Making the sensible choice: Australia can support peace between US, China in the Taiwan Strait

Sep 24, 2022
Relations between the United States and China, flags of the United States and China with some red dice on a green table.
Image: iStock

US-China relations continue to be in free fall. A confident China under the leadership of strongman Xi Jinping is more assertive in defending its national interests. While China has changed, so have Western powers who, unable to adjust to the new reality of global power transition, are treating China as the primary threat. Animosity has been growing between China and the West. Both sides seem to have abandoned the shared interests in combating real global challenges such as climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and public health.

In particular, the US Congress seems bent on provoking China to fire the first shot in the Taiwan Strait by churning out one bill after another to undermines the “one China” policy, the very foundation of US-China relations. The latest example is the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, which is the most provocative bill so far that will cause irreparable damage to the US-China relationship if it becomes law. Ironically, Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who co-sponsored the bill, claimed that the bill shows that Washington does not seek war or increased tensions with Beijing.

When Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) was the president in Taiwan, cross-Taiwan Strait relations experienced a period of peace and cooperation, culminating with the historic meeting between Ma and Xi in Singapore in November 2015. When the Democratic Progressive Party returned to power in Taiwan in 2016, it overthrew the foundation for cross-strait cooperation. So it is disingenuous to assert that Beijing changed the status quo and caused the tensions in the Taiwan Strait. It is also irresponsible to constantly provoke Beijing to elicit its strong reactions and then accuse it of being aggressive.

US-China relations have been poisoned by ideology-driven domestic politics, and Washington and Beijing seem incapable of addressing their differences in a rational way. The result is protracted zero-sum rivalry that has negative impact on the global community.

Countries like Australia that have huge stakes in maintaining good relations with both the United States and China must do something to help the two powers to come to senses, instead of adding fuel to the fire.

Most countries are hedging between the United States and China. Most US allies and partners do not wish to be forced to choose sides in the great power rivalry. For one thing, they trade more with China than with the United States, and they do not necessarily view China as a threat.

The South Koreans, for example, have developed the concept called Anmigyeongjoong (안미경중 安美经中), which means relying on the United States for its security interests and on China for its economic interests. South Korea has cultivated extensive economic and diplomatic ties with China while maintaining strong security alliance with the United States.

Singapore is an excellent case of a third party successfully maneuvering relations with great powers for its own interests. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has repeatedly stated that Singapore does not want to choose sides and has encouraged the two powers to settle their disputes peacefully and diplomatically. Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said: “The US has outlined its fight against China as one of democracies versus autocracies. It would have been better had the US defined the fight as good governance versus bad governance.”

Japan is perhaps the most proactive in working with Washington to counter China. Due to historical hostility and unresolved territorial disputes, perhaps it is understandable why Japan feels anxious as the Chinese power continues to expand right next door.

Australia and China have no historical problems or unresolved disputes. The idea that China threatens Australia sounds outlandish to the Chinese.

Is Australia happy with the current situation between the US and China, and between Australia and China? It is puzzling why Canberra has not played a more positive role in helping lower tensions between Washington and Beijing. Australia is a member of all major US-led small groups aimed at countering China, including the AUKUS, the QUAD, and Five Eyes. It has also joined the US in conducting military exercises in the South China Sea.

The introduction of nuclear submarines to Australia has raised deep concerns both at home and abroad, despite official US and Australian sugarcoating of the AUKUS. After all, it is a group that violates nuclear nonproliferation no matter how one justifies it. In maintaining its own policy and especially on nuclear issues, perhaps Australia can take a page from its fine neighbour across the ditch.

Australia made some independent and wise decisions before. For example, then opposition leader Gough Whitlam travelled to China in 1971, around the same time as Henry Kissinger secretly visited Beijing. Whitlam normalised Australia’s relations with China in December 1972 shortly after taking office, six years ahead of the United States. In 2015, Australia, together with many other US allies, joined the Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite opposition from the United States.

Today, Australia can continue to be paranoid about China and follow the US leadership uncritically in confronting China. Or it can try to maintain some autonomy within the alliance and develop a more independent foreign policy. And better yet, it can help reduce tensions between the US and China and promote peace in the region.

Australia is in a unique position to play a leadership role in this regard. It’s a trusted ally of the US, and relations with China have shown improvements with a new government in Canberra after May 2022.

Being a key ally of the United States, Australia will side with the United States by default. However, Australian and US interests do not completely converge. When Australia’s interests are not served, what should it do? Will a confrontational approach towards China make China liberal and democratic? It is in Australia’s interests to work with China instead of antagonising China. Respectful engagement is more likely to lead to a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship.

To deflect pressures for taking sides in the great power competition, Australia can form a “middle power coalition” with like-minded countries facing similar dilemmas. Such a coalition serves these countries’ national interests and sends a clear message to the United States and China that they should lower tensions and not impose their wills upon others.

Urgently, Australia should encourage the United States and China to cool down in the Taiwan Strait, and help them to reach a modus vivendi to restore the delicate status quo.

In the South Pacific, Australia, as the leader of the region, can form a regional organisation, something like a “South Pacific Cooperation Organisation,” to bring all parties together, including the United States and China.

It can also make use of the existing Pacific Islands Forum to promote inclusiveness and cooperation. Pushing Chinese influence out of the Pacific is futile because China already has a sizeable presence here and regional countries generally welcome Chinese investment despite some security concerns, which can be addressed in a more transparent way. The priorities of Pacific nations are combating climate change and promoting development, and China can contribute positively to both.

Australia should serve as a bridge between the US and China and help bring them together in the Asia-Pacific and build trust through cooperation in the region. This will serve everyone’s interest. It may be easier said than done given the current anti-China political atmosphere. What we need is wisdom and political courage.

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