Post-strategic ambiguity and Australia’s Taiwan problem

Aug 14, 2023
Small flags of Taiwan on a blurry background of the city.

“What will Australia do in the event of a US-PRC war over Taiwan?” is now a question that must be openly and deliberately addressed. Across nine presidential administrations, “strategic ambiguity” promoted regional stability. The flip-flops of the current Biden Administration have cast doubt on the efficacy of “strategic ambiguity”, as the means of deterring war over Taiwan, as American pundits, generals and politicians loudly anticipate imminent conflict in the next three to five years.

“Strategic ambiguity” emerged after the 1954 Quemoy crisis as “dual deterrence”. The US logic leveraged extremes so that neither Beijing, nor Taipei could have carte blanche. Defending Taiwan, no matter what happens, would have greenlighted a declaration of independence. On the other hand, the US left open what it might do should the PLA attack Taiwan. “Strategic ambiguity” has a Chinese translation and is the subject of keen analysis in Beijing, but it is not Chinese policy. Beijing has sought leverage based on “seeking common ground while reserving differences”. The “reservation” of the Taiwan question was featured in the negotiations over normalisation and the establishment of Sino-US diplomatic relations.

Mao told Kissinger that should the US “severe” its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, unofficial relations could be tolerated for “one hundred years”. Acknowledging his own “domestic situation”, including Congressional pushback in favour of some form of continuing unofficial relationship with Taiwan, Kissinger needed Beijing’s indulgence. Although still concerned about Taiwan acting as the US’ “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, Beijing “reserved” the issue of continuing arms sales. Mao was candid. Normal relations between the US and China, was the “big issue”, namely, peace in the world. Taiwan, as “an island with a population of a dozen or more million,” was “a small issue”. Both sides expected the phasing out of the US-Taiwan military relationship. On 26 November 1974, Kissinger re-assured Deng Xiaoping that the US defence relationship with Taiwan is not “a question of maintaining it for an indefinite period of time.” He assumed, “…the act of recognition in itself will change the nature of [our relations with Taiwan] because you cannot have a defence treaty with part of a country.”

In December 1978, the US finalised the establishment of diplomatic relations when it accepted three conditions, namely, the severance of US-Taiwan relations, the abrogation of the US-ROC Defence Treaty and the withdrawal of US forces from Taiwan. Expediting the signing of the Third Sino-US Communique, Aug. 17, 1982, President Reagan re-affirmed that the arms sales would eventually be phased out. Meanwhile the international process of recognition on the “one-China basis” proceeded. 180 UN members, including Australia, endorsed this approach by treaty and the UN was freed from the ridiculous fiction that Taiwan represented China.

In 2001, George W. Bush walked back his statement that the US would “do whatever takes” to defend Taiwan and “strategic ambiguity” was reprieved as policy. However, Bush rejected China as a “strategic partner”, prioritised the “China Threat” and increased arms sales to Taiwan. In the Trump presidency, the status of “strategic ambiguity” was weakened yet again. A chorus of critics, including the former Secretary of State, George Pompeo, advocated outright US recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty.

The US responded to Chinese economic success, claiming that China under Xi Jinping had transformed into an aggressive power now capable of attacking Taiwan. However, in 2 January 2019 speech on Taiwan, Xi declared that the people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits “are of one family”. Xi elaborated: “The soul of a nation is moulded by its culture. We on the mainland and in Taiwan share the same roots, culture and ethnic identity.” Referring to the “one-China policy” as the “general consensus of the international community”, Xi claimed that synthesising “peaceful rejuvenation” and “peaceful unification” would facilitate “a global community of shared future”.

Why then does China refuse to eschew force in the case of Taiwan? China continues to endorse “no-first use” of nuclear weapons and is not likely to drop a nuclear bomb on its own “family”. This would not support either national unity, or the “shared future of mankind”. The Chinese refusal to abrogate conventional force in the case of Taiwan is not new. Xi brackets this refusal with a caveat: “We do not renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is to guard against external interference and…activities for ‘Taiwan independence’. It in no way targets our fellow Chinese in Taiwan.”

