The Defence Strategic Review: The US Taiwan Policy Act would be a game-changing act of provocation

Sep 20, 2022
Coloured map of Taiwan's geographical location
Image: iStock

The Australian government, perhaps initially through the DSR, must explain clearly to the Australian public what cost it is prepared to pay as a tool of American policy, or how it intends to maintain its sovereignty and ensure the security and safety of Australians.

The draft Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 (the Act) that has just passed the committee stage in the US Senate would, if approved, bring the prospect of war in the Asia-Pacific closer. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) can only regard war as inevitable given the radical changes in US policy foreshadowed in the draft: substantive abandonment of the one-China policy and the de facto recognition of Taiwan as a state. The implications for Australian strategic planning, alliance relations, and foreign policy are enormous and the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) and the Prime Minister must spell out the government’s response.

The fiction can no longer be maintained that the decline in regional strategic conditions is solely down to China, or that defence of the rules-based order is anything other than preservation of US hegemony. If the Act proceeds, China would have little other option than the forcible re-integration of a territory that has no right to a unilateral declaration of independence under international law. US legislators must understand this. Nevertheless, the Act seems destined to pass the Congress with bipartisan support. The DSR cannot ignore the implications.

The Act contains a thinly veiled recognition of Taiwan as an independent sovereign state in all but name, and, alarmingly for US allies, provides a clear indication of the willingness of senior US politicians to contemplate a war with China. The Act almost seems designed to make China either commit to forceful reclamation of Taiwan, or to resile from its claims over the Island. Achieving the latter may be the intent of the Act’s emphasis on the US’s defence of Taiwan and deterring PRC military action. The massive assistance that would be provided to Taiwan for arms acquisition, training, and planning is extensively detailed. Not unexpectedly, the PRC sees this proposed legislation as deliberately bellicose and as an unwarranted intervention into its internal affairs.

Ominously, the Act would require the US Secretary of Defence “to conduct a classified review of the United States strategy to defend Taiwan”. This review must include an assessment of United States’ force readiness and the adequacy of the United States strategy to enable the defence of Taiwan. The Secretary will have to present to the Congress a detailed “strategy of denial to defend Taiwan”, a comprehensive assessment of risks to the United States and United States’ interests, and to identify readiness shortfalls that pose strategic risk. In short, a war plan.

In the dangerous world of Defence Minister Marles and his predecessors, Australian forces are being force-structured to be not only interoperable with US forces but interchangeable. Previously this could be presented as simply practical, but now that the strategic ambiguity of the American intent has been lifted, and the rhetorical camouflage abandoned, it is incumbent upon the Australian government to reveal if Australia is currently planning to join the US in a war against China. Because that prospect is now much closer to reality.

A further worry for Australia flowing from the Act is the attempt to create divisions between China and its Asia-Pacific neighbours. The Act would make it “the policy of the United States” to “include Taiwan as a partner in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF)”. This would have consequences for Australia and present major problems for its relations with regional states, as it would be an undeniable attempt to elevate the standing of Taiwan in international relations by recognising it as an equal entity.

However, Taiwan’s admission to the IPEF would require Australia’s approval along with that of Brunei Darussalam, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. In reality, it confronts these nations with the choice of siding with America or China in their strategic competition, something many are extremely reluctant to do. If Australia were to advocate the US policy it could clearly strain relations with a number of these states and have a seriously adverse effect on relations with China.

Additionally, the Act would declare US government policy to be “to provide the people of Taiwan with de facto diplomatic treatment equivalent to foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities”. The Chinese cannot but regard this as a provocative de facto recognition of Taiwan’s independence. In a further provocation to the PRC the Act would remove “any undue restrictions” on the ability of US officials at any level “to interact directly and routinely with their counterparts in the Government of Taiwan”. Not a normal arrangement for a regional entity and a patent infringement of China’s sovereignty and a fundamental weakening of the one-China policy.

The Act would declare that it is “a vital national security interest of the United States to defend Taiwan”. That may be so, it is for the Americans to determine their national interests. But if it becomes law, the stark challenge to the PRC in the Act would make any rapprochement or detente between China and America in the future highly unlikely, nearly impossible. China effectively is being dared to abandon its sovereignty over the territory under international law or take it by force in a war with America. The non-negotiable Chinese redlines that would be crossed by the Act is an invitation to conflict.

The Australian government, perhaps initially through the DSR, must explain clearly to the Australian public what cost it is prepared to pay as a tool of American policy, or how it intends to maintain its sovereignty and ensure the security and safety of Australians. The government’s position on the one-China policy and its involvement in US war planning must be set out for the public.

This Act is unnecessary and provocative. The issues it would raise go beyond just defence policy, and must call into question the strategic value of Australia’s historical relationship with the US. The Act would be game-changer and reflects the American preparedness to engage in a war that would be disastrous for the region and the world.

Read more in our Defence Strategic Review series of articles.

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