HUGH WHITE. The US shouldn’t go to war with China over Taiwan—and nor should Australia (ASPI: THE STRATEGIST, 13 Feb 2019)

Paul Dibb, in his recent Strategist post, writes that America’s strategic position in Asia would be fatally undermined if it didn’t go to war with China if China attacked Taiwan, and that Australia’s alliance with America would be fatally undermined if we didn’t then go to war with China too. The conclusion he draws is that, in the event of an unprovoked Chinese attack on Taiwan, America should go to war with China, and so should Australia.

I think Dibb’s premises are correct, but his conclusion is wrong. Failing to come to Taiwan’s aid would seriously weaken and perhaps destroy America’s position in Asia, and our alliance with America would be seriously weakened if not destroyed if we failed to support the US. But it doesn’t follow that either America or Australia should therefore go to war with China to defend Taiwan.

That depends on who would win the war. Such a war, like any war, would be a calculus of uncertainties, but at the very least one could say that a swift, cheap and decisive US victory over China would be very unlikely. America’s military power is very great, but China’s military power, and especially its capacity to deny its air and sea approaches to US forces, has grown sharply, and is now formidable.

China also has big advantages of location and resolve: Taiwan is closer to China than to America, and it matters more to the Chinese. And any hopes that US nuclear forces would swing the balance back America’s way run up against China’s capacity to retaliate in kind, and the risk of a nuclear exchange targeting US cities would at least have to be considered by US leaders in deciding to go to war.

These sombre facts would have to be taken into account in Washington and Canberra in any deliberations about war. They imply that the choice in both capitals would not be the simple one that Dibb suggests—a choice between going to war and preserving the US-led order in Asia or stepping back and destroying it. A long, costly and indecisive US–China war would destroy the regional order anyway, because America’s leadership in Asia wouldn’t survive a war with China.

Most probably it would lead to America’s withdrawal from Asia—just as its long, indecisive but far less costly wars in the Middle East have led it to withdraw from that region. If so, Australia’s alliance with America would wither too. So the real choice Washington would face would be to abandon its position in Asia by fighting China, or by not fighting China. Given the cost and risks of war with a nuclear power, it is easy to see which America should choose, and I think probably would choose.

Dibb’s counterargument is that America was willing to fight a nuclear war to save West Germany from the Soviets in the Cold War. That’s a compelling argument to the extent that China’s ambitions today pose as big a threat to America as the Soviets’ did in the Cold War. It was the fear that the expansion of Soviet power would threaten the survival of America itself which drove US leaders and voters to accept the risk of nuclear war to make containment work. I don’t think that China poses a similar threat today, which is why I don’t think America should fight China over Taiwan.

But do Americans believe that China poses a similar threat today? That’s actually the big question that underlies the entire future of America’s position in Asia in the face of China’s ambitions, and it deserves closer scrutiny. So far it seems not, because for all the tough talk from Vice President Mike Pence and others in recent months, no US political leader has tried to convince Americans that they should be willing to fight a nuclear war with China. Indeed, US policy as set out in the 2018 nuclear posture review doesn’t even acknowledge America’s vulnerability to Chinese nuclear forces. We’d be wise not to assume that the Americans would risk a nuclear war with China until they say they are willing to do so.

If this is wrong and America chose war, I think it’s clear that Australia would be better off staying out of it. Iraq should have taught us that it makes no sense to support an ally in a war it can’t win, and the stakes are much higher this time.

Finally, a minor point. Whether our commitments under the ANZUS treaty cover Taiwan is not quite as clear as Dibb suggests. No doubt Washington believes that it does, and clearly expects us to support the US in a conflict. To the contemporary policymaker this is what matters, which is why I agree with Dibb that failing to support America would be fatal to the alliance.

But that requirement is not evident in the text of the treaty itself, at least as interpreted by the foremost legal authority on the matter, J.G. Starke, in his book The ANZUS Treaty Alliance. He says it’s clear from the context that ‘Pacific Area’ in Article 4 doesn’t include Taiwan, because Australia didn’t want it to.

 Hugh White is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. .



Hugh White is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.

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5 Responses to HUGH WHITE. The US shouldn’t go to war with China over Taiwan—and nor should Australia (ASPI: THE STRATEGIST, 13 Feb 2019)

  1. Avatar Charles Lowe says:

    Given that the U. S. and China will not wage a nuclear war over Taiwan (cf a ‘nuclear winter’), given China’s patience in relation to addressing its strategic interests and given its continuing economic and military growth, China will simply increase its throttling of Taiwan’s ability to credibly act with autonomy.

    Paul Dibb’s position is extremist and dramatic. Hugh White’s is understated.

    Taiwan will eventually “rejoin” mainland China on the grounds that its people will by then agree they will benefit by doing so. And China will ensure they so benefit.

  2. Avatar Don Macrae says:

    If China could manage to assemble a huge landing force without anybody noticing, and then launch a major attack without warning, I imagine that would be game over. But that probably won’t be the way it unfolds. China will start some kind of build up, Taiwan will respond with alarm – and immediately the US will be faced with a choice: to support Taiwan with a high profile arrangement of forces, or give up the game, and Taiwan.

