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Last week on this page, former prime minister Tony Abbott argued about a Taiwan under threat that it is hard to see “how Australia could (or should) stand aside from assisting a fellow liberal democracy of 25 million people”.
My view goes further than that: I believe that if China were to attack US forces across the Taiwan Strait and Australia refused to be involved then this might risk the existence of the ANZUS alliance.
President Xi Jinping has stated that China does not rule out the threat of military action to reclaim Taiwan: “We make no promise to give up the use of military force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.” Since taking office in 2012, Xi has made it clear that taking back Taiwan would be the crowning achievement in his vision to restore China’s place as a great power. He has urged the people of Taiwan to accept they “must and will be” reunited with China and that the Taiwan issue “should not be passed down generation after generation”.
In other words, the time issue is becoming more urgent for the Chinese Communist Party — not least because 57 per cent of Taiwanese now identify themselves as Taiwanese, which is up from 14 per cent in 1991. Less than 4 per cent of Taiwanese citizens identify themselves as Chinese only, as distinct from the 37 per cent of mostly older people who identify themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese. These trends reveal a growing sense of a unique Taiwanese national identity and that time is not on Beijing’s side.
The key question is whether Xi will come under more pressure in the coming year to invade Taiwan because of the rising tensions he is facing domestically with the pandemic and internationally with an increasingly assertive US. In the past few days, Washington has stated firmly that China’s claim to the entire South China Sea is “completely unlawful”.
Last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set out very starkly what the China threat means to “the future of free democracies around the world”. He described the People’s Liberation Army as becoming “more menacing” and China as “increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else”. He was careful to discriminate between the CCP and the Chinese people, whom he described as “a dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party”. The US mission appears to be to separate the Chinese people from the CCP. This is a path Australia must tread with care.
Contrary to expectations, under Xi’s leadership China has not let the coronavirus attack on the health of its people divert his attention from resorting to military coercion. Rather the opposite: in recent months Beijing has threatened the use of military force against India, Taiwan and Japan, as well as claiming the South China Sea as its sovereign territory. Resorting to a serious external crisis over Taiwan would serve to divert the attention of the Chinese people to a major issue of national pride.
From the US point of view, it must recognise that any military conflict with China in such relative proximity to the mainland will increasingly work to Beijing’s advantage as it develops the modern, advanced military capabilities to project military power. But we tend to underestimate the importance the US puts on the defence of Taiwan. Australians see Taiwan as more marginal than do the Americans. There is a consensus across the political, security and economic communities in Washington that China is — in Pompeo’s words — “a true national security threat”.
This brings me to the implications for Australia of a war over Taiwan. My view is quite simple: in the event of an unprovoked Chinese attack, if the US does not come to the defence of Taiwan then that will mark the end of the US alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan and South Korea would be likely to reconsider the option of acquiring their own nuclear weapons. If the US does defend Taiwan and Australia refuses to make a military contribution that may well threaten the raison d’etre for ANZUS.
No other US ally — except perhaps Japan — will commit to the military defence of Taiwan. Let’s go through the list of countries that will look the other way: they include South Korea and every Southeast Asian country, New Zealand and most likely Canada, and probably every NATO country — including Britain.
However, Japan might well consider making a military and logistic contribution because of its close relations with Taiwan and the fact a People’s Republic of China-occupied Taiwan would greatly complicate its own national defence issues. Possession of Taiwan would give Beijing a forward military presence to threaten the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa and Japan itself, as well as providing a deepwater bastion off Taiwan’s east coast for China’s sub-surface ballistic nuclear submarines.
For Australia, in our contemporary geopolitical situation Taiwan certainly comes within the ANZUS Treaty definition of an armed attack in “the Pacific area”. Australia is a standout as the only Five Eyes ally the US should be able to depend on. Our refusal would be seen in Washington as the ultimate betrayal of our alliance commitment in our own region.
As Rich Armitage, the deputy secretary of state in George W. Bush’s administration, once said in my presence: “If American Marines are dying across the Taiwan Strait, we sure as hell expect you Aussies to bleed alongside us.”
It is in our interests to stand up for the defence of a successful democracy of 24 million people living on an island. Does that geography sound familiar to you? If Taiwan is not worth defending, why would anyone come to Australia’s defence?
This article was written by Paul Dibb, emeritus professor from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and a former deputy secretary of defence.
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This piece was originally published on The Australian here.
Image by the U.S. Secretary of Defense and sourced from Flickr.