The large Chinese diaspora that helped Labor win office in the hope of better relations with China could switch its support to less hawkish Teal candidates likely to contest Labor seats at the next election.
Taiwan is a vibrant democracy; most of its citizens now oppose union with China because of Hong Kong’s loss of autonomy and freedom after China imposed its national security law to quell street riots and attacks on the regional Legislative Council. Many saw this crackdown as abrogating China’s pledge to tolerate “two systems within one country”.
It would be tragic if Taiwan was invaded causing bloodshed and the loss of its freedom. But there are strong deterrents to China doing so. Given its bitter civil war history, most Chinese don’t want to fight fellow Chinese. Hence any slaughter of Taiwanese could backfire at home. There is still deep anguish within China’s elites about what happened to student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Also, the jailing of Hong Kong separatists in 2021 could doom the city’s status as a vibrant international business hub. And repression of religious freedom in Tibet and Xinjiang provinces is blemishing China’s image abroad. An attack on Taiwan could relegate it to pariah status like Russia and invite similar sanctions even though Taiwan (unlike Ukraine) is not a sovereign state entitled to a seat at the United Nations. There is a limit to how many setbacks China could absorb before Xi’s own authority might be called into question. He is an astute politician so would be mindful of that.
From China’s perspective, America has the whip hand in stopping Taiwan from declaring itself independent by making it known that military aid (let alone possible defence under its policy of strategic ambiguity) is conditional on Taiwan remaining part of China. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have taught China that it would be hard to conquer let alone occupy a jurisdiction determined to defend itself and reinforced by Western armaments. Unlike Russia, China is heavily dependent on the West for its continued economic growth and prosperity. It’s doubtful that President XI would risk the possible loss of face and foreign markets by bringing Taiwan to heel as a “recalcitrant province”. But if he did military experts warn that America would most likely lose any sea or air battle to defend the island.
America’s western seaboard is almost 7,000 km away from Taiwan, China’s shore is less than 200 km. Furthermore, if Australia joined in the fray our military contribution would be marginal, but its consequences could be fatal. Not only Pine Gap (which helps guide US missiles in Asia) but also one or more of our cities could be targeted by long-range Chinese missiles to warn America what could happen to it. There is a traditional Chinese saying, “kill a chicken to scare the monkey”. Seeking peace between America and China is in our national interest. Ensnaring ourselves in that contest is not. Other Asian countries want détente, and so should we.
Enragement or engagement?
Australia has now decided to fuse its navy with America’s (via AUKUS) and to confront China by undertaking military surveillance of its contested waters. Imagine if China’s navy and air force decided to regularly test freedom of navigation and air surveillance of seas near Australia to ensure our shipping lanes remained free given China’s dependence on our trade. But that’s what we think is legitimate for our navy and air force to do in the South and East China Seas to confront China.
By endorsing America’s anti-China rhetoric Albanese risks letting his opponents get the upper hand politically. Opposition leader Peter Dutton is convinced that China’s quest to reabsorb Taiwan and to build forward defence bases in the South China Sea (to counter US ones in the Philippines) is the first step to it conquering Asia and eventually Australia. He likens China to Imperial Japan before World War II. Hence defence, not social spending, is his first priority.
Opinion polls show that the Morrison government successfully convinced most Australians that China had changed from being a friend to an enemy. Reinforcing this view could see the Albanese government become a one-term one since it would serve the Opposition’s agenda, not its own. Also, the large Chinese diaspora that helped Labor win office in the hope of better relations with China could switch its support to less hawkish Teal candidates likely to contest Labor seats at the next election.
For Albanese to now reset relations with China, he should make it clear that while Australia seeks military security with other like-minded democracies through alliances such as ANZUS, AUKUS, QUAD, and Five Eyes, it seeks economic security through its Free Trade Agreement with China and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to which both nations belong.
He should stress that while Australia relies on the USA for its military security it would not get involved in any military fight over Taiwan or South China Sea outposts because it does not have the capability to do so and it wants to reduce tensions between America and China, not exacerbate them. That means ceasing Australia’s navy and air force surveillance operations in airspace and waters close to Chinese-claimed territory. China’s interception of our warplanes and naval ships on these missions could trigger a conflict forcing us to withdraw. Better to do that before it happens again. Taiwan’s protection should be left to America and Japan who both have the military might and mutual interest to provide that.
Finally, Australia should not join America’s quest to prevent China’s rise as an economic power, because our prosperity is heavily dependent on China’s becoming a rich country. But Albanese should stress that Australia’s economic partnership with China is contingent on both countries respecting not only each other’s sovereignty but that of other nations too. He should give an assurance that political differences between Australia and China would be discussed privately before being disclosed publicly if they can’t be resolved. Trust depends on behaving predictably and respectfully, not erratically and clandestinely. He should add that Australia will never censor the right of Australians including journalists to comment on conditions in China or elsewhere, just as it respects China’s academia and media expressing their views about Australia and the rest of the world. And that it will not interfere in China’s affairs provided China stays out of Australia’s internal politics.
And to demonstrate his genuine commitment to engagement, rapprochement, and cooperation Albanese should support China’s entry into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (also known as TPP11). That would be the goodwill gesture that persuades China that Australia’s truculence has ceased.