    Obviously if the US gives up Taiwan it avoids a war – and loses influence in Asia. But the aim is in responding is look serious and convince China that the costs will be too high. I don’t know how likely that is – I’m a non-expert. But I’d like to see some scenario analysis.

  3. Avatar Michael Hart says:

    If we want to understand the complete failure by Australian Governments for over a century to come up with an independent view of our place in the world then one looks no further than this discussion between our so called policy experts. It is merely a rehashed post-colonial view of our role in the world and demonstrates nothing more than a sterile colonised syncophancy eminently suitable for courtiers and colonial fobs. If this is how so called thinkers and influencers of policy in Canberra see our place in the world and our nation then they both have made a compelling argument demonstrating we are neither concerned with our own State, our own wellbeing and incapable of doing so.

    Mr Glickson’s point is clear but needs to be restated differently. Australia has absolutely no deterrence that is no defence via its defence systems from any form of attack in the form of a nuclear equipped missile long range ballistic or short range. Yet our policy of compliant acquiesence. Yet we host systems and facilities of the United States that guarantee we are a first strike target. The notion that any form of nuclear exchange between any two countries (even shall we say India and Pakistan) can be survivable is simply outlandish rubbish. The outcome in terms of catastrophic change to the weather via a nuclear winter means most of the people on this planet will suffer and die. It is called a nuclear winter. The Pentagon knows this, the Russians know this and so does every other nuclear weapon equipped power on the planet. It is not conjecture is it science. So is it in our national interest to go along with people so deluded they think any form of nuclear exchange is a winnable proposition. It is Self Assured Destruction.

    This cloistered arm chair pontification on policy is either willfully ignorant or plain ignorant of the history of China and Russia. They were always great land powers and national empires and still are. They have great staying power and stability of purpose which is simply demonstrated by the historical records. Both have tried and or experienced every possible form of national political organisation and type, Monarchies, Imperial Empires, Dictatorships, Communism and now they have come up with a form of democracy that works for them but underneath lies and remains that heritage of steadfast national identity and place. They are not going anywhere and nor are they going to seek to conquer the world. They are the only great powers that actually abide by most international treaties and obligations even between themselves. That is in their interest. Both have had a century of warfare and turmoil imposed upon them by the actions of western and european nations and now the Americans. They have seen their lands invaded, their people killed in huge numbers and their property devastated yet they have rebuilt and retained their identity and sense of place and have been able to thrive and grow.

    So let us consider Taiwan. It was effectively settled by the Chinese or Han people. It became the play thing of European powers as the power of the dynastic Imperial court waned and collapsed. It was ceded to the Japanese as a terms of surrender for a war initiated by Japan. It was handed back to ‘China’ at the end of the second world war as terms of the Japanese surrender to the Western European powers or Allies, mostly the United States. Which China well the civil war between the facist Kuomintang and the Communists in China resulted in the KMT retreating in defeat to Taiwan where they established themselves as a defacto Government of China in exile. They took the treasury of the Chinese people with them. As China rebuilt and reformed as a nation they have been continously faced with a group of Chinese people on an island fortress claiming to be the true rulers and legitimate government of China. A view reinforced by rabid anti-communist views of the United States. With typical Chinese civility and patience the various leaders of the PRC have sought a reproachment and reintegration of this island and these people with broader China.

    Let us not also forget that the KMT and it successors have engaged in brutal and bloody responses to all political movements and groups that thought otherwise in keeping with a dictatorial authoritarian regime. But time has passed and the people of Taiwan have changed, they may not be rabidly anti PRC but they now have effectively formed an identity that is Taiwanese. Taiwan no claims to be a democracy but Taiwan is still part of China and they still claim to be the only real Chinese Government. The Chinese Governments have been steadfast and resolute in getting back into the Chinese family all those parts of China taken from them by Western and Asian powers over a long period of time. Will they use force? Probably not but there is always a last resort when patience and forbearance run out even with the good natured Chinese. So if you think about that where is the Australian interest? There is none. It is a matter for China and the people of Taiwan to resolve and resolve it they will. It has nothing to do with the United States or Australia. Then again neither has the warms and conflicts we have engaged with the Americans for the past 60 years had anything to do with us or our place in Asia.

  4. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    Any such war, whether or not it inovlves Russia, which has a defence agrement with China, amounts to a global nuclear suicide.

  5. Avatar James O'Neill says:

    Neither are Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria in “the Pacific”, but Australia chose to go to war anyway, much to the detriment of the people of those countries.
    But there is a compelling reason why the US will not go to war with China, over Taiwan or anything else. Since WW2 the US has attacked scores of nations. They all had at least one factor in common: an inability to really fight back outside their own borders. An attack on China would be met with a devastating response.
    By what logic does Australia join a war against its most important trading partner by far; its biggest source of foreign tourists; its biggest source of foreign students and its third biggest source of investment?
    Dibbs is a throwback to a long gone era, best ignored.

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