When the chips are down over Taiwan, what is Australia’s stake in the game?

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

Discussions of the war in Canberra on China’s threat to Taiwan in recent weeks seem a bit at odds with perceptions elsewhere in the region, even in Taiwan where Foreign Minister Joseph Wu sees no immediate sign of it. the field while amplifying the calls to prepare. he.

Still, there is no doubt that the tensions surrounding cross-strait relations have intensified considerably since 2018, with London. Economist labeling Taiwan “the most dangerous place on the planet” in the lead last week.

Why has the situation changed so drastically in recent years and what is the appropriate response to the new strategic situation in Taiwan?

Three things upset the established, albeit fragile, balance of security.

The balance of military power in the region has shifted markedly in favor of China. China has launched more ships and submarines, built more fighter jets, and deployed missiles that can target Taiwan as well as US strategic assets in Guam, South Korea and Japan. In American war games that simulate a Chinese attack on Taiwan, we are told, the United States is now often overwhelmed.

The psychology in the relations between the United States and China has deteriorated markedly. In the United States, Taiwan has become part of the caustic politics in the geopolitical contest with Beijing. The psychology of hostility is now the United States’ default political response to China. U.S. analysts are more inclined to assume that China’s military superiority in the region – and not globally, where it has been lagging for years – will prompt China to take Taiwan by force just because it can now. In China, the belief that the United States is spoiling to “legitimize” a war against Taiwan to contain China’s rise has gained ground.

In Taiwan, the spirit of independent nationalism took deep root, stimulated by China’s political intervention in Hong Kong against its democratic movement. The model that Beijing proposed for the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland was the model of Hong Kong. Under this “one country, two systems” model, Beijing proposed that Taiwan become a special autonomous autonomous region within the People’s Republic. Current institutions and laws would remain unchanged for 50 years. Many in Taiwan, including supporters of reunification, were skeptical of the autonomy that Taiwan would be allowed under such an arrangement. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and her colleagues in the Progressive Democratic Party (of which the family of Foreign Minister Wu is emblematic) are adamant that Taiwan can never accept “one country, two systems.” And public opinion is now squarely on their side.

Taiwan’s aggressiveness risks taking the United States further than the calculation of its strategic obligations and interests suggests it would want to go. As the place of production of over 80% of the world’s sophisticated computer chips, it reminds China and the United States of its strategic role in the future of the digital economy.

These impulses have always been part of the Taiwan equation. But the exercise of highly calibrated strategic ambiguity between the United States and China over Taiwan has maintained stability. The idea that there is only one China, as Beijing and Taipei claim, was accepted by the United States and all major powers having diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic, along with it was denied practical effect by tacit agreement. that the United States will not allow Taiwan to be seized by force. The shift in geostrategic parameters described above opened up the idea of ​​strategic ambiguity to be questioned and gave hawks on both sides more airtime to portray it as a national weakness.

The accepted wisdom is that neither China nor the United States could win a war against Taiwan and the consequences would be dire. A standoff on conventional weapons risks escalating into a nuclear conflagration beyond Northeast Asia to the United States itself. While China may have the capability, there is no credible evidence or intelligence that China intends to storm Taiwan by force anytime soon.

The calculations in China remain unchanged. As Chinese analyst Cui Lei wrote East Asia Forum Recently, “China faces the risk that, if it resorts to force, the United States would give Taiwan full military support, in which case China would end up paying an unpredictable cost to achieve its goal … [As Graham Allison once said] the United States and China are more likely to wage nuclear war on Taiwan than on any other place in the world ”.

For both the United States and China, says Gareth Evans in one of our main articles this week, it is imperative to avoid “a war that cannot be won.” The proximity of China’s military and cyber capabilities means that it could probably now neutralize any localized US intervention attempt ”. The United States could win, but “at an unbelievably horrific cost” as the conflict escalates into all-out war.

There are other and better options.

The strategic ambiguity of the One China principle has long served everyone’s interests and, Evans says, can still do so for quite a while. Various formulas are available that could advance the goal of unification so that both sides can live with it – objectively, if not now politically or emotionally. The symbolic concept of the “Great Chinese Union”, of which Evans co-authored, may at one point be a useful idea. “The main challenge that China presents to the United States,” said Chas Freeman, former senior US diplomat and defense official, in a second main article this week, “is not military but economic and technological … [and] in the long run, the United States cannot spend more than China militarily and cannot hope to beat it on its own ground ”.

If the conflict over Taiwan is a tough call for the United States, it should be even more so for countries like Australia, Evans concludes. Two-thirds of Australians polled last year agreed; they didn’t believe Australia should go to war with the United States over Taiwan. Australia does not have the capacity to influence the outcome and is strategically vulnerable if drawn into war at any level. Its treaty obligations to the United States do not require it. The only reason Australia is joining the United States in another military adventure over Taiwan is the questionable proposition that it could take out automatic insurance in a future crisis on its own. If Canberra thinks this is a contract the United States will automatically buy, Evans says, he ignored it.

In this context, top Australian politicians and officials laughing at war with China in Taiwan is irresponsible and strategically counterproductive, and a prime minister unable to articulate his government’s policy in Taiwan is deeply disturbing.

The EAF Editorial Board is located at the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.


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