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

Author: Editorial Board, ANU The talk of war in Canberra over China’s threat to Taiwan in recent weeks seems a little at odds with perceptions elsewhere around the region, even in Taiwan where Foreign Minister Joseph Wu sees no immediate sign of it on the ground while amplifying the calls to prepare for it. Yet […] The post When the chips are down over Taiwan, what’s Australia’s stake in the game? first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

The talk of war in Canberra over China’s threat to Taiwan in recent weeks seems a little at odds with perceptions elsewhere around the region, even in Taiwan where Foreign Minister Joseph Wu sees no immediate sign of it on the ground while amplifying the calls to prepare for it.

Yet there’s no question that tensions surrounding cross-Strait relations have intensified greatly since 2018, with London’s labelling Taiwan ‘the most dangerous place on Earth’ in its lead last week.

Why has the situation changed so dramatically in recent years and what’s the proper response to the new strategic situation over Taiwan?

Three things have upset the established, if fragile, security equilibrium.

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

The psychology in the US–China relationship has soured 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 default US political response to China. US analysts are more prone to assume that Chinese military superiority in the region — not globally, where it’s years behind — will tempt China to take Taiwan by force simply because it now can. In China, the belief that the United States is spoiling for ‘legitimising’ a war over Taiwan to contain China’s rise has gained currency.

In Taiwan, the spirit of independent nationalism has taken deeper root, spurred by China’s political intervention in Hong Kong against its democracy movement. The model that Beijing has proposed for Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland has been the Hong Kong model. Under that ‘one country, two systems’ model, Beijing offered that Taiwan would become a self-governing special autonomous region within the People’s Republic. Current institutions and laws would remain unchanged for 50 years. Many in Taiwan, including supporters of reunification, have been sceptical about the autonomy Taiwan would be permitted under such an arrangement. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party colleagues (of which Foreign Minister Wu’s family is emblematic) are adamant that Taiwan can never accept ‘one country, two systems’. And public opinion is now squarely on their side.

Taiwan’s peskiness risks taking the United States further than calculation of its strategic obligations and interests suggests it would want to go. As the location of the production of over 80 per cent of the world’s sophisticated computer chips, it’s taken to reminding China and the United States of its strategic role in the future of the digital economy.

These impulses have always been present in the Taiwan equation. But the exercise of highly calibrated strategic ambiguity between the United States and China over Taiwan has maintained stability. The notion that there is but One China, as both Beijing and Taipei claim, has been accepted by the United States and all major powers with diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic, at the same time as it has been denied practical effect by a tacit understanding that the United States will not allow Taiwan to be seized by force. The shift in geostrategic parameters described above has opened the idea of strategic ambiguity to question and given hawks on both sides more airtime to depict it as national weakness.

The accepted wisdom is that neither China nor the United States could win a war over Taiwan and that the consequences would be disastrous.  A conventional arms standoff risks escalating to nuclear conflagration beyond Northeast Asia to the United States itself. While China may have the capability, there is no evidence or credible intelligence that China has the intention to storm Taiwan by force any time soon.

The calculations in China remain unchanged. As Chinese analyst recently, ‘China faces the risk that, if it uses force, the United States might extend full military support to Taiwan, 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 fight a nuclear war over Taiwan than over any other place in the world’.

For the United States as well as China, Gareth Evans argues in one of our lead articles this week, there is a compelling imperative to avoid ‘a war one may not win. China’s close-in military and cyber capability means that it could probably now neutralise any attempted localised US intervention’. The United States might prevail but ‘at incalculably horrendous cost’ as the conflict escalated to all-out war.

There are other and better options.

The strategic ambiguity of the One China principle has long served everyone’s interests and, says Evans, can do so for a good while yet. Various formulae are available which could inch forward the unification objective in ways that both sides could live with — objectively, if not now politically or emotionally. The symbolic concept of ‘Greater Chinese Union’, of which Evans was joint author, may at some point be a useful idea. ‘The principal challenge that China presents to the United States’, says Chas Freeman, former senior US diplomat and defence official, in a second lead article this week, ‘is not military but economic and technological … [and] in the long run, the United States cannot outspend China militarily and cannot hope to beat it on its home ground’.

If conflict over Taiwan is a hard call for the United States, it ought to be harder still for countries like Australia, as Evans concludes. Two-thirds of Australians polled last year agreed; they did not believe that Australia should go to war with the United States over Taiwan. Australia has no capacity to influence the outcome and is strategically vulnerable if drawn into a war at any level. Its treaty obligations to the United States don’t demand that it join in. The only rationale for Australia joining the United States in another military adventure over Taiwan is the questionable proposition that it might buy automatic insurance in some future crisis of its own making. If Canberra thinks that’s a contract that the United States will automatically buy, Evans says, it hasn’t been paying attention.

In this context, senior Australian politicians and officials shooting their mouths off about war with China over Taiwan is irresponsible and strategically counterproductive and a prime minister incapable of articulating his government’s policy on Taiwan deeply disturbing.

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

The post When the chips are down over Taiwan, what’s Australia’s stake in the game? first appeared on East Asia Forum.
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