Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 5 May 2021


Australia draws the China line at Taiwan

The AFR View

Australia has now signalled that its collective pushback to manage China includes drawing the line at the defence of Taiwan.

For the past week or so, the “drums of war” rhetoric out of Canberra has talked up the fear of China attacking Taiwan. In an exclusive interview with The Australian Financial Review’s China correspondent, Michael Smith, Taiwan’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Joseph Wu, talks down the idea “that a war between Taiwan and China is imminent”.

However, Mr Wu says Taiwan is the frontline against China’s aggressive attempt to expand the authoritarianism of President Xi Jinping beyond its “motherland” borders into the Indo-Pacific region.

The Australian Financial Review’s China correspondent, Michael Smith, conducts an exclusive interview with Taiwan’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Joseph Wu. Ryan Stuart

Hence China’s encroaching into disputed waters in the East China Sea, its moves to militarise the South China Sea and incursions into Taiwan’s air and sea space, and its use of disinformation and hybrid warfare to try to isolate Taiwan internationally.

Mr Wu says China “seems to be preparing for a final assault against Taiwan”. He naturally welcomes like-minded democracies such as Australia recognising the importance of Taiwan’s security situation in maintaining regional peace and stability.

Talk of a “final assault” might appear to back Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s statement about not discounting the risk of a hot war. But a call to arms against China in the conventional sense is misplaced at this time.

As the Financial Review has pointed out, China lacks the naval hardware to risk a direct amphibious assault over the Taiwan Strait. More likely is that for now China will continue operating in the grey zone short of war, using brinkmanship and intimidation to create an air of inevitability about fulfilling its geopolitical ambitions to be the regional hegemon.

The strategy is to force a hesitant America to withdraw from the western Pacific and force the rest of the region to effectively submit to Beijing’s new authority.

The logistical challenges, military and economic risks of launching an invasion would involve great dangers for China.

National reunification of democratic Taiwan with mainland China is a key symbol of strongman Xi’s historic mission to reverse the Middle Kingdom’s hundred years of humiliation. This would also complete the unfinished business of the 1949 Communist revolution by reclaiming the island where Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces took refuge.

Disastrous for Australia’s economy

This has made the180-kilometre-wide Taiwan Strait the most strategically dangerous stretch of water in the world. Yet the logistical challenges, military and economic risks of launching an invasion would involve great dangers for China, including political risks for the regime. So what is all the sabre-rattling about?

As Mr Wu says, it’s not just Australia, but American officials that are using the same language. When its supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region was unchallenged, the US could afford to leave open the question of defending Taiwan. Geostrategic competition with an increasingly economically and militarily powerful China makes such strategic ambiguity harder to maintain, as opposed to putting down red line markers.

Ever since Gough Whitlam established diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China in 1972, Australia has supported the “One China” policy, and not officially recognised Taiwan as a separate country.

Hence, when the Australian embassy in Beijing opened, the diplomatic mission Harold Holt opened in Taipei in 1966 was shut down. Now the Morrison government is signalling that Australia would tacitly support US-led action against China in the Taiwan Strait in defence of Taiwanese autonomy.

If it came to war, this might be the position Australia had to take to fulfil and maintain the alliance obligations under the 1951 ANZUS treaty. Since the end of World War II, pax Americana in the Asia Pacific region provided the security framework for one of the greatest eras of economic development in human history. To the great benefit of Australia’s prosperity, while also allowing modern China to rise.

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