With tensions over Taiwan rising, Australia might have to ask itself a tough question, writes Hugh White.
Things in the South China Sea look dangerous enough, but worse might be coming. On January 16, 2016, Taiwan goes to the polls to elect a new president. The result is likely to drive US-China relations to a new low, increase the risk of conflict and complicate even further the balancing act of countries such as Australia that walk the tightrope between the world's two strongest states.Tensions over Taiwan are nothing new. China has always insisted on its right to use force to bring what it regards as a rebellious province back under Beijing's control, especially if Taiwan tries to upend the strange "One China" status quo and declare Taiwan an independent state. The United States has remained just as firmly committed to defending Taiwan if China tries to exercise that right.But tensions have eased under Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou, who has built closer economic and people-to-people links across the Taiwan Strait, and rejected any talk of steps towards independence. Beijing began to hope Taiwanese might slowly be starting to accept reunification.
Those hopes are now being dashed. Over the past couple of years, it has become clear that the overwhelming majority of Taiwan's voters do not want to become part of China. They have clearly rejected Ma's policies and are now set to elect a new president from the traditionally more pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party [DPP]. The DPP's Tsai Ing-wen is not, at least overtly, advocating independence for Taiwan the way some of her predecessors have done. Instead, she is vigorously campaigning to protect and perpetuate the status quo by halting Ma's pro-Beijing policies, which she claims were pushing Taiwan inexorably into Beijing's orbit. She hopes this more moderate stance will placate Beijing and reassure Washington she will not recklessly create a cross-strait crisis.
But this might not be enough to avoid trouble, because attitudes are shifting in China, as well as in Taiwan. Hitherto, Beijing has been satisfied with the status quo, concerned only to ensure that Taiwan did not move towards independence and content to defer the ultimate goal of reunification indefinitely. But now China's leaders are getting impatient. In 2013, President Xi Jinping warned it was time to resolve the issue. "These issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation," he said.
There is a back story to this.Taiwan was ceded to Japan by China after its defeat in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-45, and its separation today remains the last and bitterest legacy of China's "century of humiliation". Recovering Taiwan is, therefore, seen as the culmination of Xi's "China dream" of national renewal, and Xi probably wants to be the leader who does it. That would eclipse even Deng Xiaoping's achievement in recovering Hong Kong, and cement his place among the greats of Chinese history. So there is a real risk that China will respond to Tsai's likely election with a new campaign of pressure and intimidation designed to force the pace towards reunification. In doing this, Xi and his colleagues will be emboldened by their growing confidence that they now have the edge over Washington in any clash over Taiwan's future.
This is another major new factor in the Taiwan situation. The last time Washington and Beijing confronted one another over Taiwan, in 1996, China backed off in the face of the United States' overwhelming power. Beijing understood that a conflict would cost China much more, both economically and militarily, than the US, so it knew the US would not step back.
Since then, everything has changed. China is now so central to the global economy that a war would hit the United States' prosperity as hard as it would China's. And China's massive investment in air and naval forces over the past 20 years has fundamentally shifted the military balance in Beijing's favour.
Of course, China is still no match for the US globally, but its new capabilities have been designed specifically to counter US forces in exactly this scenario, and it would have the huge advantage of operating close to home bases.
The result has been starkly described in a recent RAND study. The US can no longer expect swift and decisive victory against China in a war over Taiwan. On the contrary, it would probably lose a lot of ships and planes – including even some aircraft carriers – and achieve no more than an inconclusive stalemate at best.
Moreover, no US president could afford to overlook the real risk that such a conflict might cross the nuclear threshold, because for China losing Taiwan is simply not something to be contemplated. It, therefore, becomes easier and easier for Chinese strategists to assume that next time they go toe-to-toe over Taiwan, it will be the US that backs off.
All this will help embolden Beijing to increase the pressure on Taiwan for reunification sooner rather than later, just as the Taiwanese themselves are becoming more and more determined to resist Beijing's pressure.
This poses a strategic dilemma for Washington that dwarfs its problems in the South China Sea. For most Americans, their commitment to defend Taiwan is close to sacrosanct, especially as Taiwan is now a vibrant democracy whose people clearly do not want to live under Beijing. And failing to stand up to China over Taiwan would do huge damage to US strategic leadership in Asia and beyond, while immensely strengthening China's regional sway.
But the harsh reality is that supporting Taiwan against Chinese pressure over coming years might cost the US more than it is willing or able to pay. US leaders might have to ask themselves whether they are willing to risk a nuclear attack on the continental US in order to defend Taiwan from China. If the answer is no, then Taiwan's status quo might become harder and harder to sustain.
There are questions for Australia here, too. Most of us might instinctively support Taiwan's right to decide its own future, and believe the US should be willing to defend it from China. But would we be willing to go to war with it against China to help Taiwan? I doubt it. These are the hard realities of the Asian Century.
Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.
This piece first appeared in Fairfax Media.