Not the war over Taiwan again!

May 27, 2021

The lack of high-quality strategic analysis by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has been frequently highlighted in P&I. Nonetheless, ASPI’s dangerously inadequate analysis should be regularly confronted.

Without much reflection on the strategic situation in East Asia, Peter Jennings casually observes that “A conflict over Taiwan would be a disaster for all concerned, but disastrous conflicts happen all the time”. However, nothing remotely like a war between the US and China will have been experienced previously. There would be no “conflict over Taiwan” as it would not be possible to contain such a clash geographically.

Similarly, Michael Shoebridge suggests that a Taiwan conflict could be contained to the island and its approaches. He says the risk “requires cooperative multilateral planning and actions to demonstrate the costs to China from seeking to change Taiwan’s status by force”. No mention is made of the risks and costs to Australia from a war in East Asia. No consideration of the costs for other regional states accommodating US forces.

It’s worth revisiting the obvious strategic facts on the ground. First the geography. Taiwan is roughly 200 kilometres from the Chinese mainland, 650 kilometres from The Philippines, 1400 kilometres from Vietnam, and 1500 kilometres from South Korea and Japan. However, it is 4,100 kilometres from Darwin (7,200 kilometres from Canberra) and 11,000 kilometres from Los Angeles. Proximity will determine the degree of risk and appetite for war over Taiwan.

Faced with a successful Chinese assault that overwhelms the local forces and seizes the island quickly, US attempts to regain Taiwan would confront entrenched Chinese forces supported from the mainland across the narrow strait. An offensive to retake Taiwan would be conducted across maritime and air domains dominated by Chinese forces, and could only be achieved by carrying the conflict to mainland China.

This enormous logistical and tactical challenge and would be very costly, uncertain of victory, and leave Taiwan devastated. To hold Taiwan subsequently would necessitate heavy fortification, at a great ongoing cost.

Or, if Chinese preparations were detected in advance, and US forces went on high alert, China would face the prospect of fighting a broader conflict beyond the island, striking US forces in South Korea, Japan, and The Philippines, or backing down entirely. In that case, China would likely strike hard and comprehensively in all domains to gain a tactical advantage. Regional states would suffer. North Korea might take advantage of the circumstances to invade the South, and Russian forces might even occupy disputed Kuril Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk. In all likelihood, China would still occupy Taiwan.

How do Jennings and Shoebridge think a war would go?

Despite all the braggadocio, it is not clear the US would fight for Taiwan. Such a conflict so far from its shores would place a huge financial, economic and political burden on the US, already exhausted by futile overseas adventures and internal divisions.

Regional states would not see their interests furthered in a war over Taiwan. Even if the US and its allies prevailed, what would be the situation in East Asia post-war? Shoebridge might say, “There’s little doubt that the US understands the strategic interests at stake in defending Taiwan and providing very credible deterrence to prevent Xi from ordering the PLA to act”, but without defining whose interests are being discussed the sentence is meaningless.

Beyond North Asia, a war between the US and China would have a serious economic impact on ASEAN economies and on the security situation in the immediate region. Assuming a substantial level of attrition of its military assets if it became involved, Australia’s security would also be degraded.

Jennings is concerned that defence investment “over the coming decade to build ships, submarines and other military equipment will only come into service well after the riskiest period for Taiwan”. But that’s not the point of the force structure. Curiously for an expert, Jennings misunderstands Australia’s strategic policy.

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update indicated a priority for “Australia’s immediate region: ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific”, not Taiwan or the South China Sea. This immediate region is also where Australia “should be most capable of military cooperation with the United States”.

A contribution to operations in North Asia is not precluded in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, but “any such wider contributions must be based on specific national interests”. Furthermore, such operations “should not be an equally-important determinant for force structure” with the demands of the immediate region.

Jennings is proposing the overturning of government strategic policy and, predictably, a large increase in defence spending to defend an undefendable island, thousands of kilometres away, which is legally Chinese sovereign territory, and for unclear national reasons.

The current risk of war over Taiwan, Shoebridge says, makes it “entirely reasonable—and necessary—to be open with the Australian people about the risks of conflict”. An incontestable position. But he only canvasses the threat from China without examining, as he seems to advocate, the risks of conflict. If the government is seriously contemplating joining in a war over Taiwan, and it seems Australian officials are talking in the abstract about a war with China with some contingency planning underway, there certainly should be a public discussion.

Government should explain how many fatalities and the level of destruction of urban settlement and critical infrastructure it expects the Australian community to bear for the Taiwanese. It needs to set out how much economic damage Australia can expect and the long term prospects for recovery from war. Most of all, the government needs to set out exactly how Australia’s interests are met in a conflict over Taiwan.

Good strategic policy is concerned with more than potential threats. Relative strategic and tactical advantages need to be assessed, scenarios tested, national strategic objectives explicated and acceptable costs analysed, and the prospects for military success and the likely post-war state-of-affairs estimated. The debate in Australia would be greatly advanced if ASPI analysts understood this.

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