of this decade when China calculates that the balance of power is going to be more decisively in its court.” However, Xi has previously signalled the Taiwan issue must be resolved on his watch as President and has reserved the right to use force. That reservation by a great power constitutes a political compulsion for the US to stand its ground on Taiwan. What is now apparent is that great power rivalry overlaid by a profound ideological conflict is shaping US-China relations, not the once prized economic ­inter­dependence between them.

The security story has overwhelmed the economic story. Taiwan is now enshrined at the centre of both the security and ideological story. Forget the argument that economics will prevent war – that brake on conflict is yesterday’s news. It’s been consigned to the scrap heap of history.

What is now critical is that Beijing and Washington talk to each other, understand each other, and manage their conflict short of war, notably over Taiwan. The central principle for Australian policy must be working to prevent any such conflict.

Last week, Sullivan and Yang met in Zurich and went through their grievances. But they also ­canvassed where they might work together – a reminder that how Biden and Xi engage remains the pivotal and unanswered question.