The “rejuvenation” of Chinese civilisation serves as a reminder that the Chinese state is a civilisation that prefers peace to war. Extolling Confucian “benevolence”, as “the basic characteristic of humanity”, it eulogises common humanity within a harmonious notion of shared community. Whereas Mao denounced Confucian principles for negating class struggle, Xi’s “benevolence”, argues for reciprocity, equality and mutual learning in opposition to bullying unilateralism. Referring to “China’s Great Way” he rejects exclusive cultural superiority to support mutual learning between civilisations. Xi opined, “…it is the diversity of civilisations that sustains human progress.”

Where does Australia stand in relation to Xi’s actual policy insight and its own formal treaty recognition of “one China” as including Taiwan? China’s violation of the international rules-based order has been exaggerated. It is often assumed that the Chinese want to create their own world order in their own image. Has Australian policy adequately explored the upside of Chinese policy and strategy? The so-called Morrison Doctrine contrarily asserted that “arc of alliances” across the Indo-Pacific is Australia’s only real option for maintaining regional stability and peace.

Chinese strategy prefers genuine “partnership” as distinct from “alliance”, which anticipates war while curtailing the sovereign independence of the weaker, disenfranchised states within yesterday’s structures of great power politics. Following on Deng Xiaoping’s calls for “making friends with everyone” and “no alliances and no card-playing”, Xi subscribes to “forming partnerships rather than alliances”. He calls on all countries “to foster partnerships based on dialogue, non-confrontation and non-alliance.” This contrasts with the thrust of the “Morrison Doctrine”. Former Prime Minister Morrison and his fellow evangelist, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected “relativism” that presumes that all states are good. Morrison resorted to an anachronistic balance of power containment, and China, as an apostate, hard-wired, outlaw authoritarianism, was placed in irredeemable opposition to the international rules-based order.

In Australia, there have been second thoughts and even verbal brickbats in the context of growing ties with the US within AUKUS and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Beijing’s view of the dangers of promoting a “Pacific NATO” have been ignored. On July 9th, Paul Keating–never one to suffer fools gladly–chastised NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as a “supreme fool” for advocating the expansion of NATO activities in the Indo-Pacific. Insisting that Taiwan was an internal “civil matter”, he correctly stated: “We have no alliance with Taipei. There is no piece of paper sitting in Canberra which has an alliance with Taipei.” Disregarding Keating, Prime Minister Albanese’ Vilnius NATO July 23rd statement tied the Ukraine struggle to the Taiwan issue in a NATO initiative to defend the international rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.

ANU Chancellor Julie Bishop, in her 26 July 2023 National Press Club tour d’horizon, agreed with Foreign Minister Penny Wong that war over Taiwan would be a catastrophe. She hoped that Australia would adopt the role of interlocutor between the US and China. This is unlikely unless Australia makes a correction to its China policy. Can Australia, as a genuine interlocutor, mediate while building alliances and calling into question its own treaty obligations to China? China is not trying to create its own world order! It is firmly anchored in the existing rule-based order, emphasising mutual respect and reciprocity between equal sovereigns within the UN’s collective security. Australian policy ought clearly and forthrightly to live up to its legal commitment affirming the “one China policy”. War and the negation of the legitimacy of the Chinese state, would confound international law and invite the paralysis of the UN Security Council.

Xi Jinping supports an inclusive, non-belligerent approach, “Countries should foster partnerships based on dialogue, non-confrontation and non-alliance.” Is containment to be preferred to engagement? Morrison’s “arc of alliances” needs to be repudiated. The Chinese do not really want to go to war in Taiwan and the claim that they want to create their own international order is dubious. Thrusting NATO into the Indo-Pacific undermines Chinese trust. It does not serve the “international rules-based order” to push the Chinese towards war.

Fifty years after ping-pong diplomacy some people still look for “Reds under the bed” rather than engaging one of the world’s most sophisticated civilisations. Perhaps, Taiwan is the “small issue”? “Partnership” within a “community of shared future of mankind” is not an inherently bad idea. Rather than returning to a pathologically binary state of affairs that undercuts the robust multilateral response to increasingly dangerous regional and international crisis is it not better to have the PRC, on the basis of the one-China policy, inside, rather than outside, the international rules-based order?


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